Monday, May 26, 2008

Qu'est-ce que Vous Chantez? Song and Support at Toronto FC

My love of football developed not coincidentally along side my love of singing. When as a twelve year old boy I was first sat with my uncle to watch the 1994 World Cup, what moved me most was not the movement on the pitch but the boisterous singing heard from the stands. Later I as grew up, my love of singing would refine itself into a professional career in classical music, just as my love of football diverted away from the stands and back to the action on the field. But the close relationship between music and football, both in the element of dance on the pitch and the (mostly) impromptu chants from die-hard supporters, is still a vital part of what draws me to the game.

This was one of the reasons I awaited the inaugural season of Toronto FC back in April 2007 with trepidation. Having watched a few games at the Air Canada Centre, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey franchise, I was disappointed that the best the crowd could come up with was a droning 'go, Leafs, go' every ten minutes or so. The 'silent' phenomenon at Leafs games is well-known in Toronto and most commentators associate it with economic class. There's some truth in this: during home games the most quiet area in the ACC can be found directly rink-side in the 'Gold' section, where single tickets are priced in the hundreds of dollars. Men in suits consult black-berries while women clad for the night clubs gossip with friends. Goals often go completely unnoticed while the 'real' fans supposedly whoop it up in the nose-bleeds.

However, the sombre atmosphere at Leafs games can be attributed to more than socio-economic status alone; it's also emblematic of the sort of low English protestantism on which Toronto was founded. While England in the late 1950s and early 1960s saw a society liberated from her dark, Victorian roots by a post-war generation dancing to new tunes from the North-East and inspired by the optimism of Harold Wilson's Labour Party, Toronto was still covering pub windows in black curtains and listening to the Gospel-inspired 'Four Lads.'

As David Goldblatt points out in 'The Ball is Round,' the liberating Liverpudlian rock and roll of the late Fifties and early Sixties inspired the terrace chanting at the Kop, chanting which spread throughout Great Britain and is now an integral part of the English game. Before then, "the sound of the British football crowd remained a collage of collective roars and one-liners" (450), which could also describe the sound of the crowd at Leaf's games. Despite huge social change brought about by an increase in immigration in the 1960s which included many liberal-minded Americans, Toronto's sport culture would remain inherently WASPish and conservative, and therefore without song, for some time.

Enter Toronto FC. Any fears that the silence of the ACC would envelop BMO Field were calmed on April 19 2007, although it's interesting to note that the first audible chant from the supporters' section was a John Lennon song. Although it is now without question there is a sophisticated, football-following base in Toronto, there is a sense that Toronto FC's fans are creating a 'simulacra' of support, borrowing songs from the European grounds they grew up watching instead of forming their own spontaneous, organic sound. Most of the songs heard from the supporters' section are Euro-British rehashes, including some Kop favourites (but mercifully not YNWA) and one or two verses in French borrowed from Le Championat to promote our bilingual heritage, but the impromptu chants of the type that give flavour to the Premiership are missing and most of the songs heard this season are exactly the same as the last, and are even officially sanctioned by the Toronto FC website.

There could be a number of reasons for this including a lack of away supporters to sing to, but my guess is that Toronto FC's fans, many of whom also support the Maple Leafs, are in the tricky process of figuring out how to support a club with no history or founding mythology (Dichio's 24th minute chant aside) in a hockey town without an indigenous soccer culture. While the atmosphere at BMO Field is unlike any in Major League Soccer, there is a growing backlash among some city-dwellers who question the authenticity of supporters singing 'Toronto 'til I die!' for a two-year old franchise owned by Maple Leafs Sports Entertainment.

What is not known to proponents of 'authentic' support is, as clubs sprang up across England at the turn of the twentieth century often backed by speculating tycoons, fervent working-class supporters would arrive in the tens of thousands as soon the grounds were constructed, instant loyalty, no questions asked. The difference in Toronto FC's case is that supporters are not only warming to a new club, but to a new entirely new sporting culture. It will be a slow process, but over time we may begin to hear the home-grown, spontaneous singing that characterizes the best grounds from around the world. And Toronto FC might even help move Toronto away from the self-conscious, navel-gazing Puritanical hangover that has haunted the city since the Victorian 1960s, simply by singing our own songs and singing them loudly.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities: The European Cup Final and Toronto FC

I've been warned more than once about my poor post-rate on the bloog lately. I'm going to call this a 'bloog.' The more I say 'blog,' the more I'm going to start thinking of myself as being part of some sort of 'on-line' community, and then I'll buy 'HTML for Dummies' and go on NPR shows and talk about the triumph of New Media all the while developing a gross wet lisp at the back of my teeth, and well, you get the picture. So get ready while I bloog your mind.

