Thursday, July 31, 2008

Whole Hog -- The Birth of Toronto FC

When in February 2003, the Canadian Soccer Association broke the MLS taboo and admitted they wanted into the American pro-soccer league, few would have imagined 20 000 young fans chanting and singing at every match in four years' time. The headline, tucked in the back pages of the Globe and Mail sports section, probably drew little attention. Those that did bother to read the missive would likely have scoffed in indignation -- why go through all this agony for a sport no one would want to watch at home? Hadn't we had enough pro-soccer failure in Toronto?

The city had some bright lights pulling for the move, among them the Globe's Stephen Brunt, who was one of the few (if only) pundits who predicted the club would take off with a younger generation brought up watching club football on cable without deep-seated childhood memories of 'Old Country' glory holding them back. But overall the mood among sports professionals was at best cautious, at worst, outraged.

When Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment announced their intention to meet MLS Commisioner Don Garber's requirements for an MLS franchise, including the construction of a soccer-specific stadium, it renewed a long relationship in Toronto between soccer and hockey. The Toronto Maple Leafs were the darling of Steve Stavro, the same man who helped convince Sir Stanley to help out little Toronto City back in 1961, and it was fitting that MLSE CEO Richard Peddie ran with the CSA's desire to bring the MLS to Toronto against the many, many naysayers who had no time for another boondoggle in our backyard.

The road was long and arduous, filled with bureaucratic back-biting, financial pitfalls and political point-scoring (you can read all about it if you dare). The suburban right-leaning city council members played cheap for the sticks (a running-gag since the city amalgamated in 1998), no one could agree on location, and some left-wing critics did not like the idea of a public/private partnership. Meanwhile, the Toronto press, local North American sports-journo bore Dave Perkins, did some heavy-duty sniping as a deal slowly rose to the surface. The city was pissing its money away he said, no one would come to watch he said, look at the MLS' numbers down south he said.

By October 2005, Garber got tired of waiting for the MLSE and the city to sort itself out, and imposed an end-of-month deadline. Readers of this series will know the real miracle isn't that Toronto FC would sell it's season tickets before its first kick-off, but that the city's soccer organizers finally managed to agree on a co-financing plan for the stadium. This was something new in the annals of soccer administration in the city of Toronto -- consensus. It may not have been a coincidence that the slogan for ticket adds is "All For One."

We know how all the rest unfolded. The announcement was made, the franchise named six months later, and an internet following began on sites like this. There were no Steve Stavros or David Forsyths there to witness the throngs descend on BMO Field on April 28 2007 for Toronto FC's first home game, and it's hard to know what they and all of Toronto's football-faithful who struggled against war, politics, racism and indifference to push for the game we all love in the city they called home, would make of it all. One thing they would agree on; football wasn't coming home -- it had been loved, neglected, gloried, and shamed for over one hundred years, while we were busy making other plans...

I'd like to dedicate this series to the memory and spirit of David Forsyth. A More Splendid Life will round things off tomorrow with a brief discussion on the importance of soccer history in Toronto and North America. Some thanks now, to,,, and The Voyageurs for posting much-appreciated links, to the Soccer Hall of Fame, particularly John Vanderkolk and Bill Hoyle, to you the reader, and most of all, to Colin Jose, without whose efforts this series, and indeed most of what we know about the roots of soccer in North America, would not exist. We need many, many more like him, else this rich heritage disappear. I will continue working with the Soccer Hall of Fame over the next few months so expect periodic forays into Canadian soccer history...

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"In a Spirit of Brotherhood" -- Multiculturalism and the Beautiful Game

It was an odd sight for this lifelong native of Toronto: patrolling police officers, body searches, and warnings about ejections for racist banners featuring extreme right-wing symbols. All for a crowd of four hundred Croatian and Serbian spectators for a low-level amateur football match on Parkdale's idyllic waterfront.

Toronto is not known for its intra-ethnic violence, and the mutual tolerance exhibited by once fierce enemies, now next-door neighbours, has been a hallmark of the city for some time. Yet soccer tends to bring once-faded nationalistic tendencies to the foreground, and in the early days of Toronto's immigration influx in the 1950s, passions seemed to flare on a regular basis.

The problem was so common in the National Soccer League that in 1957, six years after Toronto Ukrainians picked up their first title, a local Magistrate recommended the NSL drop the 'ethnic' team titles and team sheets to force integration. "For the benefit of the game," Magistrate Taylor expounded after fining two Ukraine players for beating up a linesman, "they should all play together as Canadians in a spirit of brotherhood."

Complex social theories about polycultural identity were not in vogue in 1957, so it's doubtful the Magistrate knew anything about diasporic-identity issues when making his plea for integration. However, football in Canada can stretch the hyphen in dual identities to the breaking-point. While the violence in the 1950s calmed down significantly as recently-arrived Canadians warmed to their new home, soccer allegiance in Canada is still a tricky subject.

Many Portuguese and Italian-Canadians have intense debates about who they would support in a World Cup clash featuring the country of their roots or the country they call home. Some see the patent disregard many Canadians have for their adopted country's national soccer team -- like the tens of thousands of Chilean-Canadians who heartily supported Chile over Canada the 2007 Under-19 World Cup -- as a sign of weak national identity. Yann Martel famously remarked that Canada "is the world's greatest hotel," and there was a wave of right-wing indignation at the Lebanese-Canadians who 'used' their Canadian passports to flee the recent war with Israel, only to return to Lebanon when the conflict ceased.

Violence in Toronto after Italy's 1990
Semi-Final Defeat

The truth is, as usual, more complex. Our identity as Canadians sits on a razor's edge between will and providence, as a pretentious letter-writer to the Globe once argued. While Canada is no mere hotel, neither does it belong to the liberal democracies insistent on integration before acceptance. This is why the same groups in Toronto can clash after one world cup and then graciously hug their opponents at another. At the end of the day, while we fiercely maintain pride in our ethnic roots, we're all Canadians...we know the same contours of the city streets, the same sting of Canadian winters, and, oddly, the same love for a struggling mid-table MLS club it seems...

And Hugs and Handshakes between Portuguese and Italians in 1994...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

From Bad to Worse: Pro Soccer in Toronto in the '90s

What a difference a decade makes. In July 1997, the A-League's (now the USL) newly-formed Toronto Lynx joined their fellow Canadian clubs in the top seven spots in the table, yet could only attract 1500 fans a game to watch them in Varsity's cavernous stadium. Ten years later, 14 000 season tickets would be sold at BMO Field before Toronto FC even kicked off their inaugural season.

