Monday, August 4, 2008

The Undiscovered Country -- On the Importance of Soccer's Legacy in North America

Eduardo Galleano once remarked that you can't grasp the whole of cultural history in the West over the past century without discussing the game of football. Most modern historians, sociologists and cultural critics are only now discovering the importance of the sport when analyzing the myriad cultural shifts of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

The last few years have seen some remarkable historical works on soccer from historians, authors and journalists like Simon Kuper, David Goldblatt, Jonathan Wilson, and of course, Galleano. Yet within this small but important group there persists the belief that soccer in North America is a blank slate until the NASL years, and later, the MLS.

The reasons are obvious: most reliable histories on the beautiful game have originated from Europe or South America, footballing superpowers. Why expect the giants of the game to waste pages covering scrips and scraps of North American soccer history when the ultimate truth is soccer 'never really caught on there'? Yet as I've witnessed researching the history of football in Toronto over the past month, the whole of these scrips and scraps is much greater than the sum of its parts.

I did this series to prove two points: first, that there was enough soccer history in this city alone to populate thirty days worth of vignettes, and second, much of it is out there waiting to be discovered, even by an amateur like myself. While I focussed on the town of my birth, it's my belief that this series could have been written about Chicago, St. Louis, New York City, Newark, Seattle, Vancouver, Winnipeg, or Montreal. As the game slowly gains a following in North America, we owe it to ourselves to research and re-write the official story of football in North America. Colin Jose has laid the foundation, and all it takes is for some interested writers to take up the challenge and fill in the gaps.

The question remains of course: why bother? The MLS has come a long way since 1996, and many fans know nothing more about the local history of soccer than the New York Cosmos, Baggio's missed penalty, and their own broken ankle playing left-back in grade six (or if you're American, the sixth grade). And it's not likely the legions of young people supporting the Premier League's Big Four know anything of the Chelsea Smile, Bob Paisley's tea-room tactical meetings at Anfield, Matt Busby's youth teams of the mid-fifties or Herbert Chapman's revolutionary formations at Highbury in the mid-twenties.

Yet history provides a richness that can help circumnavigate the modern commercialism that is ruining football, and it can also point to solutions for present-day problems. A month ago I would have railed against any player who criticized Toronto's FieldTurf -- now, I don't think Toronto FC or the national team will fare well at BMO in the long term unless grass is introduced within the next five years. I am also now a firm believer in a single, accepted league structure in North America, without East or West divisions, and yes, I think promotion/relegation must at some stage play a role so that teams will be able to move seamlessly between leagues without costly and arbitrary franchise fees getting in the way (much more on this in future, don't come flailing at me yet!).

However the most important reason for studying local soccer history in North America is confounding the post-modern credo that 'there is nothing new under the sun.' What a thrill it is to know Canada v. USA was the first international match played outside of Britain, a mere thirteen years after England v. Scotland, or that a team from Ontario (!) matched British clubs game for game in the earliest days of club football. There is a legacy waiting to be uncovered, and it's all there in newspapers and local city and state/provincial archives across the continent. As Galleano proffered, by studying soccer's legacy here, you are tapping into local culture in ways many historians have long overlooked.

One of the most striking thing Colin Jose ever mentioned to me was about the utter lack of interest Torontonians have in their history. So ingrained is this attitude in the city that local author Michael Redhill wrote a Booker-nominated novel on the same subject, Consolation, about how Toronto's politicians, business-people and planners would rather abandon the secrets of our past than miss out on a quick buck in the present. This needs to change, and soon. The longer we continue to ignore our historical treasures, the less likely we will be able to recover them in the future. If we don't recognize soccer's past within our city borders, we have no reason to ensure the health of soccer's future.

A More Splendid Life would like to apologize for the delay in getting this out. There is still much to cover in the next few months, including reasons why John Carver must leave Toronto FC and why Aston Villa will fight relegation this year. Yeah, you heard me.


fredorrarci said...

Great idea, terrifically executed. Take a bow, sir.

Brian said...

Terrific series all around, Richard. Looking forward to what's next, although for your sake I hope you're wrong about Villa...

Richard Whittall said...

Hey, thank you all for reading it! I was really surprised at the positive reaction. I don't know if you watch Fox Soccer Channel, (Fred you have probably been spared), but one of their anchors actually linked to this thing:

The only downside was going back and reading grammar mistakes made in haste...yikes.

ursus arctos said...

An unfortunately delayed standing ovation from me as well.

With the same fervour as the one we gave Barenboim at La Scala last month.

PLEASE let us know if the series ever gets published in some form. It very much deserves greater exposure.

* * * * *

One observation on the last post, though. You seem not to be aware of David Wangerin's "Soccer in a Football World" (, which is a history of the game in the US that goes back to the 19th c, very much in the spirit of Tor! and Morbo (and in fact published by the same people, who also publish a magazine you will have heard of and run a website you have some familiarity).

Unfortunately, David (who used to frequent said website) had all kinds of problems finding a North American publisher for a quintessentially North American book, though I do believe that it has now come out under the Temple University Press imprint.

Check it out, you won't be disappointed.

Richard Whittall said...

Thanks soon as I'd finished this a close friend mentioned to me the same book thus taking away a bit of my 'there is no history''s now on its way to my house via Amazon.

I also read up a link on DuNord's site on someone doing similar work in Salt Lake City's soccer history which goes back to the twenties. I think there is probably much more going on with this sort of thing than I realised at the time of my last post...