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  • The Argos versus TFC: Nobody wins


    Thirty-three years later and both those quotes sound absurd. For starters, Italy’s first World Cup in over four decades did not ‘do wonders’ for soccer in Canada. There was the 1986 tournament debut, and the short-lived Canadian Soccer League that died in 1992, but almost nothing but abject failure and disappointment since. It’s also apparent the majority of the children and grandchildren of those revellers have not taken up the cause of Canadian soccer in the meantime. At least not based on attendance figures for Canada’s national men’s team matches in Toronto. (To be clear, neither did the offspring of any other nation’s boosters.)

    And even more surprising is a Toronto sports fan who's genuinely passionate about the Canadian Football League. Today, the suggestion the Grey Cup could cause street celebrations sits somewhere between quaint and bizarre. But it’s true, at one point in the late 70’s and early 80’s the CFL was a big deal in Toronto. One of the biggest deals in fact. Of course that was before cable television, the internet, the Raptors and the rise of the NFL into the most successful sporting behemoth in global history. But yeah, just a generation ago Torontonians would regularly pack Exhibition stadium with crowds of 50,000-plus to watch the Argos.

    Those two quotes sound even weirder now that fans of the number four and five teams in the Toronto pro sports hierarchy are fighting bitterly about whether the Argonauts should be allowed into TFC’s BMO Field. The debate leaves me torn, because while I don’t spend much time thinking about the CFL these days I would feel profoundly sad to see the league disappear. And by all accounts that's what would eventually happen if the Argos don’t secure a permanent home in Canada’s 'national soccer stadium.’

    It’s not just idle speculation. I worked for a time at an advertising industry trade publication and wrote about the Argos struggles in Canada’s largest city. People I spoke to for that story assured me that the concentration of corporate head offices, media buyers and ad agencies in Toronto mean the league would lose credibility without a presence in the nation’s largest media market.

    On the other hand, it’s also hard to see the shared stadium idea as anything but a step backwards for soccer in Canada. It’s simple. There are currently two medium-sized, natural turf, soccer-specific stadiums in the country (including State Saputo) – and soon there might be only one.

    A switch back to a plastic turf in one Toronto stadium wouldn’t sound the death knell for soccer in this country, and arguing it would is ridiculous. But the symbolism involved in it being ‘the national soccer stadium’ sends a message – to administrators, fans, players, coaches, basically to almost everyone involved in trying to grow soccer in this country – that we aren’t ready to take soccer seriously. I wonder what Benito Floro thinks privately about tearing up the BMO pitch so it can be used for gridiron football?

    Not to mention the wonderful fodder for those who only seem to have time for Canadian soccer when it comes to tearing it down. TFC sharing a stadium with the Argos would be just another reason to dismiss domestic soccer as bush league. Unworthy of attention and something you wouldn't deign to patronize with eyeballs or pocketbooks.

    It's similar to how many sports fans in southern Ontario think about the CFL. I’ve heard the excuses, ranging from television blackouts in the 80’s to a lack of video games featuring CFL players, but seven years of interacting with Toronto sports fans leaves me with a singular explanation: the CFL is seen as minor league. If Torontonians watch North American football it’s going to have four downs and billions of television and sponsorship dollars behind it.

    It’s sad the plebs of Toronto sports fandom are at each other's throats over this, but perhaps somehow appropriate. I’ve not encountered any other two sports that inspire the same kind of contempt and hostile indifference than Canadian soccer and Canadian football do.

    This isn’t a sermon from a Toronto-hating provincial expat. It’s a lament at a sad situation whose only outcomes involves everybody losing marginally. The CFL was, and still is, something of a rare cultural artifact in a country that's always struggled to find them. Plenty of things pull us south but very few bond from east to west.

    I hate appeals to tradition because mostly they're stupid - Washington Redskins anyone? - but this particular case involves something I cared a lot about as a child versus something I grew to love as an adult. A reinvigorated Argos team sharing an only relatively compromised grass pitch is the outcome I'm hoping for. But that's likely impossible and certainly won't be popular with TFC supporters.

    Here's one last way to look at all this, at least from the soccer side of the equation: if sports fans in the country’s largest city remain indifferent while its oldest sports team fails, taking down the only exclusively Canadian professional sports league with it, it probably doesn't bode well for reviving a professional soccer league of our own.

    Corrected on March 16, 2015: This article originally stated that crowds of "60,000-plus" watched the Argos at Exhibition Stadium. According to Wikipedia, the largest-ever crowd to watch the Argos at Exhibition Stadium was 54,741 at the 1982 Grey Cup.


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