Toronto Lynx's Paul Stalteri in action, 1997. He played
alongside Dwayne De Rosario in their first season.

There are a number of theories as to the change, but one of the most obvious is that Canadians in the nineties thought better of themselves than to go support a team playing in lower-tier North American league. The wikipedia entry for 'A-League' sums it up nicely: "It was a FIFA sanctioned Division 2 league of soccer in the United States and Division 1 league of soccer in Canada." Some would argue that the USL fared well Canada, and there have been pockets of success. Much has been written, for example, on the Montreal Impact's success in luring crowds to USL games, but certainly finishing top of the league for four years straight in the early 2000s didn't hurt.

The Toronto Lynx were not so fortunate. While the club survived until TFC's inaugural season when it relegated itself to the USL's amateur development league, it was never a force and certainly didn't have much of a following outside of a band of faithful supporters, including current TFC ultras the U-Sector, named for the area in Varsity Stadium where the group congregated.

The epicentre of this soccer malaise in Toronto has to be 1994. This was the year Canada failed to qualify for the World Cup by a single game, the year after the Canadian Soccer League folded only to see the Toronto Rockets sputter after one season under the refuge of the APSL (the A-League's former incarnation), the year the MLS laughed off Canadian soccer fans interested in a spot in the newly christened league.

The leaps and bounds we've seen in the past year reflect the efforts of a footballing faithful that struggled through one of the hardest, most barren periods in Toronto's soccer history; for that they should be proud. But, perhaps more than any previous soccer-loving generation, they know the cost of failure, and should be on guard lest we see year like 1994 again.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Great War and the Greatest Game -- The Loss of a Footballing Elite

For the few brave souls that have read this series in its entirety, you will probably have noticed a marked difference between Canadian soccer in the late 19th and early 20th century (1885 v. USA, the 1888 tour of Britain, the 1904 Galt FC win), and soccer after the First World War. I've touched on this topic in one or two posts, yet because it is of tantamount importance to the direction soccer took in Ontario and Canada as a whole, it deserves further discussion.

Colin Jose remarked to me via email that that while league play continued through WWI, the war was totally devastating for the development of Canadian football. As Colin writes in his lovely, understated way --

"...Look at the figures for World War One. More than 56,500 Canadians died in the conflict. Canada lost 3,598 soldiers in one day at the famous battle of Vimy Ridge, while 7,004 were wounded. At the battle of Beaumont-Hamel, the Newfoundland regiment lost 801 soldiers. Even today Newfoundland doesn't celebrate Canada Day on July 1, on The Rock it's Beaumont -Hamel day. One other thing about Vimy Ridge. The soldiers attacking the ridge, either kicked, or carried a soccer ball with them. That ball is in the museum of the Royal Canadian Regiment in London, Ontario." (Ed note: my great-grandfather was among those at Vimy, and, I'm not kidding here, Timothy Findley wrote The Wars partly based on his letters home -- 'Tiff' was my grandmother's cousin).

Royal Canadian Regiment Museum
Curator, Claus Breed, with the Vimy

Countless Canadian-born players, coaches and administrators had marched off to the battlefields of Europe, never to be seen again. The year 1919 provides a clean break with the past as far as Canadian-born leaders in the game are concerned; it seemed there could only truly be one David Forsyth.

Yet there is more to it than meets the eye. Post-war Canada witnessed an enormous influx of British immigration, primarily to fill in the gaps left by the mass slaughter of the four previous years. This was not mere happenstance; the British government actively encouraged the settlement of the colonies with the Empire Settlement Act. This ordinance played into the hands of Canadian government officials worried that there weren't enough adult professionals to keep the post-war economy afloat. The incoming English, Scottish and Irish immigrants were in love with football, and so it seems natural that, as Colin again points out, "...the first six presidents of the Ontario Football Association were all born in Canada. Between 1913, when Thomas Guthrie was elected president and 1929 when Tom Elliott was elected, all of the presidents were British born."

You can see this gradual change with the teams that came to the forefront with the rise of the Inter-Cities league in 1921, and later the professional National Soccer league in 1926: Toronto Scottish, Toronto Ulster United, etc etc. This 'Anglocization' is part of our game and deserves to be recognized as such, but one wonders which direction football may have taken in Canada had history deigned to be kind to the young, hopeful idealists, and allowed them to stay home to kick a football in Galt, or New Westminster, and not on the muddy, blood-soaked fields of Vimy, the Sommes, Ypres, and countless others...

5th Canadian Field Ambulance Soccer Team
(Front row, L-R): Tribe, Hay, McKerror, Bryant, Shorrocks, Wood, Simpson. (Centre row, L-R): McLean, Crompton, Thurston, Moore, Bridges, Clarke, Saunders, Thompson, Walker, Lickley. (Rear row, L-R): Rigby, Rich, Graves, Burgess, Sinclair, Sharpe, Hill. (Courtesy Canadian Archives).

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Post-War Years -- Toronto Soccer Starts from Scratch

War is not good for professional sport, and the Second World War pushed soccer in Toronto to the brink. As servicemen and women returned home in 1945, soccer slowly made its return in 1946 Eastern Canada with the introduction of yet another ill-fated soccer loop: the North American Professional Soccer League.

The league was comprised of professional teams from Canadian and American cities, and Toronto's outfit were known as the 'Greenbacks.' Apparently, as irate sports columnist Jim Coleman pointed out in March of 1946, the participation of the club in the new league seemed to cause great consternation among local soccer officials running Toronto's long-standing amateur T & D league. They were incensed that the club would go ahead and provide professional football without consulting anyone, and apparently gave the Greenback owners a questionnaire which first asked "What do you intend to do with the profits?" (Coleman suggested they use it to 'build a soundproof outhouse where all of Toronto's soccer officials can stay until the end of the professional season.')

Coleman's remarks were made in light of the in-fighting going on between local soccer organizers. The Dominion Football Association, now the CSA, was mired in a battle to prevent Canada's western provinces from splitting off completely. Provinces like Manitoba and British Columbia felt they were propping up Eastern Canada's lack-lustre promotion of the game. Canadian soccer historian Colin Jose points to tensions spilling over at the general DFA meeting in Montreal in 1948, with BC delegate Jock Hendry remarking that BC and Manitoba were 'carrying the DFA,' and the Globe reported rumours of a division between east and west as early as 1946. Soccer was not off to a good start after the war.

