Sunday, June 1, 2008

Canadian Football: Brennan, Benchmarks and Brazil

According to the CBC, yesterday was "Soccer Day in Canada." Hope you enjoyed it as much as a I did. Sort of. You will have likely already read about Toronto FC's victory over the hapless LA Galaxy whose coach Ruud Gullit, like countless others before him, blamed the artificial turf for the loss. But there was a less flashy and perhaps more significant milestone to point out, one that you may have missed with all the feel-good soccer-is-fun-for-the-whole-family pablum on offer courtesy of CBC Sports before yesterday's kick-off.

Jim Brennan, Toronto FC's diehard Canuck captain, declined an invitation to play with the Canadian men's national team against Brazil in Seattle, opting to stay with his club rather than trot out like cannon-fodder in front of an American audience eager to see a Brazil-led romp. Not to say Canada's men did not play valiantly well against a Brazil which sent out a stronger first team than usual for this sort of fixture, more on that here. And not to say that playing for one's country shouldn't be the height of a player's career. But who could have predicted five years ago that a Canadian player would turn down an opportunity to play for the national team and be applauded for his loyalty to his professional club in Toronto?

For a long time, Canada was counted among the nations with a national team but no indigenous club culture, despite the recurring attempts over the years by various entrepreneurs to create a national league, the latest a tamer, semi-professional set-up. While we had our share of one-off players who made good overseas, the national team was for a long time the only collective means Canadian football had to make its mark on the world. Most of the time, it received as much press attention as our national cricket team. Even when we qualified to play in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, the Canadian team held a victory parade in Vancouver and no one showed up.

Today, as we know, everything is different. As I've written on this blog before, Toronto FC's massive popularity is a product of a generation of twenty and thirty-somethings brought up watching European football on basic cable. Moreover, the MLS is the best option for league football in North America at the moment, and as usual in Canadian club sports, a popular following can only come with the prospect of playing Americans on a regular basis. Other cities are getting in on the act, with the Impact and Whitecaps seeing increased popularity, the former having recently built a new stadium in Montreal, which for those who know about stadiums in Montreal is not usually seen as such a happy event. The very fact that "Soccer Day in Canada" was centered around Toronto FC and not Canada vs. Brazil (although Beckham's possible inclusion was partly behind the decision) is indication that club football may slowly be on the rise. Toronto FCs recent defeat of the Montreal Impact may have been our first true local derby. Club football may be finally emerging as a popular mainstream interest in this country, and as we know from the history of the NHL its health is vital for our success at the national level.

That's why Jim Brennan's decision to stay home and help a Toronto FC team missing a large portion of its brand new midfield is so significant. The utter mess that is the CSA right now should take note of this snub. The patronizing attitude they took to the introduction of Toronto FC as a mere means of developing talent for the sake of the national team will have to be re-examined. If as more local teams develop and more skilled young players emerge as popular heroes in our own backyard, the CSA will have to offer these players something more, more money, more time, more expertise, more respect. Goodness knows the future Jim Brennan's of this world will deserve it.

Photo Credit: Gbalogh on Flickr


fredorrarci said...

That victory parade is one of the saddest things I've ever seen...

Richard Whittall said...

A bit of interesting trivia on that clip: the anchor introducing that segment is Barbara Frum, mother of George Bush former speechwriter, coiner of 'the axis of evil' quip and all-around neocon gadfly David Frum.