We are a soccer nation; I am a soccer fan…but it wasn’t always that way

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On a hot spring evening in 1981, my best friend Bubber and I were dropped off by our dads at a soccer tryout somewhere in Scarborough, Ontario.  For the next hour, we watched as an elite and coordinated force of highly trained seven-year-old Ronaldos dazzled and dangled, flying balls, banging headers, nailing throw-ins and setting “pieces.”  They had clearly been born with a ball on the toe, and cleats on their feets.  Meanwhile, my best friend Bubber and I ably flowered the wall with our backs, only touching a ball if it happened to bounce off our heads, or our butts.   An hour later, our dads picked us up.  At the age of seven, in large part due to this experience, I had come to the only logical explanation available:  Canada wasn’t a soccer nation, and I was not a fan.  I went happily back to Rick Vaive and Darryl Sittler.

That afternoon in Scarborough was the entirety of my involvement in organized soccer for almost two decades.  I didn’t watch another soccer game until I had to, for work, 18 years later.  I was working at the fledgling Sportsnet, and one night I was responsible for watching a soccer game and picking the highlights.  The details of that match are lost to me now, but I do recall a conversation with a peer of mine who opened my mind to the possibility of soccer becoming a part of my personal sporting landscape.  He told me not to think about the dead spaces, where nothing is seemingly happening.  The dead spaces are the pages where the story is told.  Don’t worry about the lack of hits, or violent impacts on every play like hockey or football provide.  Think instead of the multitude of small battles constantly taking place on the pitch. One-on-one rushes, or defenders jockeying for position.  Understand the history of the two teams, the passion and songs of their supporters. Wonder at the art of the playmakers, the territories conquered and the inevitable tilt of the field.  Appreciate the long stretches of ball possession.  The best soccer players in the world understand that there is as much art to the sport as there is competition.  With goals so hard to come by, the anticipation becomes the heartbeat of soccer.  In fact, it’s the scarcity of goals that stirs the heart, because every score brings life.

In the 20 years since I “worked” my first soccer game, I have come to love the game.  And, whatever the draw to the pitch is, the rest of Canada has taken notice, too.  The success on the field has been lock step with the participation at the grass roots level.  For every Christine Sinclair or Dana Matheson, there are hundreds of thousands of young girls chasing the dream.  In fact, more than one million Canadians are registered to play soccer. For reference, there are “only” about 600,000 registered hockey players in the country.  Of course, numbers rarely tell the whole story—there is also history, and passion and television audiences to consider.

The Canadian Women’s National Team are the current Olympic Champions.  We now have our own national men’s professional league, the Canadian Premier League—with nine teams from coast to coast.  Recent Champion Toronto FC is one of three Canadian franchises in Major League Soccer, a league that attracts world class players like Didier Drogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovich.  In Alphonso Davies, who plays for Bayern Munich but whose adopted hometown is Edmonton (where his Jamaican immigrant parents settled their family), we have one of the great young talents of the game.  

The evolution of Canada’s soccer success on and off the pitch is, much like my soccer fandom, decades old.  Canada’s only appearance thus far in the top tournament in the world wasn’t very fun.  In 1986 Canada lost to the Soviet Union, France and Hungary in the group stage, without scoring a single goal.  And while their debut was definitely not one to write home about, they absolutely deserve to be there this year, after dominating the CONCACAF Region Qualifying.

Yes, Canada is now a soccer nation, regardless of what Bubber and I thought in 1981.  And on Wednesday afternoon, our men’s national team will play in front of the world for the first time in 36 years.

Here are a few other things to know about the World Cup this time around:

There will be 64 games played in the tournament, across 29 days.  Only one game is ever played at one time, too, so you could conceivably watch every single minute of every game!  There will be 3-4 group stage games being played every day until December 2.  After the group stage, the top two teams in each group move on to the elimination round.  The final will be played on December 18 at 10 am (ET).

According to the odds makers, the favourites for this year’s tournament are Brazil (+375), Argentina (+500), France (+650) and Spain (+850).

Canada will play in Group F with Belgium, Croatia and Morocco.

Group stage for Canada
Wednesday, November 23—Canada vs. Belgium, 2 pm (ET).
Sunday, November 27—Croatia vs. Canada, 11 am (ET).
Thursday, December 1—Canada vs. Morocco, 10 am (ET).

There’s a new ball this year, called “Al Rihla” or “The Journey.” The Adidas made ball has motion sensors and a GPS tracker, which will add to the data collection, and hopefully make goal reviews indisputable.

You can find all the games on TSN, and the big games, including Canada’s games, on CTV.

USA, Mexico and Canada have already been announced as hosts for the next World Cup, in 2026, which means that Canada is guaranteed a berth in that tournament. The energy from this year’s qualification and the quadrennial ahead means that Soccer will be a big part of the sporting conversation in this country, regardless of their result this year in Qatar.

Last, but definitely not least, there will be a lot of stories coming out of this World Cup that will have nothing to do with kicking a ball. FIFA, the organization ruling global soccer, has come under fire since awarding Qatar the tournament. Allegations of corruption, payoffs, human rights abuses and more have plagued the run up to the tournament. For the purposes of this article, I have stuck to the sporting side of things. Sport, and especially big events like the World Cup and the Olympics, have an opportunity to bring people together. And, any time we can bring people together, we can make things better. That’s my hope, anyway. I hope you enjoy the soccer, and, let’s go boys.

by Mike Brock