Wednesday, July 16, 2008

An Interview with North American Soccer Historian Colin Jose

It is a privilege for A More Splendid Life to able to present to you an interview with Colin Jose. If you've been following this series from the beginning, you'll already know how instrumental Colin has been in preserving the history of soccer on this continent.

Colin Jose has been researching the history of soccer in both Canada and the United States for over 40 years, and is currently the historian at The Soccer Hall of Fame in Vaughan, Ontario and Historian Emeritus at the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, New York. Colin was born in England in the seaport town of Falmouth but moved to Canada 50 years ago.

He is the author of nine books on the history of soccer in North America including two books on the North American Soccer League, NASL: A Complete Record of the North American Soccer League and North American Soccer League Encyclopedia. The others include American Soccer League 1921-1931, The Encyclopedia of American Soccer History (written with Roger Allaway and David Litterer), The United States Tackles the World Cup (with Roger Allaway), The United States and World Cup Soccer Competition, The Story of Soccer in Canada, Keeping Score: The Encyclopedia of Canadian Soccer and On Side: 125 Years of Soccer in Ontario. He also maintains a website dedicated to Canadian Soccer History at

Q. What led you to study the history of soccer in North America, a largely ignored field?

I grew up in England in a football culture. I followed the teams in the Football League and elsewhere, and kept records of my favourite teams. I also bought the Football Annuals, which recorded who had won previous championships, who played for England and so on. I also covered football for the local weekly paper in my home-town.

When I came to Canada I found that no one was covering what was happening here for World Soccer magazine, so I covered it. The NASL came along, so I covered that, and the Canadian and U.S. national teams. I searched for the records of Canadian and U.S. soccer in the past, and ran into brick walls. No one seemed to know anything about the past, such as the records of the national teams, who played for the national teams, and on and on. Then a friend introduced me to newspaper microfilm, and I was hooked. I found most of the answers there, and now over 40 years later I am still searching and compiling.

Q. Soccer has had a long and important history on this continent; why do you think there has been such a sustained lack of interest from North American sports historians over the years?

There may have been sports historians, but they were only interested in what were seen as North American sports. They had grown up in a culture where hockey, baseball and Canadian and American style rugby generated the most interest, soccer just wasn’t on the radar screen, as we would say today.

Q. A More Splendid Life is covering the history of soccer in Toronto, a city which has seen countless leagues compete with one another for official recognition and a share of the fan base (e.g. the T and D, NSL, ECPSL, USA, NPSL, NASL, CSL etc.). What do you think are some of the reasons why the city has struggled to create a consistent, successful league structure?

This is a major question because it gets to the root of why soccer hasn’t been as popular in North America as other sports. In the early days the game in Canada was played largely by native-born Canadians. The Canadian team that went to England in 1888 was made up of 17 players, of whom 16 were born in Canada. The other one had been brought here from Scotland when he was one year old. The Western Football Association, formed in Berlin (Kitchener) in 1880 had teams all over Western Ontario.

But then came World War One, and a generation of Canadians went to war and many were slaughtered. Many of them were soccer players, and when it was all over British immigrants flooded into Canada. At that point soccer in Canada became almost exclusively British, and to Canadians foreign. Read the papers and you find that the people running the game were British and that in many cases they did things the British way. It was so bad that at the Annual Meeting of the Ontario Football Association held in Hamilton in 1932, James Surgeoner, secretary of the Toronto Ulster club said. “Let us face the facts. We must Canadianize the game. The Hamilton Spectator of February 1, 1932 comments on Surgeoner’s remarks as follows.

“He made the startling statement that the sport had gone back since the British born drove the Canadian born out. Years ago soccer was a major sport in Canada, so much so that a Canadian team went to the Old Land and there held its own with the best teams and at a time when the Old Country teams were as strong as they are today. He recalled the recent visits of Glasgow Rangers and Kilmarnock to this country. He was asked by one of the visitors “How many Canadian born players are on the team?”

Ashamedly he admitted there was only one. The interrogator was astounded. Surgeoner gave the delegates more food for thought when he stated that less than five per cent of the senior players were Canadian born and this after 25 years of British born control of the sport.”
In my opinion the failure of the leagues was that the standard of play was never high enough and that fans could not identify with any one team in large enough numbers to support it.