Toronto Globe, May 10 1946

Clubs and players were rusty too. Liverpool visited for a June 1946 tour (see the photo for a young Bob Paisely) and crushed Toronto Ulster United, once a National Soccer League powerhouse, 11 to 1. Meanwhile, the 'Greenbacks' struggled through the money-losing NAPSL, and in 1947 the league folded. Soccer was clearly no longer the draw it once was. As Torontonians became enamoured with ice hockey and soccer officials continued to battle among themselves, soccer drifted to the sidelines, only to be picked up in the 1950s by WWII's war-weary displaced persons.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

"White is the Colour" -- Vancouver's NASL Success

With the news that Steve Nash and Greg Kerfoot are seriously pushing an upcoming MLS slot for the Vancouver Whitecaps', Canadian soccer fans must be wondering what year it is. After all, it was 1978 when Vancouver saw a record crowd of 30, 811 fans arrive at Empire Stadium to watch a first-round NASL playoff game against the Toronto Metro-Croatia.

The game was not without controversy; the Metro-Croatia filed an official protest at NASL's head office in New York over Vancouver's second of four goals. Players complained that Toronto keeper Zeljko Bilecki had been obstructed, Sol Campbell-on-Ricardo style, by the Whitecaps' forwards. However, Toronto deserved the loss -- their attack, much like Toronto FC's these days, had no coherence and was incapable of threatening the Vancouver goal.

Yet there it was: the first cross-Canada soccer rivalry to spark massive local interest. For Vancouver, the prospect of playing a team from Toronto, NASL champions only two-years earlier, was enough to spark the imagination of the city, and the game produced the largest attendance ever for a game between two Canadian teams. Even though Vancouver would go out in the next round, the Whitecaps were on the eve of tremendous popular and sporting success.

Ah the Seventies. Couldn't be a team unless you had a record.

They would go on to win the 1979 SoccerBowl in thrilling fashion, producing many sold out games along the way and raising soccer's status on Canada's west-coast. The team also nurtured homegrown players like Bob Lenarduzzi and Glen Johnston, and paved the way for Canadian Soccer League powerhouse the Vancouver 86ers. They also likely had a hand in getting a certain basketball prodigy and his brother interested in the sport. Hopefully, we can look forward to a proper league reprise of the '78 game in a few years.

Friday, July 25, 2008

"You're the Stuff" -- Canada 1 USA 0, Newark 1885

Last night saw American and English flags unfurled at Toronto's BMO Field for the 2008 MLS All-Star game, with nary a sight of the red and white until after our guests' anthems had been played. The home crowd, unaware of this odd little 'arrangement', vented at first by booing, then by singing the Canadian anthem over-top those of the visiting nations.

I personally don't think anthems should be played at all at games that aren't full internationals, and certainly booing foreign anthems is never a good idea, but by having the "Star Spangled Banner" follow "God Save the Queen," the MLS sent the message that MLS is all-American, a curious statement considering the rumours flying around about further Canadian expansion. I, along with many other Canadians at BMO Field last night, was angered by the event, but it serves North Americans to remember we have a long and shared soccer-playing heritage.

In late Novermber 1885, David Forsyth (of Galt FC and 1888 British tour fame) led a contingent of Canadian internationals to play a series of matches in Newark New Jersey. While some of the games were 'rink' matches, sort of an old-fashioned version of five-a-side indoor soccer, the game played on November 28 against an All-American team, was a full international, and the first to be played outside of the British Isles.

The NY Times Take on the Game

The game itself appears to have been an absolute dirge; while Forsyth's characteristic preparation paid off with the Canadians getting the lead after ten minutes, the Globe newspaper reported scenes of violence ("both sides made up their minds not to be beaten"), and accusations that the American referee didn't know the rules in addition to making partial calls. A fight appeared to have stopped play at some point before the first half, with University of Toronto freshman Walter Thompson getting kicked and retaliating by "shouldering" his opponent "in true British style." When play did resume between the fights, Canadian goal keeper J. N. McKendrick shone as the most valuable player on the pitch, stopping shots so well that a young onlooker called him 'the best goalkeeper in the world.'

Nonetheless, passions on the field did not mar festivities off it. The Canadians were treated as royalty, in particular by the popular Newark mayor Joseph Haynes, described in reports as a strong Democrat in a Republican city, and many curious on-lookers admired their skill -- although one can hardly take the Globe on it's word that passerbys said things like, "Ain't they just lightning," "You take the cake," and my own favourite, "You're the stuff." Such mutual goodwill, and the spontaneous praise from ordinary Americans for the skill of Forsyth's Canadian team, seems odd today, and that is a real shame.

The Globe's Take on the Game
The tour was such a success that it was repeated the next year, with the Americans winning 3-2...but 1885 reminds us that football was alive and well in North America very soon after its blossoming in the Isles -- and in Walter 'Watty' Thomson, we had our own 'wannabe' hooligans on the pitch over one hundred years ago.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Tours -- Part Three: Toronto Blizzard v. Juventus

With all the hype surrounding West Ham's arrival to face off against the MSL's 'best' this week, it's fun to remember the days Toronto could get Juventus to play our rinky-dink NASL club, a team that could barely draw four thousand fans to a home game.

This was May 30 1983 and the NASL was in its last death throes. Juventus sent out a second-string team mostly due to international absences, but a record crowd of 35, 656 still managed to show up at Exhibition Stadium, built on the same site where BMO Field currently stands. It was the most fans ever to see the Blizzard play in a 'home' game, but if the bitter boos at the introduction of Toronto's starting eleven was any indication, 'home' was strictly a matter of geography. Toronto's Italian community had little time for a league preoccupied with boobies, barbecues and down-home all-American fun -- they wanted to cheer the real thing.

However, as the Globe and Mail pointed out, from the first whistle Toronto were in complete control. Perhaps the artificial surface, even less appropriate for football than the current FieldTurf used at BMO, gave Toronto an advantage -- they had already been forced to play on it for several years, despite the frustration of players who preferred the grass of Varsity Stadium.

