Canada is often recognized internationally as an ice hockey powerhouse. This indisputable fact is a source of great pride for the average Canadian. These fine specimens will even mortgage their homes to ensure their son becomes the next Wayne Gretzky (Canada’s Maradona) with tens of thousands of dollars “invested” financing the dream. It may not be Junior’s dream, but hey, if he becomes a star, I am taken care of! You will find peewee hockey leagues – children’s competitive leagues – with a head coach dictating team strategy accompanied by up to three team coaches teaching young prospects stick handing skills, puck handling, speed skating and endurance.
The children opting for soccer (aka football or footy), the fourth most popular recreational sport in the country, have some large balding fellow smoking a dollar store cigar, arguing with his ex-wife over alimony on his phone as a head coach. He paces along the sideline wheezing away giving only an occasional outburst of flatulence as encouragement to his squad – well at least that can guarantee some humour for the children. Some kids wear flashy uniforms, others their favourite jerseys from European clubs. Regardless of the wardrobe, each of them tries to emulate the gods of the beautiful game on a much lower budget than ice hockey. The ball bumbles back and forth following an erratic ebb and flow facilitated by a referee who is as familiar to the sport, much like a baboon dismantling land mines. On more frequent occasions, an unbiased observer may even notice the actual absence of a match official altogether – sometimes ideal when faced with the former scenario. Developing young fresh talent starts at this age.
As a soccer fan having witnessed first-hand some of the greatest moments in the game, I sense discrimination toward the sport in the Great White North. A discrimination fuelled by a lack of financial interest. We can hardly call our national leagues professional, as we lack a top tier division such as the EPL, La Liga, the Serie A or even the Congolese Première Division. We do have a minor role in the MLS, which is more of a conglomeration of franchises rather than neighbourhood or city clubs that fight to the last drop of blood, sweat and tears to avoid relegation. If you have the cash, a fan base and a neat stadium with a food court and shopping centre, you may be able to join the league so long as you can keep a profit. It is not a league based on merit that rewards perseverance and punishes underperformance. That’s the same American professional sports model that saw teams like the Seattle Sonics disappear or the Lakers move to a city without any lakes. It works for their market but tarnishes the structure and philosophy of international football – I mean that game where the ball is kicked, not carried across the field – and most importantly hinders nurturing talent.
Canada’s dreams of making it to the next world cup in Brazil were decimated by a Honduran team on a mission, losing a must win game 8 goals to 1. That sounds more like a hockey or baseball result but it is our usual exit strategy in the qualifying process. After such an embarrassing result, we should not worry about not making it to the big stage, as perhaps better teams could have set Guinness Records trouncing our lads. Is there anything we can do for the next season in qualifying for 2018? Maybe not. The only solution to our football malady is travelling to Brazil with a suitcase full of passports and dole them out in an effort to recruit the next Neymar or Ronaldo, hoping to bring to prop up our lack of natural abilities nurtured from a young age. The only obstacle to this prescription is that our government may not feel this is a proper use of our Citizenship and Immigration Department. I guess foreign policy is all in the eye of the beholder. Anyway, our women are pretty amazing in contrast to the men, although FIFA politics have played a controversial role leading to multiple shortcomings.
Canadians sports fans are generally supporters backing only a clear winner. When the tide changes, so does their wavering support. Although Canada won the CONCACAF Gold Cup back in 2000 beating guests Colombia 2-0 in the final, the victory hardly raised the profile of the sport nationally. I recall the game was played before a practically empty stadium somewhere in the US. Fans in Canada are quick to stand behind the national teams representing their ancestral origin or any other country much like they would pick one of the teams in the US franchise-based league before backing our local boys. There is no hope for a Cinderella story or underdog triumph in the hearts of Canadian soccer. Should we see a change in this support, we should begin to witness the birth of a new game and hopefully a true economic investment, turning Canada’s fourth preferred recreational activity into something resembling an international team.