The inaugural game of the opening FIFA World Cup final qualifying round unfolds before me, in air thick with a late-summer storm. In the stands, more than 11,000 spectators: families, couples, men draped in scarves. The most ardent, shirtless and drunk, gather on the terrace’s southeastern corner. They call themselves the Voyageurs, and they are singing songs—not singing, but roaring. They use expletives as verbs, adverbs, conjunctions, past participles; they rhythmically thump the stands underfoot. Nowhere else in this country will you hear “O Canada” sung with such blood lust. When the anthem is over, I follow along from a lyric sheet, handed to me in a bar by a man wearing a red cape:
We’re going to Brazil,
we’re going to Brazil
And now you’re gonna believe us
And now you’re gonna believe us
And now you’re gonna believe us
We’re going to Brazil.
From my vantage point, high in the press box at Toronto’s BMO Field, the soccer pitch looks as bright as an aquarium. The blue fish represent St. Lucia. The red fish are the Canadian Men’s National Team, known as the Reds, or Les Rouges. They have been pressing since the first whistle, circulating the ball through the midfield, bouncing it off confused attackers within St. Lucia’s penalty area. The score should be 10–0 in favour of Canada. Instead, it is 1–0. I am told that coach Stephen Hart, a rumpled figure on the field below, likes his players to have good ideas. Goals would be nice, too.
A cross to a striker; a whiff. “Finish,” hisses a reporter beside me. For there is something unmistakable in the air, along with the stench of fry grease and cotton candy: expectation. To win this first round, Canada must also dispatch Puerto Rico and St. Kitts. The Reds will need to top at least one more round to earn a berth at the greatest show on earth: Brazil 2014. (Canada has qualified for the World Cup just once, in Mexico in 1986, losing three games and faring about as well as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did.) Tiny St. Lucia should not pose a problem; it is a trifle bestowed on Canada by the Confederation of North, Central American, and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF). In later rounds, the issues become Honduran and Mexican and American in nature. Up to four teams from the federation will secure World Cup spots. St. Lucia, as far as the official narrative goes, is chum.
On this occasion, the chum is nibbling back. The Canadians seem febrile, unsettled; every pass lands as a surprise. I watch a St. Lucian fullback boot a long, fatalistic kick from his goal line. Les Rouges stop to ponder the implications. A dreadlocked St. Lucian midfielder picks up the pass, moving fast along the left wing, and makes a hopeful strike, the thunk of which takes a long second to reach the press box. Canadian keeper Lars Hirschfeld doesn’t dive so much as topple. The ball rolls past him: tie game. The Voyageurs shriek obscenities into the muggy night.
While the players reorganize on the field, I recall a line by Uruguayan dissident Eduardo Galeano. “Show me how you play,” he once wrote, “and I’ll tell you who you are.” When he wasn’t covering the beautiful game, he wrote about a disappearing continent. South America, during the 1960s and ’70s, specialized in erasing people and histories. One of the few ways to understand, or to commemorate, the soul of a place was through football. The Brazilians were Canarinho, or “the little canary”; their samba style was as much a dance as it was football. The Argentines were La Albiceleste, or “white and sky blue”; their teams served as the framework for feats of astounding individual achievement. In their style of play, the South Americans safeguarded their national characters for better times.
The quote has a different resonance for a new country on the cusp of maturity. Galeano would argue that hockey and lacrosse, respectively Canada’s unofficial and official sports, offer no satisfying explications of national self. While this might earn him a late headshot from Don Cherry, it’s worth noting that over the course of the twentieth century soccer has defined the local ethos. When it wasn’t retreading history by pitting France against Germany, or Bolivia against Spain, football was satirizing it: Argentina beating England with the Hand of God in ’86, shortly after the Falklands War; or everyone thumping the Americans.
Soccer—6,000 square yards, ninety minutes, twenty-two players, and a ball—is generous enough to articulate dozens of styles and sensibilities. As the world flattens, so has the game evolved: it is globalized, multi-ethnic, corporate, postmodern. Brazilian football has changed because Brazil has: less joy and more discipline, the game of a suit and tie rather than a favela urchin. No other sport allows for such a narrative arc, such a range of expression. While hockey is a comic book, football is Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (and I say this as a fan of both hockey and comic books, and as someone who has only read the first volume of Remembrance). Thus, for those of us who love the game, Canada remains unarticulated.