So the European Cup final. I don't know, what did you think? There I sat, beer in hand, tickled pink by two first-half goals and the (big) ear marks of a top notch final. So where did it go? It didn't help that this was more an above-average Grand Slam Sunday at Stamford Bridge than a marquee-burning European Cup classic. Celtic v. Inter Milan in 1967 (it was Jimmy Johnstone who said of the night, "They came out looking like film shtars, but it was them who were out on a dune!") as well as the exotic match-up between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park in 1960, perhaps the best football game of all time, both perfectly symbolize the cosmpolitan magic of the European game.

Chelsea v. Manchester United, two clubs that on footballing terms entirely deserved their respective places in the Moscovite final, was never a fixture that could reach the heights some of us snobs have come to demand from our football. Look at it this way: if you could choose who to watch play in a European final, would it be Ronaldo or Di Stefano? Lampard or Cruiff? Ashley Cole or Peter Withe (this last one is strictly for me)? Don't tell me you even paused to think of an answer.

Besides, the stress now we put on football to be what it was twenty or thirty years ago can be migraine-inducing. Welcome therefore to the wet and wild world of the MLS. I was finally able to catch some delectably downgrade fixtures at BMO this past week where there's a bastion of hard-tackling open football thought long-dead in the land of its birth. Toronto FC is bucking the South American trend in the Soccerball League by employing a decidedly retro English style: a lone striker resembling a club bouncer gobbling up long balls and scoring what we call in the hockey business 'les buts de garbage.' And with TFC in third place on a six game unbeated streak, it appears to be working.

Yesterday's rain-soaked victory over DC United was the perfect antidote to the all-too familiar Premiership match-up. Terrible tackles, tussles that ended without the flash of red or even yellow, and desperately fruitless counterattacks all added up to a marvelously old-school, League One-ish affar. The steady rain seemed to goad the South Stand on in anger against the opposition and officials. But what further bonded the crowd seemed to be Toronto's difference, our identity in play. While the Peraltas and Donovans and Schelotto's of the league rest firmly on the terra firma of the South American approach, Toronto has stuck much more closely to her naturally Northern roots.

And as any Northerner from Holland to Edinburgh will tell you, there's something magical about a weekday fixture in the cold rain, something almost pagan, like a Puritan strip-tease in a dark New England forest. Carver spoke about Toronto FCs resilience despite their sloppiness of play, but sometimes football is nothing more than getting 'stuck in,' the ability to plant one's foot down and say in effect, "this is who we are." This distinct style, built more on guts than expensive acquisitions, instinct more than laserpoint tactics, reminds us of the importance of identity in football. As good as the European Cup final was this year, a distinct style or identity, as happens all too often in the one-size-fits-all, made-to-regulation football, was sorely lacking. It's nice to know I don't have to go too far these days to find it.

Photo Credit: Marc Parravano

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The FA Cup: The Silver Vase-Shaped Passport to Gloryland!

I love the FA Cup, I fucking love it. While the defeatist, cynical left-wing British press bitches and moans about how these days, the World's Oldest Knock-Out Competition produces as much excitement as Ben Stein reading aloud from the collected works of Charles Dickens in the middle of a knitting circle, the reality is the Cup offers a unique opportunity for the rest of the world to stare into the slightly-clogged-but-still-chugging heart of British sport culture.

Today was an amazing example. While I was a bit distracted from the proceedings at the New Wembley due to the power-point presentation I had to put on to explain to my girlfriend why a Welsh club was allowed to compete for an English trophy, the excitement was there to be seen: tens of thousands of fans crammed into a billion-dollar fishbowl in the heart of London, all collectively convinced this was still a big deal. The simulacrum of glory had some mighty helpings of Power and Gas courtesy of sponsors E-On, along with the trademark, euphoria-inducing hype from BSkyB and the stiff-upper-lipped Beebs, the latter there to remind domestic viewers that they were watching Hope and Glory embodied in ninety minutes of hoof-and-chase.