In any case, they dominated play, although for the first half Juventus absorbed most of the pressure. In the second, Toronto played something akin to lively, attacking football, and the Italians were flummoxed when Duncan Davidson caught Juve keeper Luciano Bobini out of position in the 62nd minute and Toronto went up 1-0, where the score would stay. Blizzard coach Bob Houghton remarked that Toronto could have easily gone up 3-0, which isn't something you've heard about Toronto FC lately...

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Toronto FC 1 - Montreal Impact 1 -- The Voyaguers Cup and History in the Making

First, an apology with not getting this out sooner; I have a great final week lined up to cap off A More Splendid Life's series on the history of soccer in Toronto. Today focuses on the historic Canadian Championship final game between Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact, and as readers of this series will know, it was a long time in the making.

It can be said without a hint of hyperbole that last night was probably the most important derby match in Toronto's soccer history. As fans of NHL hockey are already aware, Montreal v. Toronto is a big ticket event, and while last night lacked the bite of the Leafs Habs rivalry, it had all the hallmarks of a classic cup final. Most of impressive of all were the 20 000 passionate, partisan supporters for an all-Canadian club match. Historically, Toronto could only generate these numbers if Juventus, Ajax or Real Madrid topped the bill.

The Voyaguers Cup, now the Canadian Championship, has been awarded since 2002 to the club which finished higher in the USL standings. Prior to TFC, three Canadian professional clubs were in the running: the Toronto Lynx, the Montreal Impact and the Vancouver Whitecaps. The USL never really caught on in Toronto, partly because the team fared so poorly and partly because the USL was viewed as 'bush-league' soccer (a view that was put to bed last night), and when Toronto FC arrived the Lynx quietly relegated themselves to the USL Development league. Now with Toronto FC's popularity, it was decided the trophy should go to the winner of a home-and-away round robin -- hence Montreal was able to advance by drawing Toronto at home.

The Canadian Championship was a complete success. Beyond generating publicity for Canada's other professional clubs, particularly the former USL powerhouse Montreal Impact, it demonstrated to Canadians in general and Torontonians in particular the power of a local soccer derby. Although bitter at last night's loss, there are probably some Toronto FC fans who eagerly anticipate Impact's promotion to the MLS as it will provide Toronto FC's first major Canadian rival.

Followers of this series will now be aware how perilous, how long, and how fraught with financial problems, poor management, and over-ambition the road to last night has been. They will also know Toronto FC's popularity among the cities highly-discerning soccer fans is fragile -- losses like last night's will not be tolerated for much longer. Unless the MLSE takes the club seriously and introduces a grass playing field to rival Montreal's Saputo Stadium, we will not get the players the club's supporters deserve. Stations like Sportsnet and and the Score are providing good coverage of the MLS, but they must not forget that European club matches provide the fuel for TFC's fan interest. We are at too critical a stage in soccer's development in Toronto to make foolish mistakes, yet another reason for the city to start giving a damn about its own rich soccer history, if only to avoid repeating its mistakes.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Footy Transplant: Toronto City's Bizarre Reincarnation in 1967

It's tempting to think the NASL came out of the blue in 1968 as money-men in North America, mesmerized by England's win in '66, finally decided to give that Euro-frippery a try. The reality is decidedly messier, featuring a kind of convivial merger and acquisition in which Toronto's own Steve Stavro, a grocer with an eye for the beautiful game, played an integral role.

You might remember that Stavro was part of a generation of business persons, journalists and entrepreneurs who thought nothing of concocting professional league structures, teams and possible players over dinner-drinks with friends. At first came the ill-fated Eastern Canada Professional Soccer League of which Toronto City was one team. That league went belly-up after 1966, and on the heels of the World Cup, two brand new North American loops were introduced, initially in competition with one another: in 1967, the National Professional Soccer League in 1967, and the United Soccer Association.

The latter wasn't so much a league of North American clubs in the sense that we would understand it now; rather, teams from across Europe and South America basically came over to play over their summer break in Canada and the US disguised only by cheesy, often alliterative local monikers. In this set-up, Toronto City were represented by Hibernian, and the Vancouver Royal Canadians (!) by Sunderland. Perhaps forecasting its future disdain for the homegrown game, the Canadian Soccer Association deemed to give its blessing to the USA rather than the NPSL, which at least featured a Toronto Falcons team with one or two Canadian internationals.

Confused yet? So were soccer fans tired of dealing with two slipshod leagues. Stavro, along with Lamar Hunt and Jack Cooke who had championed the USA, realised quickly that competing with a league right next door didn't make good business sense, and in 1968 the USA and NPSL merged to become the NASL. 1967 was an odd year but it offers us an interesting snapshot of the length some entrepreneurs were willing to go to transport the game man-for-man across the Atlantic. One could also easily imagine howls of indignation we would hear from local fans of Hibs or Sunderland if this set-up was proposed today.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A League of Our Own -- The 'Original' Canadian Soccer League 1987-1992

When Canada qualified for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, many journalists, football administrators, players, coaches, and fans wondered aloud how a country without a competitive domestic professional league could produce players capable of beating the world's best.

Hence, in an effort to give homegrown players a chance to play at home rather than toddle off overseas to ply their wares (I'm looking at you Craig Forrest), in 1987 Canadian soccer fans were introduced to the CSL. The league was formed of teams from across Eastern and Western Canada, including Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver, and thus was Canada's first real attempt at a true 'national' loop. It also offered a reprieve for Toronto's local football-aficionados devastated by the demise of the NASL -- Toronto's club were called 'the Blizzard.

The Globe and Mail reports on the Toronto Blizzard's inaugural
game in the newly-formed Canadian Soccer League, June 7 1987.
Note the North York Rockets coach had to be replaced as his chi-
dren had received death threats.

The idea to have a fully functioning Canadian professional league might seem naive now, but considering the circumstances of its birth, one can pardon its progenitors for their ambition. Canada had qualified for the 1986 World Cup; the USA had not. Interest in soccer among children was fast out-pacing hockey across the country, and when sports channel TSN announced they would pick up a Sunday-night fixture, it seemed only a matter of time before families would take their children to games to give them something to look forward to as a Canadian soccer star, live European fixtures not-yet being available on regular cable TV.