But what exactly, one wonders, is being said here on BMO Field, on this Labour Day weekend? Les Rouges’s game remains unreadable. They will go on to win the match, beating St. Lucia 4–1, largely because the visitors spend the bulk of the contest writhing around on the turf as if they’ve been napalmed. Come full time, the Reds will stroll the length of the pitch, applauding the Voyageurs applauding them in turn. Victory aside, the wonks in the press box are dismissive; Brazil 2014 might as well exist in another dimension. Les Rouges are a punchline that masks an existential anxiety: somehow, we are diminished by not belonging to the international family of pronking, faux-hawked soccer gods. That anxiety, reassembled as a question, becomes: who are we, and how should we play?
My garden shed
My garden shed
Is bigger than
Is bigger than
My garden shed is bigger
Than your country.
To know how we should play, we must know how we have played—badly, as it turns out. But we have played for a long time, longer than anyone other than the British, and perhaps even longer than they have. North American soccer, or a species of it, predates Columbus: the Pilgrims recorded a Native American game called pasuckquakkohowog, or “they gather to play football.” But no serious historian, of course, attributes the game as we know it to anyone other than the British. The Midlands’ foundries churned out football clubs as they did the locomotive and other emblems of the industrial age; the clubhouse was the only place an itinerant workingman could call home. Selfhood was bequeathed by the team, and sensibility by how that team played.
Soccer—properly called association football, to distinguish it from rugby (“soccer” is torn from “association”)—became one of Britain’s principal Victorian exports. In Canada, where the First Nations and the French weren’t inclined to spend languid summer afternoons aping the hated British, soccer and its stable mates struggled to find adherents. David Goldblatt, author of the dizzyingly comprehensive The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Football, writes that “[the colonies’] very distance and increasing difference from Britain left them searching for an alternative and distinct identity.”
That wasn’t an inviolable rule (a banner brandished by a Voyageur warned St. Lucia that “this is football, not cricket”), but it surely applied to Canada. Hockey had no class or national cachet; it was a tabula rasa. While football spoke to the cultural realities of industrializing Britain, hockey was carved from the landscape, played by men in constant battle with the elements. “Soccer,” as Goldblatt puts it, “didn’t have a chance.”
And yet a version of the sport was played in Toronto back in 1859, between “St. Georges and a team of Irishmen,” one of the oldest recorded football games outside the UK. A century later, it was still considered an “ethnic sport,” which meant it was shaped by recent immigrants, first from the British Isles, then from southern Europe. These stand-alone communities never united behind their fanaticism; nor did they galvanize behind a national team, largely because they had no credible national team to endorse. Identity remained hitched to ethnicity, and that hasn’t really changed, as any major Canadian city during an international soccer tournament will attest. Voyageurs are enormously hostile to Canadians who support other teams based on distant ancestry. (“So your great-great-grandfather was Portuguese 300 years ago? So fucking what? ” one said to me at a pre-game piss-up.)
For Canada’s greatest victory, we must thank the Western Football Association of Ontario, formed in Kitchener (née Berlin) in 1880. The club built a team that successfully toured Britain in 1888—thrashing even storied Newton Heath, the outfit that would become Manchester United—and then assembled another team, Galt FC, winners of Olympic gold in 1904.
Soccer was played at universities and schools; it was played in villages in the summertime. The Dominion of Canada Football Association, now the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA), was formed in 1912. Through the ups and (mostly) downs, since 1924 Les Rouges boast an official 57-39-43 record, which means they are lousy, if not disastrously so. Interpreted properly, those numbers tell a story: the team simply hasn’t played that much. Galeano’s Uruguay, by way of example, has faced Argentina close to 200 times over roughly the same period, to say nothing of their other matches.
But Canadians certainly play the game. Both soccer playing and spectatorship have experienced successive booms, the most significant of which followed England’s World Cup win in 1966. The subsequent North American Soccer League (more on that later) begat the Canadian Soccer League, and now Major League Soccer. The Vancouver Whitecaps drew crowds of 20,000 in the ’80s; they are now doing so again. Toronto FC’s devoted supporters—a motherlode of soccer extremists just waiting for a team with which to have a love-hate relationship—have reinvented rabid fandom. The FIFA U-20 World Cup tournament, hosted by Canada in 2007, drew over 1.2 million spectators, becoming the biggest single-sport event in the country’s history.