The match was a lively bout between eleven copies of this man from the South Shore (and no Canadian readers [if any], I'm not referring to the particularly noxious brand of nationalist anglophone from Le Riviere Sud in Montreal), and some people-shaped versions of this. A few pirouettes from Kanu and a nostalgic Enckelman error (those were the days!) put Portsmouth One-Up over Cardiff, enough for them to give the the Cup the old hoist-and-kiss.

The FA Cup, much like its belittled and web-toed cousin the Community Shield, is there to bookend the league season by showcasing the best and worst day-to-day, grind-em-out football has to offer. As such, it tends to be smothered in large dollops of canned narrative. With the absence of the Big Four in the final this year thanks to the bookie-baiting antics of Barnsely, the David and Goliath angle was put into overdrive to salvage the ratings and charge things up in anticipation of an overly-cautious dirge.

It wasn't to be. Both sides attacked well and seemed happy just to be there, in stark contrast to the wussed-out dud between United and Chelsea last year. It's a shame is that this final will likely be a blip on the slithery path to complete domination of football by the moneyed-classes (although some disagree), but at least we can take heart that moments like this are still possible. It is a ninety-minute ball game after all.

Quantum physics tells us that, although highly unlikely, there remains the possibility that gas particles will suddenly all end up together in one corner of a contained space. Such a beautiful and mind-bending event won't come along often, so good play to the participants for not trying to draw out the moment with cynical play. As Danny Blanchflower once put it: "Football is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom..." I'm happy to say I've lived to (badly) tell the tale.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Bottoms Up!

Sorry for the woeful delay; I've had to sing the Mozart Requiem about seven hundred times this week for pocket change to buy bags of rice to feed my family of twelve. The red pulpy mass where my larynx used to be cannot swallow for the pain, but it's nice to see my bastards feed.

Moving along, the Premier League is over. When a season spans the second week of August to the second week of May, it's hard to think of football say the way one thinks of a television season, with a beginning middle and end with great character development and an elliptical story arc with hilarious guest stars week to week. Try as they might, those photo albums and timelines and 'How the League was Won' website retrospectives serve only to remind football fans of some cracking fixtures last September they'd probably already forgotten in the white heat of May (Villa beat Chelsea! We showed you Mourinho!).

In any case, there was something amazingly anti-climactic about the whole exercise even with the photo-finish at the end (albeit between two very very wealthy super-clubs). The sad hops at the rain-sodden JJB seemed to underline the point. Does winning the Premier League matter any more? Is that all there is? Thirty-eight games, millions and millions of pounds spent, and for what? A jump-about resembling my grade eight dance when House of Pain came on and some wasted plonk on a muddy pitch in Wigan?

Meanwhile the desperation at Fratton Park was ELECTRIC. Portsmouth v. Fulham would normally be the Grade Z choice in the minor Canadian skirmish over Premiership rights, but I found myself switching to lowly old Sportsnet when the banality of Chelsea's and Manchester United's 'sense of entitlement' contest and the unearned superlatives coughed up by the bored announcers became too much to bear. Who in muggy August 2007 would of thought old Roy Hodgson would end up the man of the hour in the Premier League on May 11 2008? These are the mysteries of league football that still make it worth watching in the age of corporations.

I have an old DVD of the 'Best Games of the Premiership.' There are some greats on it, Liverpool v. Newcastle 1996 comes to mind, but the best has to be relegation-threated Oldham pulling it out against a sadistic Le Tissier-led Southampton 4-3 at the close of the 92-93 season. The fear. There is nothing like the fear of a club staring down relegation, and in the Premiership where a dollar amount is tied to every toss and turn of the league cycle, falling out the bottom can cause a microcosmic depression at a local ground. Joe Royle's frantic procession up and down the stairs at Oldham as Le Tisser scored and then scored again symbolized the ups and downs of a club both in and out of its element in the top flight.