Q. How important were the early tours, like Glasgow Rangers game against Toronto Ulster United in 1930, in popularizing the game in the city?

This game drew something like 9,000 fans to Ulster Stadium. However, chances are there were very few native born Canadians in the crowd, so it was a case of preaching to the converted.

Q. Toronto experienced an influx of post war immigration in the early 1950s that forever changed the makeup and fan-base of the local soccer leagues, especially the NSL and the Inter-City leagues. How well do you think the local soccer community adjusted to these changes?

During the years of World War Two, almost the entire structure of soccer in Canada was destroyed and had to be rebuilt following the war. The then Dominion of Canada Football Association (todays Canadian Soccer Association) shut down in 1940 and didn’t begin to operate again until 1946. The Ontario Football Association, while still officially in existence, was all but non-existent and wasn’t officially reformed until 1951. The influx of so many immigrants from so many difficult countries and cultures exploded onto a soccer scene that was not ready to cope. Every game played in Toronto was like a mini-international, and the men in the middle were the referees, who were constantly being attacked. It took years for all this to settle down.

It should be noted that while very few good Canadian born soccer players were being produced in Toronto, the opposite was true on the west coast. When Canada played its first World Cup game in Toronto in 1957, every player in the Canadian line up was born in western Canada, and from teams in the Vancouver area. Very few players playing in Toronto at that time were Canadian citizens.

Q: When the Toronto Metros-Croatia got a place in Soccer Bowl in 1976, the team could not even afford their own medical staff for the final. How important was their win in popularizing the game in Toronto? How was the teams 51% ownership by the local Croatian community viewed at the time, both in the Toronto press and in the NASL?

The Metros-Croatia was a continuation of the ethnic soccer situation which dominated Toronto soccer in the 50s and 60s. It was frowned upon by the NASL which tolerated the situation because it needed a team in Toronto. In fact, if the stories we heard are correct, when the team qualified for Soccer Bowl, the NASL tried to get the team to drop the Croatia part of the name, at least on the television coverage, and they refused. As for the team itself it played a short passing style, typical of Central Europe, that was very enjoyable to watch. Plus in 1976 the team had Eusebio in the line up and that alone was worth the price of admission. Average attendances were 6,271 in 1975, 6,079 in 1976, 7,336 in 1977 and 6,233 in 1978. The Croatian community supported its team and, as far as could be seen, the other ethnic groups stayed away. Newspaper coverage was good, but it was generally agreed that if the sport was to progress then the Croatian name had to be dropped.

Q. With the failure of both the old Canadian Soccer League (folded in 1992) and the APSL (now the second-tier USL) in garnering a large fan base in the city over the 1990s, how do you account for Toronto FCs sudden and unexpected popularity?

Given the indifference of the Toronto soccer community to the NASL teams of the past in particular, the success of Toronto FC is surprising to those of us who have followed the game from the 50s and 60s on. If I had been asked when the franchise was announced I would have said the team would average 5,000, and I think most people would have said the same. But between the collapse of the Canadian Soccer League in 1992 and today something obviously changed. Perhaps the kids, who learned to play in the years when NASL teams actively encouraged and supported youth soccer, are the new fan base. Also I believe that in recent years the televising of more and more games from Europe, and programs like Soccer Saturday has stimulated a lot of the interest.

Q: Do you think Toronto FCs large crowds and media coverage will spark more interest in the city’s local history?

I don’t think that Canadians in general have a lot of interest in history of any kind. Perhaps if more of Canadian sports history were produced on television in an attractive way it would spur interest.

I would encourage the readers of your blog who are really interested in history to go to the library and read the papers themselves. Billy Fenton in the Toronto Telegram is in my mind the best and his column is there most days from 1920 through to 1945. Bill Cole in the Star is good from 1932 to 1939. Anyone interested can go to my books and find the dates of games and annual meetings and look at the papers for those times.

I would like to thank Colin again for lending his time to this series. Again, for anyone wanting more information on this subject, please visit

1 comment:

Brian said...

Brilliant---thanks to both of you for this.