Soccer has 875,000 registered players, 300,000 or so more than hockey, almost half of them female. The game is cheap(ish) and light on equipment, and slots neatly into the suburban lifestyle. It allows large numbers of kids to gather in one place at one time, under rigid supervision. Canada is thus a soccer-playing nation, one that should be capable of beating countries with populations roughly equal to that of Moncton. Yet while soccer culture here runs broad, it does not run deep. It has no mythological moment, no Wayne Gretzky, no battling an evil empire deep into a eight-game series. It is just here, forever, and everywhere—a low hum that never threatens to become music.
There was a man from Scarborough
And Dero was his name-o
De Rosario, De Rosario, De Rosario
And Dero was his name-o
(Every time through, substitute a syllable with a clap: second clap “De Rosario,” etc.).
There’s an easy way to explain why the game hasn’t resonated here, and it comes conveniently bundled between quotation marks. “The rules of soccer are very simple: if it moves, kick it. If it doesn’t move, kick it until it does,” this from the spittle-flecked mouth of Phil Woosnam, the Welshman who had a huge influence on the game in North America. He was brought on in 1968 as a player-coach in the nascent North American Soccer League, and ended up running it—into the ground. The NASL, Warner Communications’ plaything, was formed in 1966, in the window of excitement following the first televised World Cup final in 1954, and died amid an orgy of overexpansion in the mid-’80s. Woosnam’s boot prints were all over the league, which had five Canadian teams during the course of its history. Thus the NASL served as an incubator of talent, and an arbiter of style, such as it was.
The league produced some decent football, mostly because members of the pantheon—Pelé, George Best, and Franz “The Kaiser” Beckenbauer—played out their careers here. And without a doubt it moved the North American game forward, at least for a while. But Woosnam-itis proved endemic, because it allowed teams to do an end run around the hard work of individual player development (an importable commodity), instead championing toughness over skill. The Canadian Soccer League popped up to fill the void, delivering more of the same, minus Pelé.
Indeed, opposing squads were never thrilled when Les Rouges showed up for international matches. They were a physical team—which translates from the Canadian as “homicidal”—a squad of thundering lumberjacks, bashing the ball goalward in the hope that there might be someone capable of striking it home (there wasn’t). “Skill” has always been a pejorative in Canadian sport, an affectation native to continental Europe or, worse, Russia. Instead, “heart” and “fitness” were emphasized, and the resultant soccer was awful.
And this came to pass during the era of total football, the postmodern style beloved by people who wore Lennon glasses and read Sartre. It was a system developed by legendary Netherlands coach Rinus Michels, and embodied by the genius of Johan Cruyff, in which every position on the pitch remained in constant flux. Soccer was put into a blender: midfielders morphed into attackers who fell back to police the goal line, in a swirling, second-by-second rotation of snapped-off, one-touch passes. Total football was understood as an expression of Holland’s lack of physical space: the pitch became a metaphor for a tiny country, and the players for how society must function within it.
One could interpret Canada’s traditional style as an inversion of total football. A long, arcing kick from a fullback evoked the sweep of northern immensity: Victoria to Charlottetown, in every Hail Mary booted within sight of a forward. This theory crumbles under the fact that, sadly, most Canadian players, coaches, and fans had never seen total football in action. Before the age of television sports networks, the only soccer most Canadians had watched outside of World Cups was Britain’s Premier League, televised here on the weekends. While the football version of haute cuisine was being consumed in Europe, Canadians got the equivalent of bangers and mash from Arsenal and Liverpool. If Simon Kuper, co-author of the essential Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the US, Japan, Australia, Turkey—and Even Iraq—Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport, correctly asserts that England’s insane confidence in the success of its team constitutes a “hangover from empire,” the fading dream of a faded superpower, then Canada suffered from a hangover of someone else’s hangover, a form of sporting Stockholm Syndrome that proved near-fatal.
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been some passable squads following Galt FC’s 1904 Olympic gold medal win. Canada’s qualification for the 1986 World Cup final resulted from a disciplined team run by Tony Waiters, anchored by exceptional goaltending from Paul Dolan and Tino Lettieri. Then there was the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup–winning squad, helmed by Holger Osieck, and a good team led by Stephen Hart that made the semis in 2007. But these high points are too irregular to count for much. To improve, Canadian soccer needed to cast off the taint of empire and look outward, and gaze inward as well.
A: Qu’est-ce que vous chantez?
