Monday, July 7, 2008

Soccer in the Post War Years -- Toronto's Two-Footed Tackle on Football's 'Displaced Persons'

Part Three of A More Splendid Life's Month-Long series on the History of Soccer in Toronto.

In typical Canadian fashion, the Globe and Mail referred to the preposterous on-field punch-ups and numerous pitch-invasions over the course of the troubling 1951 season as 'rhubarbs.' In fact, Toronto's top flight, the National Soccer League Western Division, in addition to its more local and ethnically colourful Metro League, saw ethnic tensions normally hidden away from Toronto's WASP Anglo mainstream rise to the surface.

The year 1951 was pivotal for the development of football culture in Toronto and marked the beginning of the city's long experiment with multiculturalism, although at the time it seemed like the start of a major crisis. While the record books show an historic 1-0 league playoff-winning victory for the Toronto Ukranians over the Toronto East End Canadians in a freezing and almost entirely empty stadium in late November, the win was marred by the refusal of two of the British league-leading sides to participate in the playoff series, ostensibly because of long weather-related delays (however in light of reports of fierce ethnic rivalries that year one can't help but think there may have been other reasons for their absence). However, the Ukrainians' league title would be the first of many for Toronto's Eastern European and Mediterranean teams: they would completely dominate the National Soccer League for the next three decades.

Toronto Ukrainians were one of Toronto's fledgling 'Displaced Persons' or DP sides as they were referred by fans and officials. The moniker indicates how these recent-arrivals, most of whom had fled from countries ravaged by war, were viewed by older English Canadians -- outsiders. Tension had been mounting over the course of the season -- the Metro League final between the Polish White Eagles and the Earlscourt Legion (the club monikers say it all really) had to be stopped due to fisticuffs in the fortieth minute -- and boiled over at the end of the season when an emergency meeting was held in November by future Canadian Soccer Association co-founder Bill Simpson to prevent the DP sides from leaving and forming a league of their own.

His negotiations appeared to have worked because the next season welcomed both the White Eagles and the Toronto Hungarians into the top flight, the latter finishing first. More and more 'ethnic' teams would enter the National Soccer League, including the Toronto Italia in 1953, Toronto Hakoah in 1954, and the Toronto Sparta in 1955. By 1962, the old British sides disappeared completely.

The shift was a mixed-blessing for the popularization of the game in Canada. While highly-talented teams from Toronto's colourful ethnic enclaves would come to dominate the league, the city's mainstream anglo sporting crowd shifted even more heavily toward hockey, despite the Canadian Soccer Associations best efforts. Most importantly, football gave newcomers a sense of stability and familiarity in the face of an often cold and prejudiced Toronto, as well as the chance to express their sporting prowess.

Edit: in the course of researching this I stumbled across John Turnbull's extensive blog 'The Global Game' which features an excellent article on the history of Toronto's Ukrainian football sides. Please read and then laugh at how piss-poor it makes this thing seem.


The Global Game said...

Thanks very much for the link to The Global Game and for this research into Toronto's soccer history. I'm sorry I was not aware of your work when I visited for a few days in May. You are doing exactly the sort of research historian Colin Jose advocates: cranking the long-forgotten microfilm reels in library sub-basements, for little glory now, but in the life to come ...

Richard Whittall said...

Thanks! I'm actually in touch with Colin who has been extremely helpful in researching this traffic-annihilating but incredibly interesting topic. Lots more good stuff to come!

fredorrarci said...

I like 'rhubarbs' - I'm going to use that to refer to any kind of on-field field violence in future, from a Drogba-esque tip of the face to a proper 21-man brawl.

Anyway, this is great stuff, Richard. Keep it up.

Football Souvenirs said...

It’s good for the game to have a ‘bust up’ every now and again, it shows passion, after all its supposed to be a man’s game.