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Photo: Sam Gillett

The roar of 60,000 fans in a north London stadium was muted 2,000 miles away in our small Ontario town. In fact, with no bars open at 8 a.m. on a Saturday, and TSN not hosting the game (instead, most likely, discussing Stanley cup play-off hopefuls), me and my Dad had coffee and I checked twitter for updates about a soccer game across the Atlantic.

While soccer is the world’s most popular sport, and coverage of England’s Barclay’s Premier league alone reached over 1 billion fans from Delhi to Detroit, my journey as a fan of the beautiful game has been a harrowing journey of plane rides, time-zone mishaps and dial-up internet frustration. That’s all changing now, as soccer is becoming a centrepiece of the Canadian sporting world.

In 2009, on a family trip to England, I became obsessed with soccer. I was entranced by the idea of it all: the romance of pitch side dramas, gritty English clubs and Cristiano Ronaldo’s frosted-tipped pouting. I collected magazines, player’s cards and memories of watching games live on our rented cottage’s fuzzy television set somewhere in England’s lake country.

But coming back to our small Ontario town, only a year or two after Toronto F.C began playing in a virtually unheard of Major League Soccer League, soccer meant quiet Saturday mornings playing in Tim Horton-branded neon, or a sport to play between hockey seasons. No one I knew actually watched soccer games – partly, I suspect, because of the early morning kickoffs due to the time change.

The next few years, marked by the South African world cup in 2010, or the European championship in Poland, were spent driving around our town in search for a bar that would play soccer games. In 2014, we watched Colombia defeat Greece in a nearly empty pub, the sound of the game muted in favour of the PGA announcers on the screen beside it. My brother, who was in Colombia at the time, recorded the whole town reverberating with screams and cheers and music throughout the whole game. If you’ve been to a soccer game, or seen crowd shots during one, you may get the sense of community, passion, or even pain that comes with watching the game unfold before your own eyes. It’s a feeling that’s notably absent when you’re one of the three people watching a game that no one else seems to care about – somehow cut off from the community aspect of the game.

Fed up with second-hand coverage of the sport we loved, me and my dad booked flights to London, in the hopes of seeing my favourite team, Tottenham Hotspur. At the time, they were a young, mid-table team with no real stars but plenty of history in their 19th century brick stadium in London’s gritty North End. We joined fans who sipped beer shoulder to shoulder in “White Hart Lane” and, for the first time, I saw the game I loved being played with pace and exuberance only really felt when you watch it live. They lost. But that didn’t stop us from returning to our Airbnb with grins, adrenaline, and a fine selection of Tottenham merchandise. I had switched allegiances, and for the first time, felt the tingle that runs up your spine when you join 45,000 others in songs and chants celebrating the world’s game.

When we came home, we finally had Wifi routed to our old farmhouse, bringing with it the promise of live Soccer through streaming services. The promise however, hinged on a internet speed that, on good days, meant commentary on match was roughly 5 seconds behind the picture. We became reluctant seers of soccer’s future as pixelated forms of our favourite players jittered across our 12- inch computer screen.

The whole time, however, was spent together, me and my dad. We’d always find an excuse to break open a bag of chips, cheesies, cookies, and invariably a cold can of English ale. “Just to make it authentic.” The frustration of missing matches to slow internet, or TSN’s limited broadcast rights became a running joke over time. So to did the fact that hardly anyone we knew had the same glimpse into a hidden, but not so hidden world.

We’d drive two hours to Toronto to watch TFC play games at BMO field, from our seats throughout the years we’ve seen them grow to become one of the leagues talking points. Despite June’s headlines, the Raptors were not the first Canadian team to win a championship since the Jays: In 2017, as Toronto lifted the Major League Soccer trophy for the first time, I teared up in the Montreal airport, watching it on a bar’s TV as harried travellers passed by without a glance. For me and my dad, it was the beginning of a new era.

 They’ve had superstars like Sebastian Giovinco score goals that would make David Beckham look twice, and have given rise to a fandom which rocks the stadium every game and coats the air in red dust. Without a soccer community up north, Toronto has embraced soccer with the passion of Canadians who brought the game with them from other places around the world.

As Canada becomes ever so more multi-cultural, towns like Orillia are changing to reflect our country’s identity, meaning more vibrant communities and opportunities to find like-minded people.

But Soccer’s draw isn’t merely international anymore. The Canadian Premier League, which began this past spring, has spawned blogs, podcasts and supporters’ groups from Victoria to Halifax. As a student during the year in Halifax, I’ll now have a chance to watch my Tottenham Hotspur’s every move live, before marching with other soccer fanatics to our very own stadium to watch our very own Halifax Wanderers play soccer with every ounce of passion you’d find in the premier league. My dad already has his own Wanderer’s shirt and plans to come catch a game.

Growth Of The Beautiful Game in Canada
HFX Wanderers has been the success story of the CanPL, bringing in an average attendance of about 6000 per game.

Not to mention the rise of Women’s soccer which has captivated soccer journalists and supporters alike – and in fact, equal pay amongst players would be the biggest achievement of the sport to date. With Meghan Rapinoe becoming a household name and the American team commanding the soccer world’s attention, soccer’s become a centrepiece in North America’s biggest discussions in sport. Canada’s team got fourth in the last women’s world cup and is competitive with even this year’s champions.

Despite the English teams I love, I don’t have to watch soccer games from across the pond to get my fix anymore. Rivalry’s between Hamilton and York are becoming deliciously ferocious on the Canadian Premier League schedule while Toronto F.C’s bastion of fans are coasting through this year’s awful season on comradery and smoke bombs at B.M.O field.

But that being said, the Premier league is now in full swing. And I’m enthralled. Even from the rainy streets of Nova Scotia, Canada, I’ve been able to watch every game my beloved Spurs play. Yet now, theirs a sense of ownership. No longer do I have to claim a British team as my own, but rather the soccer community is thriving in North America as it never has before; there’s an energy here— a passion. S0 here’s to 2020, when Canadian soccer seems set to continue its rise.

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