B: Nous chantons les rouges allez! (four times)
La la la la, la-la-la-la-la-la-la (four times)
Ideas,” yells Hart, standing in the middle of a soccer pitch, surrounded by men drenched in sweat. “I want to see good ideas with the ball!”
A common refrain from the coach, this phrase has become a maxim, then a mantra, and occasionally an epitaph. We have arrived in Alliston, Ontario, ninety kilometres north of Toronto; four days before the St. Lucia match, the team is gathered at the Nottawasaga Inn for the first day of camp.
Nottawasaga feels as ersatz as a Canadian trade show pavilion: a fake lake, a stand of pines, a rock garden referencing Alberta. In all this strained verisimilitude, the notion of Les Rouges, to say nothing of their physical presence, fits awkwardly. Nonetheless, here they are, undertaking a ritual that occurs in almost every park, every school ground, and every spare piece of turf in this vast country and beyond.
Hart presides over all of it, as he has presided over people playing soccer for most of his working life. Hair neatly buzzed, he walks the pitch on puffy knees, leaning to the left like a listing ship. All physical vestiges of his soccer-playing past are gone, except for an avian quality to his movements, as if he is coasting the thermals hunting for lunch. His focus toggles in an instant between widescreen and micro—the sign of a man who has played since he could walk.
Born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, Hart made his first division debut at fifteen, and was playing for the national team by nineteen. The Caribbean country, an island of football in a sea of cricket, is the smallest ever to qualify for a World Cup final, which it did in 2006. When he came to Canada, he exchanged a country that punched well above its footballing weight for one that punched below it. He is now, and has been since 2005, one of the guiding soccer minds at the CSA, the body tasked with spending $17 million a year—roughly $3 million of that taxpayers’ money—to transform Canadian soccer into a force, and a commodity.
Les Rouges are gathered in the middle of the pitch, wearing red T-shirts and black shorts. There’s Dwayne De Rosario, mastiff-like and now the team’s co-leading all-time scorer, roving the wing. Behind him, Iain Hume, the small, powerful forward, with a scar winding along his scalp like a tribal marking. Then midfielder Julian de Guzman, an unmovable limpet; and Kevin McKenna, a centre back who plays for FC Köln in the German Bundesliga. And there are others, all of them professionals, from places as far flung as Guyana and Jamaica and Scotland, all preparing for a training session the way professional athletes do: their swagger cut with intensity, and a looseness to their movements that appears both liquid and strangely ordained.
“Let’s go, let’s go,” yells Hart. “Speed and strength. Let’s go!”
A drill begins: two fullbacks and three midfielders against five backs, the latter wearing fluorescent yellow vests. The mechanics of Hart’s Les Rouges becomes immediately plain: quick-touch football that moves relentlessly forward, feeding the ball out to the wings in short snaps; no long passes; no passes in the air unless they are sent crosswise, wing to wing, to break up the opposing defensive formation. This is not lumberjack soccer, and it’s not total football, rather something else: a pragmatist’s take on the game. As if formulated by a crisis committee of Ottawa economists, the team shall not soar, but nor shall it have the IMF on speed dial.
“Ideas, ideas!” screams De Rosario. He sends a sharp cross to Hume, who snaps it home.
“Nice thinking,” yells Hart, leaning forward, hands on knees.
Assistant coach Tony Fonseca quickly sets up another drill. Three on three: one side attacks; the other defends. Hart wants the ball moving left to right, to scramble the defence; then the ball quickly fired to the centre, crossed once more, and struck. The midfield is a football squad’s processor chip, and he wants it to generate brilliance—or, at the very least, competence.
“Commit to the ball,” he yells. “Commit to the idea. It’s always the ideas.”
De Guzman muscles his way along the sidelines, tapping down a short cross, holding it, holding it—“Nice patience!” says Hart—then firing a cross to attacking forward Simeon Jackson. Hart preaches possession almost as much as he does ideas. “You want a stat? ” he asks me later. “Teams that lose the most possession lose the most games. Not even a stat—a fact.”
It’s here where the game comes into focus. Note the footwork, so rapid that it ceases to be merely flashy and becomes functional, a means to service an idea that begins with the first touch. Watch long enough, and a master plan unfolds. Hart does not want the ball to go up; he wants it to go through, along the ground in short gasps and with intent. He dismisses the occasional fancy play—“No, no… make sure the pass is made, make sure it gets through, make something happen!”—wanting one idea to roll into another, and then another. His squad thinks. And where once, and not so long ago, Les Rouges almost uniformly consisted of men linked to the United Kingdom, the team is now more varied, polyglot, global. Hart—if not by design, then by necessity—is moulding a squad that looks, and is starting to feel, eerily like postmodern Canada.
