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That's a wrap - Ben Knight


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That's a wrap

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Ben Knight

For Toronto FC's fans, this was one of the happiest last-place seasons ever.

The season was over. The team finished last.

At first, the celebrating was confined to the seats. Streamers and flags flew, arms waved, fans leapt up and down, hugging, exulting -- having an honest, heart-felt wonderful time.

Celebrating? The team finished last, right?

Deep in the south end, a single happy fan vaulted onto the turf. Another scrambled over a railing on the stairs, and dropped to field level. A third fieldward fan ran into a police officer. Two of them. Three. It looked bad, but then the cops stood back and let him go. By then, fans were pouring onto the field in the hundreds.

Red and white scarves and streamers rippled in the air, trailing behind running, excited, ecstatic fans. Nobody tore down the goalposts. Nobody tore up the turf. Swirling, separate masses of fans floated into every corner of BMO Field -- then magically all coalesced in the centre circle.

The season was over. The team finished last -- and the fans were leaping up and down at midfield, deliriously celebrating in the creeping chill of a gray Toronto autumn afternoon.

This was their moment. Any why not? This was their season.

Before this all started, I had no blessed clue who these fans were going to be, or where they were going to come from. Watching them leaping up and down in all their red, gray and white glory, the answer was just so clear. Soccer fans. People who like the game, and love their team -- even if their team serves up two record-breaking goal droughts, gets knocked in the ditch by injuries and gets parked in the MLS basement on the final Saturday of the season on a late Real Salt Lake goal in Colorado.

And one more time we all find out, this is an entirely different brand of Toronto sports fan.

Would Leaf fans party their way up Yonge Street if the Buds were holding up the entire NHL come tulip time?

Blue Jays fans showed up in great, enthusiastic numbers during the string of last-place seasons from 1977 to 1981. They even chanted "we're number six!" when their beloved bluebirds finally evacuated the basement of the seven-team American League East in 1982. But that wouldn't happen now.

Argo fans will be whooping and dancing if the Boatmen land the Grey Cup next month. But they'd have stayed awfully sad and quiet if that worrisome 2-6 start had turned out to be the real story.

It's not that these exultant, streamer-chucking TFC supporters are happy with their heroes' place in the MLS standings. Over pints and packets of crisps, they'll grumble about poor play, overmatched players, fussy, fidgety refereeing and loss after tie after loss that could so easily have been wins.

But they're all so happy just to be in the game, there's no reason to dampen the enthusiasm and douse out the party just because every single blessed other team in MLS had a better on-field season than Toronto.

Off the field, in the stands, Toronto FC ruled the waves. The fans popped up, in numbers, at road game after road game. As close as Columbus -- which isn't close -- as far away as Los Freakin' Angeles.

And with the season over, with fan favourite Danny Dichio poaching a fine come-from-behind 2-2 draw with powerful New England with virtually the final kick of the season, these amazing fans finally had the joint to themselves.

Here's what I take away from that indescribably sweet and innocent centre-field joy fest that closed out this unlikeliest of Toronto soccer seasons:

Never give up. However unlikely the dream, however cold and stone-faced the so-called experts get, keep believing and keep moving towards your goal. If one door slams suddenly and finally in your otherwise optimistic face, spin around and seek the door that's opening. It's there. Believe it.

We sports fans live in a world of dreams. Oh, it's not all streamers and giggles, but we all crave the day when it all comes together and the team we love wins it all. What I love about these TFC fans is they didn't have to wait for that day. They had their celebration on the day their team clinched last place. And if there was any less joy-per-participant in this lot than you'd find at your basic Stanley Cup parade, I couldn't see it.

Why even look for it? The truth is right in front of us. Grab a streamer and start jumping!

There were so many ways this team could have not existed. The circumstances of their creation, culminating in the near-impossible agreement between Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, FIFA, the CSA, three levels of government and one major bank, will simply flat-out never happen again.

But the fans saw their chance, and seized it. They were there in numbers from the start, and they had danced and partied across all our imaginations by the end.

There will, of course, be changes now. Many of us -- fans, players, media -- will be in different places when the next MLS season kicks off next April. But we all shared this astounding summer of hope, joy and magic, and I'm sure -- whoever and wherever we are -- we will all find ways to keep it going on and on and on.

There's no group of people I would rather have spent an impossible summer with.

I can't wait to do it all again.


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