I’ve often told the story about how the first soccer game I remember watching in its entirety was the high water mark of the Canadian men’s national team – the infamous day in St. John’s when a bunch of hosers qualified for the World Cup for the first and only time.
I’m the anti-Drake. I started from the top and now I’m here.
However, that’s not the first soccer memories I have. Growing up in a family with British heritage (my grandmother was born in Bristol, England, and I have family in the UK to this day), I was exposed to all sorts of English culture from a young age. I eat beans on toast, watch Doctor Who (although I picked that habit up as an adult – On The Buses and Are You Being Served? were more of my childhood staples) and, most relevant to here, have always had an affinity to sports played in the UK. Had soccer been on television more often in the early 80s, I’m sure my young self would have watched it. I know that I was aware of it though and I spent a great deal of time learning about British sporting heroes. I was likely the only person in my elementary school who knew who Sebastian Coe was.
I also knew who Wayne Gretzky was, obviously, because try as I might my English heritage was never going to overshadow my Canadian upbringing. Thus, when I stumbled upon that game in St. John’s oh so many years ago it was like a light-bulb went off in my head. Finally I had found something that was totally and completely mine – something that combined all aspects of my evolving self-identity into a single thing that was new and exciting and that spoke to a Canadian experience that seemed modern and different from the experience that my parents had had growing up.
Although at the time I probably just thought it was cool. I wasn’t that deep as a kid.
At any rate, these thoughts came back to me today upon reflecting on an anniversary of significance for Italians and for the city that I now call home. It was 35 years ago today that Italy won the 1982 World Cup. At the time this had limited impact on my life. As I said, I was aware of soccer, but watching the World Cup final was not something I would have considered important at that time (maybe if England was playing, but they weren’t and Italy had no personal connection to me in any way). But, what I do remember was being at my Aunt’s house the next day when the Toronto Star came to the door. Upon looking at the front page, which featured 500,000 people celebrating the win on St. Clair West, Auntie Mona let out an audible gasp – paraphrasing, she said something along the lines of “I can’t believe there are that many people here that care.”
I’m sure a lot of people in Toronto said the same thing that day. It was the last time they said it though because that was the day that would forever betray the idea that soccer wasn’t important to a great deal of Canadians. It was the day that Pierre Trudeau’s image of a multicultural Canada that blended traditions and passions of both here and there into one unique Canadian experience became real.
Moving away from the sociopolitical, it was also a day that changed the sport in this country. If you look back on the soccer participation boom of the 1980s, it likely started with that image of 500,000 people that cared. That was also the day that other cultures started to slowly tear away from the British dominance in managing the game. Soccer had always been here, but it started its march to the mainstream that day.
There were also a lot of young kids of Italian decent that watched that game that day and then traveled down to St. Clair West to celebrate that ended up getting deeply involved in the game. But, they did so with the same (if slightly more Mediterranean) outlook as I had. They were of Italian decent, but they were also Canadian. They too brought a blended experience to their soccer passion. It didn’t happen overnight, but eventually that lead to a soccer culture that is thriving now – a culture that instinctively understands that it’s possible to have duel (or more loyalties) and that there is something in the sport for everyone.
Obviously, the national team success is a different story (but not if you extend it to the women, where the North American mindset towards equality has allowed the New Country to surpass the Old when it comes to the women’s game – I guarantee there were people in that attached photo that also were also smiling in 2012 and 2016 when Canada claimed bronze), but on a participation level and a spectator level there absolutely has evolved a uniquely Canadian perspective on the Beautiful Game. A perspective shaped by Italy in 1982 and 2006 and Canada in 2012 and 2016 and by the arrival of a new domestic club culture starting in 2007 (and by hundreds of other moments from both here in Canada and around the world).
It doesn’t have the same length of history as you’ll find in other parts of the world, but the history it does have is every bit as real and reaffirming.
And it all started when 500,000 Canadians of Italian decent took to the streets and told us soccer matters.
Edited by Duane Rollins