You’re in our hearts, you’re in our blood
We stand on guard for thee
O Canada, my Canada
The True North strong and free.
Hart understands the very thing most Canadian football minds have long failed to grasp: soccer is a game of individual skill extrapolated into a team sport. On the great squads, there are no grinders, rather eleven supremely gifted men hard-wired into a system and governed by an overall attitude, which we have come to call a style.
This is not how I would describe the current members of Les Rouges, and it probably isn’t how Hart would sum them up. It’s plainly where he wants the team to go. But in his quest to revolutionize the local game, he has hit a wall. We have arranged ourselves on top of a picnic table, legs dangling, while several Umbro-clad kids, primped for a photo op, chatter beside us. “I was playing football strictly for love,” he tells me of his time in Trinidad and Tobago. “So I came to Canada to do my university at St. Mary’s [in Halifax.] I decided to learn how to be a coach and take my life in another direction.”
It didn’t take him long to realize that Canada, much like the United States, posed a specific challenge. When he arrived in 1980, “you really had to nurture the talent, because there was no natural soccer being played.” What he means is that Canadian kids were not spending every spare moment kicking balls around bomb craters or favelas. I’ll challenge the mythology of developing countries’ “natural” soccer shortly, but he is emphatic on one point: “I remember playing the game for maybe four or five hours a day growing up. Just playing, playing.” Canadian kids play under the ambit of organized soccer, or not at all.
He stares out at the remaining players milling about on the far sidelines. He has a way of looking at the pitch, left eyebrow cocked high, as if on guard for an incoming cross. His answers arrive quickly, mechanically—total interviewing.
“The result,” he continues, “is that the basic elements of the game were missing.” The individual skill that forms soccer’s foundation—the exquisite ball control, all but indistinguishable from magic, that takes thousands upon thousands of hours to hone—doesn’t figure in Canadian kids’ limited repertoire.
He tells me about holding the technical director position at Soccer Nova Scotia (“It was mostly the ethnics playing,” he says), from 1990 to 2000, a spell that illustrated another of Canadian soccer’s intractable problems. Where it is simple to get everyone in Trinidad and Tobago playing the same brand of football, Canada’s size makes this near-impossible. For most of its history, the CSA has acted as an umbrella for competing provincial and territorial fiefdoms concerned with protecting their own narrow interests.
This meant weak decision-making and, of course, corruption—the flatulence soccer produces while digesting so much money (those registration fees add up). The CSA fumbled around with coaches, using Hart as an interim coach, then sent him packing, then brought him back in 2009. He is Les Rouges’s winningest coach by average, with a 10-4-4 record, and he is clear on what makes successful national teams. “In the rest of the world, youngsters from a very young age are practising five days a week, for ten months,” he says. “Regardless of whether it is right or wrong, or what you think about it, that is what’s being done. The highest nations, they set the standard. Not us. We have to match that.”
In this, Canada’s football future dovetails with a conversation about how we rear our children. A middle-class Canadian childhood (and the sport is resolutely middle class) isn’t really a childhood anymore, but a transition period between birth and a second master’s degree. Almost any Canadian professional coach will bemoan the following: kids’ lives are furiously managed, sports cost money, and soccer moms and dads want trophies in exchange for their enrolment fees. Jason deVos, technical director of player development at the Oakville Soccer Club, outside of Toronto, puts it frankly: “Winning a cup at the age of twelve? To me, that isn’t success.” (Like Hart, he has been outspoken about the issue of youth development. In a blog post on CBC’s website, he referred to Canada’s wee soccer players as “little darlings.”) The consensus from professional coaches is that individual skill needs to be developed in a disciplined manner, until kids are ready to play within a coherent system. Winning is important; it just isn’t important for an eight-year-old who can’t kick a ball straight.
