Make room, hockey - there's a new game in town and it is "beautiful".
Growing up on the Canadian prairies, I (like any good prairie farm kid) was raised on hockey. Saturday night tradition was Hockey Night in Canada, the longest running television program and the Guinness World Record holder for the longest running TV sport program (canadianencyclopedia.com, Dave Zarum) which shows how embedded it is in Canadian psyche. I was unaware of soccer, and my knowledge of the game has not changed much.
It's not like soccer in Canada is new. In fact, in Canadiansoccerhistory.com, Colin Jose tells us that soccer probably had it’s beginnings in Canada around 1876 and was known as “football” - although it showed no resemblance whatsoever to the football as we know it today! The Dominion Football Association, the current Canadian Soccer Association, was formed in 1912. Other countries fell in love with soccer long ago. In cbc.ca, “A history of soccer, the 'beautiful game’," it is noted that soccer has such an emotional following, it is elevated to an almost other-world experience. It quotes the great Brazilian star Pele as saying that soccer is a "beautiful game" and Scottish 'footballer' Bill Shankly as saying, in the Sunday times in 1981: “Some people think that football (soccer) is a matter of life and death. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.”
Although soccer has existed in Canada for 150 years, it has all of a sudden become “a thing”. We never thought we’d be texting, “Did you see the soccer game . . . ?", but here we are. And doesn’t it seem ironic that this new found pleasure has given us respite during a time of sadness, anger, and unrest over the state of the world?
For me, it all started with the Canadian women's national soccer team who really piqued our interest in soccer in the past 10 years, winning bronze medals at both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics (with much drama in 2012 - think of Cathal Kelly's (the star.ca) headline 'London 2012: Canadian women robbed in soccer semi' ). And we all know where we were in July and August 2021 when the Canadians worked themselves through the field (including having to beat the Americans - cbc.ca headline 'Canada shocks US in semis') to face Sweden in the gold medal game on a very hot and muggy day at the 2020 (2021?) Olympics. It was drama, in a good way, coming down to a 3-2 win in penalty kicks. SO MUCH drama! And to tell how good this team was, goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe was nominated as one of three finalists for the FIFA Goalkeeper Awards (cbc.ca) while long time team stalwart Christine Sinclair was honoured with a special FIFA award for being the world’s all-time leading scorer (sportsnet.ca). (picture is from Loic Venance/AFP via Getty Images)
Then, on 16 November 2021, in cold Edmonton, Alberta, to an almost-packed stadium of 40,000, the Canada men’s national soccer team took on the Mexico men’s national team. The temperature was -16, and snow was piled on the sidelines. The Canadian team pretended that the weather was just fine and exactly what they wanted. They apparently showed up early for their practice and stayed late (in their shorts) as opposed to the Mexican team who showed up late and left early. They won 2-1. Headlines were such as: ‘Canada stuns Mexico 2-1 on a frigid night in Edmonton’ (the athletic.com) and the winning picture was the team celebrating a goal by jumping in a snow bank (I do not know who to credit, but this photo is all over social media). And our hearts were stolen.
On 30 January 2022, in not-quite-as-cold (only -5 degrees) Hamilton, Ontario, the Canadian men took on the United States men’s team. The spectators were capped at 12,000 due to Covid, and the game sold out in three hours. 40th ranked Canada won 2-0 over the 11th ranked Americans. Headlines were such as: ‘Canada outclasses USA in World Cup qualifier’(globalnews.ca). The most ironic part of this game was the joyous fans, decked out in red flags, toques, and mitts and symbolizing the true Canada - in stark contrast to the protest convoy that was causing unrest and upset at that very time throughout the country, blocking roads and clogging cities. It was exactly what Canada needed at that moment. (picture from EvanMitsui/CBC)
One thing I love about this Canadian men’s national team is that the roster symbolizes Canada’s cultural landscape and pride in immigration and inclusion. Read the roster and you just know that many of these players are sons or grandsons of immigrants – or immigrants themselves: Bjora, Davies, Crepeau, Adekugbem, Vitorio, Eustaquio, Buchanan, Larin, Millar, Ugbo and others. (I checked with discoversoccer.info to find out the FIFA rules for citizenship. It turns out you can play if you were born in the country, a grandparent was born in the country, you are married to a citizen of the country, or you are a “naturalized citizen (live and work)” in the country.) And it just seems to me to be such a symbol of equality and openness. They play the game with such sheer joy - for the jersey, as the saying goes.
As we speak of inclusion, let's not forget that soccer, just by it's nature, is probably much more accessible to any child than some of the other sports where equipment and rentals cost sky high. All you really need is a ball of some type to get started. And you can play it anywhere, any time, in any country - developed, developing, or a 'have not'. In worldpopulationreview.com, 'Most Popular Sport by Country", we learn that soccer is the most popular sport in the world with some "250 million players across 200 countries around the world" and about 3.5 billion fans. What other sport has been represented by so many countries at such a high level?
Sports - sometimes they provide us so much more than just a game. Soccer is providing us with respite in a sad world. It showcases inclusion in ethnicities, nationalities, sexuality, and income. It is bringing us joy, and it is giving us something to anticipate. A beautiful game, indeed.
So, hockey, step aside – or at least make some room - for soccer in Canada’s sports highlight reels. We’ll all be watching as the Canadian men's national team makes a run to the FIFA World Cup in Qatar in late 2022. Canada has not been to the World Cup since 1986 (sportingnews.com). And, if they make it, what a party! (And their chances would be even better with a bit of snow.)