Toronto | Toronto councillors, as of late October, have approved public financing for a 20,000-seat soccer-specific stadium to host a Major League Soccer expansion franchise in 2007. The stadium would also be available to help stage—along with venues in Montreal, Edmonton, Ottawa, Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia—the 2007 FIFA World Youth Championship, which already has been awarded to Canada. The city would contribute about $10 million to construction of the $63 million facility, with the federal and Ontario governments along with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, owners of the Maple Leafs (National Hockey League) and Toronto Raptors (National Basketball Association), making up the difference. Debate has been spirited, with some objecting to the public subsidy.
“This is so wrong. This is so bad,” said Councillor Mike Del Grande during the 4½-hour debate. “It’s a backroom deal” (Vanessa Lu and John Spears, “City Spends $9.8M for Soccer Stadium,” Toronto Star, 28 October).
Others wonder whether MLS can lure interest, now that European football is readily available. “For most Toronto fans, the focus is on the very best soccer in the world—European soccer,” says Bruno Hartrell, co-owner of the United Soccer League’s Toronto Lynx. “The North American product is so far down the ladder to those fans, you’re very hard-pressed to attract them” (Cathal Kelly, “Soccer Gamble: Can MLSE Make It Work?” Toronto Star, 29 October).
At play, too, are questions of soccer’s place in the sporting culture of an extraordinarily vast (3.9 million square miles) and diverse land mass, as well as the desires to preserve Canada’s distinctiveness in relationship to the United States. No one questions that soccer could replace ice hockey in the hearts of Canada’s sports watchers. Georgie Binks, a Toronto writer, compares the yearlong National Hockey League lockout to “losing a lover.” Six of the NHL’s 30 teams are based in Canada; Hockey Night in Canada, telecast on Saturdays by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., is a national institution, dating to its origins in radio in 1933. “We felt shunned and very hurt,” says Binks. “I was encouraged most people didn’t go completely insane. I couldn’t envision at first what it might be like. For many of us, it wasn’t reality” (Ed Graney, “Finally! Game On, Eh?” San Diego Union-Tribune, 4 October).
The NHL returned on 5 October following its hiatus. Binks’s friends seemed divided on the impact of hockey’s absence on the national libido. Some polling suggested that Saturday-night hockey facilitated amorous encounters; some are not so sure. Binks writes: “One woman wrote to me that her husband had always done the ironing during the hockey game, and now the ironing basket was filled to overflowing. But it had meant no change to their sex life” (“What’s the Score? Does No Hockey Mean More Action?” CBC News, 4 February).
Like the United States, however, soccer nearly tops the charts in Canada when it comes to participation. The last major survey of nationwide participation in sports, completed in 1998, shows soccer placing second to ice hockey (37 to 34 percent) among boys 5–14 and second to swimming (30 to 28 percent) among girls. Participation rates in soccer dropped to 11 and 6 percent of active men and women, with ice hockey (men) and swimming (women) remaining the most practiced.
According to the Canadian Soccer Association, there were 825,000 registered youth and adult players in 2004, with 347,000 women, or 40 percent of the total. In a country of 32 million, the per-capita numbers are high. Pockets of fervor also exist, with Newfoundland mentioned in a recent BBC report as being especially “football mad” (BBC World Football, 29 October; archived audio available as of 7 November). The St. Lawrence Laurentians of Newfoundland competed in October’s provincial Challenge Cup, established in 1912; as Newfoundland and Labrador champions, they represented a tiny, seafaring community of 1,500 with Irish roots. The Laurentians’ website chronicles the first recorded game in 1904, complete with the name of referee and goal scorer. “Soccer is a religion there,” CSA competitions director Angus Barrett tells the BBC’s Margot Dunne.
If you look down at the bleachers, there’s a gentleman there in a yellow jacket. He’s actually broadcasting the game back to Newfoundland. And they’ve been doing that for about 15 years. It’s the only province that has its games broadcast back on radio.
In a follow-up interview to the BBC report, Owen Hargreaves—born in Calgary, Alberta, and a midfielder for Bayern Munich and England (his father is from England, mother from Wales)—is asked about Canada’s failed attempts to form a professional league (the Canadian Soccer League folded in 1992) and whether Canadian soccer always will be linked with the United States. The Toronto Croatia, established by Croatian immigrants, competed in the former North American Soccer League and were crowned champions in 1976; they were preceded by Toronto Blizzard and Vancouver Whitecaps.
Among women, Vancouver Whitecaps, London Gryphons, Ottawa Fury, Sudbury Canadians, and the Toronto Lady Lynx represent Canada in the semi-pro W-League, another primarily U.S. venture. Many of Canada’s best women players, moreover, such as Christine Sinclair at the University of Portland, receive their training at American colleges. “Growing up the way I did and in Canada the way it is there are a lot of people that move, like my family, from other countries,” Hargreaves says. “So there are a lot of South American families there. There’s interest in football from I think the parents, so [for] the teenagers there are no possibilities, there are no leagues.”
At the international level, the senior women’s team continues to show progress while the men—who last qualified for the World Cup finals in 1986—slip in FIFA rankings. Further, the U-19 women’s team barely lost to the USA in the final of the 2002 FIFA championship before 47,000 in Edmonton, Alberta. M. Ann Hall, in her treatment of Canadian women’s soccer in Soccer, Women, Sexual Liberation (Frank Cass, 2004), mentions, too, the striking figure of 33,000 adult women playing the game. A strong adult women’s competition exists even in Whitehorse, Yukon, where the First Nation Community recreation consultant, Charly Kelly, has a soccer-ball tattoo on her foot. Her six closest soccer friends, according to Hall, bear the same identifying marker.