What about those 875,000 registered soccer players, all of whom conspire to make soccer the biggest participatory sport in the country? Fully 715,837 of them are youths, which means Canadian soccer loses 86 percent of its players to the black hole of adolescence. The game is something most Canadian kids discard, along with Dora the Explorer and visits to the orthodontist. The reasons for this are easy enough to parse. First, without the basic skills, soccer is impossible. Should they somehow have acquired those skills, until the advent of MLS and the attendant youth academies Canadian teenagers had nowhere, outside of the university system, to continue to develop—unless they had passports that enabled them to play in Europe, which often meant losing them to Ireland or Russia or Wales. What’s more, most Canadian kids can’t imagine a future in soccer. The status bump from playing second-tier hockey in Estonia stands worlds above what Canadian Soccer League stardom would offer.
A growing movement could change all of this. In 2008, with Hart installed as technical director, the CSA released a document called Wellness to World Cup: Long-Term Player Development. Within this mournful, flagellating tome, the section “Where Are We Now” cuts deepest into our collective back flesh. To give Hart et al. enormous credit, they don’t bother with the guff about hockey leaching the country’s finest talent. While this may be true, it is immaterial: soccer has almost a million kids to work with as raw material, and a decade of their lives in which to fashion players out of them.
Wellness to World Cup wades right into the muck, unfavourably comparing Canada with our CONCACAF peers. Honduras, for instance, made it to the semifinals in the 2011 Gold Cup, while Les Rouges were knocked out in the first round. That country lives with coups d’état and a medieval sanitation system—but enjoys excellent youth academies, seasoned mentors, and incentives for kids who make it through the system, such as earning twenty times the national per capita average playing for a local club team. Nothing is left to chance when it comes to soccer. So-called “natural” talents are pounced upon and fussed over; they are scouted, coached, groomed, and, along with their better-off contemporaries, are given the opportunity to become professionals. Call this a case of misaligned priorities, but we're not competing with Honduras for efficient sewage disposal.
Wellness to World Cup posits that a decade after implementing “quality programming,” the CSA expects six of the 40,000 eight-year-olds who play in the system to graduate to one of the world’s top ten leagues. As for the rest, they should be well-trained sparring partners, in love with the game for life, and free of hypertension, gout, and other hallmarks of a sedentary lifestyle. The intention is to get every last provincial, territorial, and municipal club on board. “Soccer in Canada is recreation,” says Hart. “Way too much focus on developing teams, and not enough on developing the individual, which, if done right, if done precisely, will eventually lead to better teams. That’s my philosophy.”
Embedded in his system is an interesting notion: that for Canadian soccer to become mythological—for it to fire our imaginations and become culturally vital—it must first become cheerlessly disciplined.
With that, Hart eases himself off the picnic bench and limps toward fake Alberta.
We love you, we love you,
We love you
And where you go we’ll follow
We follow, we follow.
St. Lucia is a fist of volcanic rock, jutting from the Caribbean archipelago between Martinique and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the knuckles of which dip and roll and fall off into the startling sea. The drive from Vieux Fort in the south to Gros Islet in the north is the length of an average North American commute. The road still gapes with damage from an unforgiving hurricane season, when Tomas ripped through asphalt and concrete as surely as it tore away swaths of banana grove.
Beausejour Cricket Ground, nestled in a bowl of verdant hills, escaped the damage. I’m not sure what Archibald Leitch, the Scotsman who built the steel-beamed stadiums of Britain’s industrial age, would make of the grounds, but I doubt it would be salutary: a series of lumpy pagodas; a concrete terrace; and, at the far end of the pitch, a scoreboard that still displays the results of a long-ago Pakistan–West Indies cricket test.
Les Rouges have beaten St. Lucia at home; they must now beat them here. Some weeks ago, they dispatched Puerto Rico 3–0 in San Juan; a week hence, Puerto Rico will visit BMO Field and attempt to avenge that loss. Then two games against St. Kitts. The CSA was at first thoroughly put out by this preliminary round of qualification, a result of FIFA’s ceding Canada ninth place in CONCACAF. The drawn-out process has, however, turned out to be a godsend.
“We’ve been very lucky,” CSA general secretary Peter Montopoli told me by phone. “The team has been together for extensive periods of time, which has allowed us a long-term marketing platform. Our campaign has built something for our country to get behind.” The CSA has established BMO as home field and has instituted its True Patriot Love campaign, all to create a comfortable, jingo-filled environment for the Voyageurs (and a dangerous place for, say, an Italian Canadian to cheer La Azzurri). “Like every other stadium in the world,” says Montopoli, “we don’t want to be multicultural.” The CSA is building a viable brand that Canadians—every Canadian—can get behind. Masses of Voyageur hooligans laying Rio de Janeiro to waste are just a snappy T-shirt slogan away.