Yet like so many leagues before it, the CSL was beset with financial problems, partly due to low attendance, partly due to overzealous club owners wanting to spend their way to a Canadian league title, partly due to a massive recession that hit shortly after the CSL was formed. In 1992, a mere five years after its inception, the league would go belly-up. (A depressing story on the end of the CSL can be found here. You can take heart in knowing the Vancouver 86ers would later become the USL's Vancouver Whitecaps, the same club that beat the LA Galaxy recently in a friendly.)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

"The Boys Are Hopeful" -- Canada's 1888 Tour of Britain

In September 1888, a team of Canadian internationals (including many of the University of Toronto varsity teams) led by David Forsyth embarked on a tour of Britain, facing the likes of Glasgow Rangers, Sheffield, Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion. It's hard to know what their British hosts expected to witness upon their arrival in Northern Ireland on September 1st, but when the Canadian team crossed over into Scotland to face Rangers on September 8, the Toronto Globe remarked of the 1-1 result, "The Canadians are winning many friends by their quiet, gentlemanly conduct both on and off the field, and in my humble opinion the visit...of this Canadian football team [has] done more to bring Canada prominently before the British public than all the emigration agents in the three kingdoms."

The tour had likely been the brainchild of Forsyth, whom the Globe called the "father of football in Canada." It's not hard to understand why: he was a founding member of the Dominion Football Association (1878) and the Western Football Association (1880), and had been part of the Canadian team that played against the US in Newark in 1885, a game that likely constitutes the first true international outside of Britain. He had promoted the game in the Waterloo region of Ontario, the same area where the 1904 Olympic Gold-winning Galt team originated.

As the Canadians garnered more and more praise for their performances in Scotland, beating Hearts 3-0 shortly after drawing Rangers, word spread and a reported crowd of 10 000 arrived to see Forsyth's team blank Sunderland 3-0. The team then went on to beat Middlesborough 3-2, and Lincoln City 3-1, before drawing 1-1 against Sheffield. Perhaps most pertinent to today's incredible football imbalance, Canada also beat Newton Heath 2-0, the team that would later become Manchester United.

Canada finished the tour with a record of nine wins, nine losses and five draws. After the final game, London Sporting Life reported that the Canadian side's "...success against some of the best Irish, Scottish and English clubs had been greater than most of the followers of the association game at least expected and indeed, considering the formidable opponents they have met over here, they have made themselves a deseverdly high name as all-around exponents of football." 1888 was an unprecedented year for Canadian soccer, and more incredibly the team was full of mostly homegrown University and Ontario club players. We would never see anything like it again.

Colin Jose has dedicated a wonderful chapter to this tour in his book Keeping Score: Canadian Encyclopedia of Soccer, which also provides biographies of each player on the 1888 touring side.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Tours -- Part Two: Scotland v. Canada 1921

When goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski gave the performance of his life against England in 1973, allowing Poland to qualify for the '74 World Cup at England's expense by drawing 1-1, England forward Mick Channon remarked, "that night I would have put the mortgage on any horse [Tomaszewski] had a fancy for." Had somebody done the same thing after Toronto goalkeeper Art Halliwell's once-in-a-lifetime goal-stopping feat against a Scottish representative side in 1921, they likely would have paid off the mortgage and then some: Halliwell would later own 51 horses and retire a millionaire.

In 1921 Scotland was considered a world class footballing nation, and as Colin Jose remarks in Keeping Score: The Canadian Encyclopedia of Soccer, the 1921 Canadian tour was "the first tour to really attract a lot of attention across Canada..." (61). Scotland laid waste to every Canadian side they faced, winning every game and scoring 86 goals while giving up 9. But the final game, ostensibly a full-international between Canada and Scotland played at Alexandra Park in Montreal on July 9, was a much closer affair. While Scotland prevailed 1-0, Toronto Scottish keeper Art Halliwell gave what the Globe called "one of the finest exhibitions of goal-keeping ever seen on a local field."

After the game, Halliwell was carried off the field by his teammates while receiving hearty applause from the Scottish players. So impressed were the Scots that they offered him a job playing between the sticks at Dumfermline Athletic for the 1921-22 season, although Halliwell would only stay one year before returning home. While he would return to goal for the Ontario provincial team against various British touring teams in the 1920s, Toronto's homegrown keeper would never reach the heights of 1921. Halliwell was inducted into the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame in 2001.

A More Splendid Life continues its month-long series on the history of soccer in Toronto. I apologize for the delay in posting -- you'll get another one later this evening. A More Splendid Life has embarked on a tour of its own this week: I've written a piece on Soccerlens that can be viewed here.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

On Home Turf -- Canada, Mexico, and the Glory of Varsity Stadium

This is going to be short and hopefully sweet; A More Splendid Life is only human after all.

This won't probably be marked in the annals of Canadian soccer history, although it certainly will be remembered in Mexico -- on May 9th 1994, Canada lost 2-1 in Toronto's Varsity stadium to put Mexico into World Cup USA. Canada needed only to win to secure their berth from CONCACAF qualification, and failed. Around 9'000 traveling Mexican-American fans, mostly from Illinois (a soccer state if there ever was one) celebrated across the city, while the tiny band of Canadian soccer fans soldiered on.

But that's not why this is important. Varsity stadium was torn down in 2002 and replaced in 2006 with a FIFA-approved two-star 'grass-like fibre' field. For Torontonians like me, the new Varsity pales in comparison with the old 21 000 seat, natural grass wonder, right smack-dab in the middle of downtown Toronto. The local NIMBY's like the Royal Ontario Museum and the University of Toronto were no doubt glad to see the old girl go, always-empty and expensive to maintain.

But it was the closest the city had to a proper soccer stadium, and was the site of my very first live soccer match, a World Cup warm-up between Canada and Holland June 1994 in front of a full stadium of rabid Dutch fans. Holland won 3-0, with Marc Overmars, Dennis Bergkamp, and Frank Rijkaard scoring. I was thirteen years old. My life would never be the same.

Just watch until the fifty second mark. Listen to the roar.

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

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Corso Italia -- Toronto, St. Clair Avenue, and the 1982 World Cup

Like Tardelli's mad run from the German goal mouth in the sixty-ninth minute of the 1982 World Cup final, Toronto's Italian community had burst from the shadows in the most memorable way. As full-time blew on Italy 3, Germany 1, half a million Italian-Canadians poured onto St. Clair Avenue West, also known as Corso Italia, the main artery of Toronto's Italian community. Images of the flag-waving, horn-honking Italian-Canadians were beamed to the world, and Toronto moved leaps and bounds in cementing its multicultural identity.

