The last time I can remember crying over the result of a sporting event was May 29, 1993.
I was nine years old. Wayne Gretzky had just completed his hat trick, scoring on a wraparound, in Game 7 of the conference final. The Kings were up 5-3 at Maple Leaf Gardens late in the third period and I, knowing it was all over for my beloved blue and white, stormed off to my room, slamming the door behind me.
The Maple Leafs had come so close to reaching their first Stanley Cup final since 1967, in what would have been an epic clash with their timeless rivals, the Montreal Canadiens. Instead, the series represented a plateau for a franchise that went tumbling into the doldrums and, two decades later, has sunken into a period of unprecedented futility.
Tuesday night was supposed to mark a turning point for the Canadian men's soccer program -- a chance to wriggle back into "the Hex" for the first time in 15 years. Instead, an inconceivable humiliation in what will now surely be the swan song for the head coach and a number of veteran players. And as the goals -- and hat tricks -- piled up for the Hondurans, it was difficult for me not to see history repeating itself.
I couldn't help but feel that for whatever good work has been done and whatever progress has been made over the past 36 months, that this team had just tumbled off a cliff, into a hole it would take years -- if not an entire generation -- to dig out of.
There was no bedroom to storm off to this time; instead, a quiet corner of the pub where, for the first time in 20 years, I was unable to hold back the tears.
But then, a funny thing happened.
My attempt to cloister myself off from fellow disconsolate Canadian soccer supporters proved unsuccessful. One stopped by to say hello and offer condolences. Then another came by to chat. And, as always happens in social settings, nothing draws a crowd like a crowd; before I knew it, my chosen location for self-loathing had become a social hub for communal loathing, fear and commiseratory imbibing.
It's been said that sometimes all you can do is laugh to keep yourself from crying. It didn't quite work in this case, but after such an odious performance, an absolute humiliation by the team we'd so heavily emotionally invested ourselves in, there was really nothing to do but laugh -- at the team, at ourselves, at the absurdity of it all, and of what we'd just witnessed.
When I saw a smile on the face of Jamie MacLeod -- the man who has worked harder than anyone else in this country over the past few years to build the Voyageurs and support for our national teams, and would have more reason than anyone to be utterly inconsolable -- I figured, what the hell, if he can do it, so can I.
As the debate raged about which players would be done (voluntarily or otherwise) with the national team after the 8-1 disgrace, a similar narrative emerged among the supporters. Many spoke of having endured three, four, five cycles or more with this team. They tallied up how old they'd be in 2018 and 2022, wondering if they could psychologically afford to keep smacking the same, seemingly unhammerable nail.
Memories were shared of trips to faraway locales in decades gone by, and even of having witnessed -- with their own two eyes -- something that seems like pure fantasy at a moment like this: Canada actually fielding a team at the men's World Cup. As scores from European qualifiers popped up on the television screen, contrasted with the rapidly ballooning scoreline in a rickety stadium in San Pedro Sula, it was near-impossible to imagine that Canada was even taking part in the same competition as those other countries.
As it is, the march towards Brazil 2014 will carry on without us -- or, without our national team, at least.
I'm sure most of the people in that bar last night -- the hardest of hardcore Canadian soccer supporters -- will keep close tabs on the road to Rio. Some of them, surely, have "other" national teams to which they can pledge their fealty, and more power to them if that's the case. Personally, Brazil 2014 is now nothing more to me than a novelty, a fun exhibition to be witnessed without the baggage of any emotional investment.
Considering the way things out for teams in which I emotionally invest, perhaps that's a good thing.
In the end, there will be change. Whatever his actual level of culpability for the 8-1 disaster, Stephen Hart will surely fall on his sword and be replaced as head coach. The aging veterans will either retire from international play or find their spots taken by younger competitors. Some fans will jump off of the Canadian soccer bandwagon for a while, or for a few years, or forever. Such is the reality of sport.
But some will, inexorably, remain. Much like fans of the Maple Leafs, or the Chicago Cubs, or any other long-suffering sporting team, Canadian soccer supporters could rightly have their sanity questioned for voluntarily subjecting themselves to repeated (and predictable) bouts of emotional torture.
Here's the thing, though. If Canada were to qualify for a World Cup -- or the (insert sports team here) were to win (applicable achievement here) -- it wouldn't be any of us out on the field of play. Not only would we not personally gain anything tangible from it, we'd need to pay exorbitant amounts of money for the privilege of watching it happen.
In the end, it's not about that. It's not about whether a professional athlete can put an object in a certain spot at a certain time. It's about the communal experience of caring about whether that athlete did it (or didn't do it). Wherever we've come from, and wherever we go from here, we've all just been through as humbling and resolve-testing an experience as any sports fan could imagine.
I may choose to excise the memories of Tuesday night's on-field performance, but I'm sure I'll remember being among a group of wizened Canadian supporters chanting in delirious self-hatred, at the top of their lungs, in a public place, "Eight-one, we fuckin' lost eight-one! Eight-one, we fuckin' lost eight-one!"
When you're nine years old, you believe that the team you cheer for is doing it for the city they play in, or -- most fancifully of all -- for you personally. Eventually, those pretenses slip away, and you realize you're not cheering for the players (who come and go) or even, necessarily, for a team. You're investing yourself emotionally because of the feeling that comes with finding like-minded individuals who, for whatever reason, have made the same choice.
We're all wondering right now whether continuing to care about a program such as this is worth it. What's the point? What's the payoff?
No one can give you the answer to that question. It's up to you to sort it out for yourself.
But personally, I can say that the friends and connections I've made through this usually-idiotic endeavour of supporting and promoting Canadian soccer are the payoff. Those are the sorts of relationships strengthened in trying times such as these.
That's all that matters, at the end of the day. Seeing strangers win a game is all well and good. But being able to do it among people who care, and appreciate its significance as much as you do... well, that's why any of us bother.
And why, in spite of ourselves and of all objective reality, most of us will continue to do so, when it comes to the Canadian men's national soccer team.