With a click and a whir, Beausejour’s floodlights come to life, slowly spilling cold light into the warmth of dusk. Bats stream from the hills and start hunting finch-sized moths. Small children escort the two teams onto the field. The FIFA anthem plays, then “O Canada.” A crowd of thirty or so Canadian fans, their skin burned as red as the official Umbro team kit, gather on the low terraces. They hold aloft a sign bearing a Campbell’s Soup can. “Taste the soup!” the sign insists. This is in reference to a Hart injunction, after he was asked why Canadians should embrace a team they have so routinely ignored. “Come taste the soup,” he said.
Most fans are here on holiday; one man has flown all the way from Vancouver for the game: “I found a cheap flight and a cheap hotel for the weekend,” says Trevor Williams, swallowing most of a beer in a long slug. “My wife said, ‘Fine—go.’ ”
The opening whistle blows, and Les Rouges organize quickly: four-two-three-one, one of Hart’s default formations. The midfield holds the ball, defining the game’s pace. Hume presses, De Rosario runs the wing, and soon a sharp ball up to an attacking Jackson results in an early marker for Canada. Then another by Jackson. Then another. The two St. Lucian lads beside me cluck into their beers. Meanwhile, the Canadian fans face off with a group of British expats who are supporting the local side.
“Taste the soup, assholes!”
“Yeah? Come say that here, mate.”
As Les Rouges compute play after play through the louche, truthful mess of the St. Lucia squad, I can’t help but miss, perhaps just for nostalgia’s sake, the old bash and carry—the indiscriminate thumping of the ball, followed by the terrifying charge of the line, like feeding time at an upcountry logging outfit. That was Canada then: cut off, cold, vast, Presbyterian.
What have we missed by not watching for all these years? The country changing, of course, from a distant colony searching for an identity into a nation on the fringes of defining itself. The frozen North no longer feels so frozen; if we are remote, we can no longer afford to be. Hart’s system references other teams, other styles, other eras. It is borrowed, a mosaic. It is coherent, certainly, but not fully of a part—not yet. Les Rouges are earnest, if callow. They lack flair, if not intensity. There is no hint of genius. And, like all twenty-first-century football teams, they reveal the ultimate meaninglessness of multi-ethnicity with no guiding ethos, no support column of selfhood to keep the whole thing standing.
By all means, don’t watch. The football is not world class. But understand what you are losing. Soccer’s canvas is more than big enough for a country as disparate as Canada. It has embodied Brazil’s passage from indigence to prosperity; Spain’s from fascism to social democracy; England’s from empire to also-ran. It has described Canada’s journey as well, even if that description has unfolded in a vacuum.
Watching Les Rouges through the dense Caribbean night, I know that in my lifetime I will witness a Canadian team with the ability to steal, or earn, some big games. I know it when Ashtone Morgan, a nineteen-year-old product of the Toronto FC Academy, darts onto the field, nervous but raptor-like. I know it when I glance at the expressionless face of Hart, white shirt blazing under the floodlights, a technocrat who understands the mechanics of a top-down national football institution. I know it after goal five, after goal six, after goal seven.
Setbacks loom. The following week, Canada will play a terrified home game against Puerto Rico, drawing 0–0. When asked how he should explain this to the fans, Hart shrugs irritably: “Well, we got the point.” In St. Kitts and Nevis, Canada draws again but wins the next game 4–0. Through to the next round, Les Rouges must survive two more qualifiers en route to Brazil: between June and October, they will play Cuba, Honduras, and Panama. They face a virtually impossible task.
But what of Russia in 2018, and Qatar in 2022? What if Canadian soccer continues to evolve and professionalize, as the CSA insists it will? What if there is a genius or two waiting to be developed through Hart and company’s system, players who will grow up to perform feats of heartbreaking brilliance? What then?
Then a night like this one becomes part of a rich mythology, and the culture deepens. Then football takes its place as Canada’s second sport.
Then soccer will tell us who we are.
Richard Poplak (richardpoplak.com) is the author of The Sheikh’s Batmobile; Ja, No, Man; Kenk: A Graphic Portrait; and Braking Bad: Chasing Lance Armstrong and the Cancer of Corruption, an ebook.
Paul Giamou is an award-winning sports photographer.