St. Clair Avenue West, July 11 1982 (photo courtesy of

Census Canada's 2006 report revealed just under 10% of Torontonians identified as Italian in origin, and Italians form the largest non-Northern European ethnic group in Canada. Italy has had a long and distinguished history in Toronto with many first arriving in the city at the turn of the twentieth century, yet Little Italy had long been ignored by the city. Only in the past thirty years has the community received long-overdue recognition as a vibrant, attractive neighbourhood, and the exuberant celebrations in July 1982 went on a long way in helping this to happen.

Ask most Italian-Canadians of their memory of the event and they will have a great story (some more true than others). A couple of years ago, one man told me about how he'd watched the final at the famed Cafe Diplomatico on College and Clinton, the main intersection of Toronto's more southern Little Italy. The game was on a half-hour satellite delay from Spain, but he couldn't wait; he spent two hours on a pay-phone with a cousin watching live in Italy, and was mobbed by others wanting updated information.

Such scenes must have been disheartening to fans and officials involved with Toronto's local leagues -- if there was this much interest in a global final, why were attendances so average at the city's various pro club games? It's for this reason that July 1982 revealed more than just a vibrant Italian Canadian community -- it revealed a central truth about Toronto and the beautiful game: soccer was beloved in the heart of the city, but this heart belonged to Europe.

This is part eleven of A More Splendid Life's history of soccer in Toronto. I would like to thank Tom Dunmore for promoting this series on his excellent site, If you have any comments or questions about this series, please either email them to me or leave them on the blog!

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Barbarian Invasion: Toronto's and NASL's 1984 Swan Song

Like the Visigoths sacking Rome, Toronto’s barricade-breaking fans probably weren’t aware their violence would herald the end of an empire. Following their second game, best-of-three series 3-2 loss to the Chicago Sting on October 3rd, 1984, pitch-invading Toronto Blizzard fans caused so much disruption at Varsity Stadium that the trophy presentation was forced into the Sting's dressing room. Six months later, the North American Soccer League would collapse under the weight of its easy-come, easy-go expansion teams. America's great soccer experiment had finished in the same chaos from which it began.

Toronto probably didn't have all that much to be angry about; the city had already ruined the party back in '76 with its ragtag team of multi-ethnic footballing veterans. Certainly Blizzard chairman Clive Toye did little to calm the situation, accusing the Sting of 'cheating.' He also took the unprecedented step of not going to the other team's dressing room to congratulate them on the win.

Yet it was the second consecutive loss in the NASL final for Toronto, and after more and more teams declared their intention to leave the league in the 1984 season (including the Chicago Sting), Blizzard fans probably knew their chance would never come again. They deserved better; Toronto's attendance attendance record was above the league average, and players credited the 16 482 fans in helping Toronto to come back and tie the game after going two goals down (in vain). One can't help but feel sad reading Blizzard captain Bruce Wilon's remarks after the game:

"We'll be back again next year, that's for sure."

The NASL was borne out of greed, avarice, and ambition. It was also borne out of invention, risk, and the love of the game -- not the same game we watch and play today, yes. But for all of the cheerleaders, the 35 yard lines, the 'Kick in the Grass' t-shirts, the nicknames, the empty stadiums, the artificial surfaces, the blizzards and the Croatians, the NASL did us a favour by promoting the game in Toronto in ways others could not even dream.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Toronto Croatia v. Serbia White Eagles -- Canadian Soccer League 'Action'

A terraced stadium, uniformed police, partisan chants, and an Everton scout. No, this wasn't Millwall at the Den circa 1985, this was Lamport Stadium in Toronto, site of the Canadian Soccer League's (formerly the National Soccer League of which I've written here before) largest local derby -- Serbs v. Croats. Apparently since the CSL introduced their 'international division' two years ago, this transported fifteen year old ethnic conflict has enough bite to warrant pat-downs, private security and about fifteen uniformed Toronto police officers stationed around the perimeter fence. It also provided a surprisingly entertaining match.

Toronto Croatia 'Ultras'

Croats took to the West stands and Serbs populated the East, and both sides exchanged some playful back-and-forth chants (although some of it may have been racially insensitive; my Croatian is a bit rusty). However the match was played in good spirit despite dire warnings about ejections for racist sign-age and tossed flares, all courtesy of Lamport's portly and abrasive MC, who wandered the touch line with the mike stuck half-way in his gullet. His constant reminders about Toronto Croatia's next game on July 'twenty-five' produced the only English-language chant of the evening, a hearty, 'Shut the &%$^ up!' from both stands -- football fans are all united as one it seems when it comes to loudmouthed stadium emcees.

Toronto Croatia, playing a 3-5-2 formation, started brightly, using their short-passing play to hold possession for long periods. It was the Serbs however, playing a straight counterattacking 4-4-2, who missed two golden chances from two corners within the first fifteen minutes. As Croatia pressed, Serbia's defenders for the most part successfully absorbed the pressure, and on the 37th minute their patience paid off as a cross from the right sailed over the lilliputian Croatian keeper and onto the head of the attacking Serb forward - 1-0 White Eagles.

Serbian White Eagle 'Ultras'

The Everton scout looked bored though as Serbia sat back and absorbed an ineffective Croatian attack led by two lanky wide-midfielders who seemed to run out of ideas by the start of the second half. Serbia looked more and more confident on the counter and used the wings to great effect. Eventually the pressure produced a second Serb goal in 71st minute, as Toronto Croatia was caught back with only two defenders who were easily beaten by the Serb striker Radovic as he calmly slotted a low shot passed the Croatian keeper for 2-0, where the score would finish.

The 'Action'

The CSL is Toronto's oldest professional league, and while it is far from its glory days, the play was surprisingly good. It's hard to imagine how the rest of the league is doing when one considers only about 300 people paid to see the CSL's 'biggest local derby,' but the supporters who were there were enthusiastic, and the competitive edge, while mired in ethnic tensions wrought from a war fought fifteen years ago, provided a nice change from the away supporter-less BMO.

This is part nine of A More Splendid Life's history of soccer in Toronto. The Toronto Croatia is the very same club that once co-owned the Toronto Metros, which as I wrote about earlier won NASL's Soccer Bowl in 1976.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Blizzard -- Toronto's Soccer White Wash

So wrote Globe and Mail soccer columnist Allen Abel of Toronto Blizzard's home opener at Exhibition Stadium, Sunday April 8 1979. The game, a 2-1 defeat to the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, was played amid total chaos. A Home Show near the stadium created some massive traffic snafus, and an estimated 3000 fans were stuck in front of the ticket booths trying to get in the stadium after the game had commenced. As if that wasn't enough, the game was almost canceled after a large snowstorm passed over the city and blanketed the stadium in white. It was as if the soccer gods, angered by the whitewashing of Toronto's soccer heritage, had devised an ironic punishment for the team's new overlords.

