Canada | First among soccer nations

A Canadian all-star soccer team—one member getting ready to light a cigarette—poses in front of totem poles, Stanley Park, Vancouver, ca. 1924. The four totem poles were placed early in the 1920s to mark the area’s long habitation by peoples of West Canada’s First Nations. (Stuart Thomson, City of Vancouver Archives)

Beckham, on Vancouver swing, tries football by Canadian rules

Vancouver, British Columbia | As usual, David Beckham‘s North American barnstorming circuit—with a stop tonight at BC Place Stadium—to us raises more interest in pre-existing soccer traditions than in the soccer actually being played (see Jan 22).

True, the exhibition at 1900 PST between LA Galaxy and Vancouver Whitecaps, of the United Soccer Leagues’ first division, poses an important fitness test for Beckham in advance of England’s final Euro 2008 qualifier, versus Croatia, on Nov 21. For Vancouver, the side evaluates new players and demonstrates the economic potential and native appeal of a sport that sometimes appears subsumed by Canadian rules football, the country’s gridiron variant, and ice hockey. Some 42,000 tickets have been sold for the game under the air-supported dome that the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League call home.

The Whitecaps, birthed in the North American Soccer League in 1974, have engendered devotion and claimed the city’s first major North American title by winning the 1979 Soccer Bowl. An estimated 100,000 paraded on Robson Street downtown.

Former NASL president Clive Toye, in his memoir A Kick in the Grass (St. Johann, 2006), refers to the “maelstrom of Vancouver” when writing about the hijinks during the three-game league quarterfinals with Toronto, in 1983. Whitecaps goalkeeper Tino Lettieri favored a stuffed toy parrot as mascot, which he placed at the back of his net. Toye, president of the Toronto Blizzard at the time, hired men to place a “parrot burial kit” by Lettieri’s goal and tried to relax his team by screening Monty Python’s dead-parrot sketch in the changing room before the final match. Toye calls it “the team talk to end all team talks.”

Toye tried to play the animus between eastern and western Canada to his advantage, but both Ontario and British Columbia can claim distinctive soccer cultures. Toronto FC, despite a Major League Soccer–record 824 minutes without a goal, boasted the league’s most fervent supporters in its inaugural season. Contacts in Vancouver write about the frat-house atmosphere during World Cups, when the city’s many ethnicities—a municipal phone line provides information in English, Chinese, Punjabi, Spanish and Vietnamese—hang flags from balconies and help create a carnival spirit. The city maintains realistic expectation for an MLS expansion team in the near future, if Whitecaps officials can negotiate space for and build a new stadium.

The Canadian men’s team itself has participated in the World Cup once, in 1986, having developed a generation of players through the NASL before the league folded in 1984. In the finals in Mexico, Canada went scoreless in three losses to France, Hungary and the Soviet Union.

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