Fulham never really deserved to be in the Premiership...except a Danny Murphy header away from home after an equally unlikely win against Birmingham ensured they DID. The tit-for-tat moaning that goes on endlessly among the top-four plastics, the goading perfectionism and yards of officious text cannot touch this sort of undeserved, inconsistent glory that cannot justify itself but doesn't need to because it's so beautiful. There are now three leagues in the Premiership, one for the elites, the other for the flavour of the month where Villa and Everton now sit, and the last for those cannibals at the bottom, feeding off eachother for precious points. It is the latter where, paradoxically, football still manages to live.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Gareth Barry: The Thin Claret and Blue Line

I'm not really a photo-centric blogger, which many have told me can be murder in the here-today, gone-tomorrow world of internet web logs. So because I know some people like pretty pictures with their words, I will direct you now to the photo accompanying my bio down on the lower right-hand side of the blog. That little football nerd on the left is me; the (relative) giant on my right is one Gareth Barry. This photo was taken back in the summer of 2007 following Villa's 4-2 victory over Toronto FC, a pre-season friendly which effectively ruined Toronto FC's season by way of injuries to both Danny Dichio and Marvel Wynne. More important for me was the bizarre circumstance that led to me, my intrepid girlfriend, and Aston Villa's entire starting eleven milling around the back of BMO Field like a middle school soccer team out late on a weeknight, and my subsequent encounter with Villa skipper Gareth Barry.

But before we get to that, let me fill you in on the week's events in football. Liverpool, aching and in chaos at the end of a trophy-less season, have distracted the press and their fans by leaking details over an offer to Villa for Barry which basically amounts to Peter Crouch, Scott Carson, John Arn'-ot going-to-use-my-right-foot-no-matter-what-the-cost Riise, and a burlap sack with 10 million pounds written on it. The thrust of the move outside of Barry's peerless skills in midfield seems to be that he and Gerrard are 'good friends,' which may or or may not actually pay dividends on the pitch based on the evidence of some recent England performances. Whatever the reason, Barry's remarks to the media that he has to 'look at himself and be selfish' are essentially holding Villa ransom to get fifth place and a ticket to Europe next year lest GB moves into a red shirt and a higher tax bracket. Seeing as Villa lost today to Wigan and Everton now need only a point from their next two games to secure fifth spot, the exit sign for Gareth Barry is burning brighter than ever.

So then back to my brief encounter. Barry, in a strange former colony more renowned for its maple syrup than its football, walked out from Toronto's BMO Field and beamed at the small but passionate Canadian Villa supporters who had come to see him off. He shook every hand, he answered the most inane questions (Fanny-packed suburbanite wearing a Blue Jays shirt: "Where are you from?" Smiling Barry: "Hastings"), and he politely and earnestly posed for photographs, including my own. He was more than a star midfielder; he was Aston Villa-personified, the skipper, leader, and spokesperson for the team that WSC once called 'football's original aristocrats.'

So the news this week, coming right at the moment when the team needs to pull together to prove itself a power at home and abroad, was hard to take. To me, Gareth Barry's impending exit means more than the loss of a key-midfielder; it means the loss of the moral centre of the club, the loss of a leader, and the further loss of integrity, loyalty and all the other dying values that the neoliberal money-managers politely ask we not expect from the millionaires whose checks are provided through the spent-earnings of fans who will only love one club their entire life. In football, when you leave a team this way, for money and silverware on the cheap, you never walk alone.

I've always believed, perhaps naively, that if football is never at its core about anything more than money it's not worth playing, watching, loving, supporting. Gareth Barry's decision whether or not to leave the club that developed him into a skilled player, made him a leader, gave him fame and extraordinary wealth, and whose fans protected him from scorn after a bad performance here and there whether at home or for England, is expected to come shortly after the end of the season. While at the end of the day he's just one player, a decision to leave for the reasons on offer will only make the road to competitive irrelevancy, soulless commercialism, and crass self-serving ideology in the world of football that much smoother. However, like the wonderful Matt Le Tissier before him, Barry also has the power to reject the worldview of the mindless technocrats who see nothing outside of what brings immediate capital gain, the sort of people who will ruin anything of actual value in return for fleeting baubles under the excuse that it 'makes us all richer.' If he chose the latter path, it might bring hope that more of us faced with a variation on this question every day of our lives could do the same.