By January 1979 NASL's Toronto Metro-Croatia's club owners, drowning in a sea of red, sold the club to Global TV for around 2.5 million dollars. No longer beholden to Toronto's Croatian community, or indeed Toronto's long and storied soccer history, Toronto's new owners changed the name to 'Blizzard,' moved the team from the grass-pitched Varsity stadium to the CNE, an artificial-turfed footballing nightmare, and went on a campaign to market the game to a more middle class suburban crowd, much as had been done with other NASL franchises.

While these changes would ultimately bring in more fans to the Blizzard's home games, there was an initial sense that the club wanted to move away from the leagues filled with immigrant supporters that had heavily influenced the game in Toronto since the early 1950s. As Abel went on to write, "the spending a fortune to convince you that this city never has had major-league soccer before and that the Toronto team that won the NASL championship in 1976 actually was based in Fort Erie, or Zagreb."

Colin Jose remarked in his book On-side: 125 Years of Soccer in Ontario that the team fielded in April '79 was largely British in make-up, and while the Blizzard would later reach two NASL finals in '83 and '84, the days of the short passing, continental style of play enjoyed by the Metro-Croatia were at an end. Yet the Blizzard are perhaps the best-known local professional side after Toronto FC (a campaign to name the MLS franchise after the Blizzard failed to overtake the TFC nomination), and represent to many Canadians the public face of the professional game. While the Blizzard's success was integral to the rebirth of the game in Toronto twenty-five years after the club's demise, it's important for nostalgia-seekers to acknowledge the team's multicultural roots.

This is part eight of A More Splendid Life's series on the history of soccer in Toronto. Interesting notes -- recently passed TV commentator Brian Budd scored the Blizzard's only goal for Toronto, and Ray Hudson (!), now dubiously of GolTV, scored the leveler for the Strikers.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Tours -- Part One: Glasgow Rangers v. Toronto Ulster United

For all the dismal attempts at creating a viable domestic league, Toronto still maintained an avid interest in European league football, or "Old Country Soccer' as it was often referred, from as early as the 1880s. English and Scottish league tables were regularly printed in the Monday edition of the Globe and Mail newspaper, and the FA and Scottish Cup runs were followed in Toronto with great interest.

With all the hullabaloo over Richard Scudamore's thirty-ninth game proposal, it's interesting to note that international football tours, which continued on a regular basis in Canada beginning from 1911 and continuing without break until the present day, often produced packed houses across the country, and none more so than in Toronto.

As I've written here before, Toronto had an active (and largely protestant) Scottish football-following community in the 20s and 30s, and Toronto Scottish and Toronto Ulster United were two of the most successful teams of that era, running riot in the National Soccer League right up until World War II. It made sense therefore for then Scottish champions Glasgow Rangers to face off against local protestant outfit Toronto Ulster on May 21 1930 as part of their North American tour, which consisted of eight games in Canada and six in the United States.

Rare footage of this event is available to view above. Ulster gave them a good fight, losing admirably to Rangers 4-3 in front of a packed house of between 8000 and 10000 spectators. The Globe and Mail called it simply "one of the most exciting soccer matches ever witnessed in Toronto." While domestic teams much more often than not went down to defeat to their European visitors over the years, players in Toronto's local leagues must have at least been heartened to know the game could pack houses, as European tours did on a regular basis. Tours formed an integral part in the development of the game in Toronto, a city that would pay top dollar to watch the best the world had to offer.

This is part seven of A More Splendid Life's month-long series on the History of Soccer in Toronto. As promised, I will be providing the first of several match reviews this weekend when I see the Serbian White Eagles square off against Toronto Croatia in the Canadian Soccer League, formerly the National Soccer League. Balkantastic!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

When Canada Won the World Cup

Now, dear reader, you will of course read on and understand the many caveats that must be applied to this ridiculous headline. We'll get to those in time, but for now, please savour the reality that Canada, in a particular but practical sense, won international football's premier trophy way back in 1904.

Galt FC circa 1904

While this history series is focused primarily on Toronto, please permit me to leave city limits to visit the town of Galt, part of what is now Cambridge Ontario, about an hour and a half outside Toronto. At the turn of the century, Galt was the football capital of the young country; as Frank Cosentino and Glynn Leyshon wrote in their book, Olympic Gold, Galt was "...the Manchester of Canada." Their local side, Galt FC, had completely dominated domestic competition for almost twenty-five years prior to the Olympic Games, racking up 40 titles at home and touring to great success both in Western Canada and in the United States. Naturally, the team would be Canada's representative at the football event of the 1904 Olympic Games.

It should be known that the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis was poorly run and largely overshadowed by the World's Fair taking place alongside it. It also featured a paltry number of participating nations and some of the events were seen more as 'demonstrations' rather than competitions. Yet it was still regarded at the time as the world's premier sporting competition, and as most football scholars will tell you, the Olympic Games was the de-facto World Cup before FIFA decided to enact a separate competition in 1930 (ignore that stretching-sound).

Poster for the 1904 Olympic Games

Galt would face two American teams, the Christian Brothers College and St. Rose, defeating both 7-0 and 4-0 respectively to win the competition. While some historians would have classed this event in the 'demo' category, in later years the International Olympic Committee decided to retroactively award medals to the participants, meaning Canada was awarded gold in the event, one of four it picked up from the Games.

However, with or without medals, Galt's success at the third Olympiad was viewed as a glorious triumph by the 2500 townspeople that greeted the team at the train station. As Colin Jose details,

"To the strains of 'Hail the Conquering Hero's Come!" the team emerged from the train at Galt, led by Captain John Gourlay, for a torch lit procession to the Opera House and a rousing programme of congratulations and presentations. Following the Mayor's recounting of incidents during the trip came a financial reckoning: expenses of the venture totaled something over $400, perhaps making the Galt team the all-time lowest cost Olympic winner."

Canada's dismal record in the intervening years since the triumph in 1904, both in the Olympic Games and in the World Cup, has been by and large very disappointing, but we will always have those grand gentleman of friendly Galt, whose victory helped for a time match soccer's popularity with hockey in this country, and helped stake Canada's claim on the beautiful game.

This is Part Six of A More Splendid Life's series on the history of football in Toronto (sort of). I would like to again thank Colin Jose for his extensive research, as well as The Run of Play for helping to promote this project. And last I would like to thank you, the reader, for your continued support.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

When Toronto Pulled in the Stars

With torrents of cash flying back-and-forth through the now completely shattered and bent-framed European transfer window, it's nice to remember a time when print journalists could secure the services of knighted football players for travel, room and board, and about $125 a week.

In Toronto in 1961, soccer was the sport of immigrants. Teams like the Toronto Italia, the Polish White Eagles and the Toronto Hakoah duked it out in the National Soccer League, Eastern Canada's creaky but relatively stable answer to professional football. However the league did not attract the sort of crowds some club owners would have liked, especially considering the countless immigrants arriving into the city everyday, and received zero television coverage.

George Gross Pictured c. 2000

Some influential soccer-figures, Toronto Telegram journalist George Gross and Toronto Italia president Peter Bosa to be exact, had an idea why soccer in Toronto was floundering: newcomers had grown up with European football, and getting them to pay for a second-rate local derby with less-than-quality players was an impossible task. Hence, they came up with the idea of creating a smaller but better-organized league with better players.

Bose and Gross used their influence to convince some powerful friends in and around Toronto, Hamilton and Montreal to help put together a new soccer collective, and the not-so-catchy-titled Eastern Canada Professional Soccer League was born. The idea was to have a four-team league, with two teams in Toronto and one in Hamilton and Montreal; out of this arrangement came the Hamilton Steelers and the Montreal's Canitalia, in addition to the Toronto Italia. The fourth team would be the newly-formed Toronto City Soccer Club.

The fifties and sixties marked the era in Toronto when seasoned businessmen, young entrepreneurs and members of the media would think nothing of kick starting a completely unproven venture together at great personal risk (young city-dwellers take note!), and of the four clubs of the ECPSL, the team that benefited the most from this heady mix was Toronto City. George Gross and fellow journo Ed Fitken were charged with going to England muster up some talent for City's inaugural Spring-to-Fall season. They came back with the commitment of Danny Blanchflower and Sir Stanley Matthews, among other players like Johnny Haynes and Tommy Younger, to play there for one summer in 1961.

Stanley Matthews Autograph Card from the Eaton Centre, Toronto 1961

Canadian soccer historian Colin Jose, whose unfailing research made this series possible, pointed out to me via email that due to various club obligations and availability, these players may have only featured with City together in seven out of twenty-four games. However, the importance of footballers with Blanchflower's and Matthew's stature playing for a local professional side in Toronto cannot be underestimated, and for a brief period in first 1961 season, club football seemed to be on the ascendancy. When Toronto City faced Toronto Italia, the derby match of the ECPSL, 16 509 fans watched at Varsity Stadium to see City go down 3-2.

However the numbers were never quite the same after that and attendances would break the 10 000 mark only three times in the league's history. After some shifts and team adjustments, the ECPSL folded completely after the end the 1966 season (interestingly, the Toronto City, having dropped out the league the year before, were represented by Scottish League One side Hibernian in yet another local league, the United Soccer Association). However, the ECPSL was a shaky first step in cementing Toronto's image as an attractive destination for quality football, and Toronto City remains a symbol for a bygone era when print journalists could form football teams in cahoots with wealthy entrepreneurs while everyone else looked on and said, "business as usual."

This is Part Five of A More Splendid Life's History of Soccer in Toronto, and is dedicated to the memory of George Gross who passed away this past March.

Late Edit: For anyone who's interested in media issues, I've written a piece that you can look at at, or you can ignore and look at everything else there because it is an awesome site.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

How to Win a League with No Money or Popular Support -- Toronto Metro-Croatia's 1976 Soccer Bowl Win

It is one of the joys of world football that six-hundred Croatian-Canadians could find a reason to drunkenly sing the praises of a Mozambique-born Portuguese superstar in a cultural centre on an industrial street in Toronto.

Eusebio, high on champagne and the recent memory of a massive footballing heist, had only two days earlier scored the first of three Toronto goals to upset the Minnesota Kicks, favourites to win the NASL Soccer Bowl in All-American fashion, in Seattle on August 28 1976.

Toronto Metro-Croatia 1976 (Eusebio Pictured 2nd row, 2nd from left).
Photo Credit: C.N.S.C. Toronto Croatia

That the thirty-two year old 'Black Panther' as he was known was even playing in Toronto was a minor miracle. The team was an absolute mess; three days into the '76 season, Toronto came within a hair's breadth of closing shop completely due to lack of funds. The Metro-Croatia could not even afford their own medical staff and had to invoke the good graces of the Seattle Sounders' club doctor to save six injured team members for the final.

The NASL for their part did not take well to Toronto's presence in the final game, citing lower than expected ticket sales due to the almost completely unknown and unfashionably hyphenated Metro-Croatia, the name the result of a 50% team-saving buyout by the local Toronto Croatia National Soccer League club in 1975. The NASL for their part hated Toronto's moniker, which clashed with the league's cutesy-pie franchise titles like 'Rowdies', 'Timbers' and 'Lancers.' Yet the hyphen stood as a symbol for Toronto's and Canada's growing multicultural identity, and reflected the ethos of the team. As midfielder Carmine Marcantonio said of the impromptu Croatian celebration on the squad's return home, "I don't feel any more Croatian for it for it though, I feel Canadian. That's who we represent."

This was a case of tossed-salad versus melting pot. While Minnesota sported a young, all-American collegiate team, Toronto was a hodge-podge of Yugoslavian, Polish, Italian, German, Hungarian, Portuguese, Brazilian, and Canadian players. They were largely unknown at home save for Toronto's large and active Croatian community and a few pockets of local interest. Yet their win was the first major North American title for the city since the Leafs won the Stanley Cup in 1967, and would stand until the Toronto Blue Jays' World Series win in 1992. And even though the NASL would go belly-up altogether in 1984, one cannot underestimate the importance of the win for the future of football in Toronto.

This is Part Four of A More Splendid Life's Brief Snippets of the History of Football in Toronto. And because researching this has been so much fun, please send in requests for a particular time period, story or era, and I will do my best to look into it.

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.