Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Football and Canadian Nationalism

There's been an interesting exchange on the Canadian soccer front, with Jason de Vos and Paul James both writing articles about Canadian players who have chosen to play for other national teams, and Duane Rollins responding in kind.

While this might get me into all sorts of trouble, my own view is that while I am sympathetic to those who are angry at players like Begovic and Lensky for switching national allegiances at this late stage, and for misleading Canada fans over their intended decision, I have trouble accepting that they should play for Canada "no matter what," as in "no matter if the CSA actively supports both them and the national program in a meaningful way or not."

While Rollins admirably calls for restraint and recognition that nothing is cut-and-dried with the national squad, I found this line troublesome: "Canada is worth supporting -- on the pitch and in the stands. And it always will be, regardless of whether it ever wins another game." Really? If players are sent out to play with no support from their governing soccer body, no respect for their development as individual players, no real recognition for their efforts, and given no support to help them win or progress, they should play for that country no matter what? And we as fans should go out and support this team no matter what?

This is, as many ex-pat Brazilians playing for overseas countries will tell you, soccer, a game. I don't think it's appropriate to question a player's patriotism and love of Canada because they choose to play for another country's soccer team, just as I don't think it's appropriate to describe Canadian fans of other countries playing against Canada as "unpatriotic". Are fans who boo their national team after a terrible performance unpatriotic? Is Eduardo Alves da Silva, born and raised in Rio with much of his family still there, an unpatriotic Brazilian because he plays for Croatia? Did Gabriel Agbonlahor completely toss out his Nigerian heritage because he chose to play for England?

As passionate as we are for our own national squad, we're not talking about our armed forces here, and publicly questioning the national pride of these players because they don't want to play soccer for a national federation that doesn't show much care for their development as players, and who also share cultural and familial allegiances with other nations as many Canadians do, strikes me as irresponsible. You can choose not to like them as players because they left your national team in the lurch, but don't question their patriotism. Calling for talented soccer players to sacrifice their own aspirations as players no matter what "for the colours" borders on tabloid-style brow beating.

This sort of thing is going to keep happening, so either we can write anguished prose about only wanting players who "play for pride and the colours" (meanwhile exorting the CSA to go out and get good foreign managerial talent, and rightfully praising Trinidadian national coach Stephen Hart), or we can work toward changing the national infrastructure to better serve the needs of Canada's best soccer-playing talent, and maybe see a few more fans in the stands than the ones who will watch Canada no matter if they ever win a soccer game again. It is, after all, a game: last I checked I had to pay to watch internationals too.

As this is Remembrance Day, a link to a piece I did awhile ago on the terrible toll WWI had on young Canadian soccer players, who kicked a football across the fields of Vimy. It should be remembered these proud Canadians fought under the Red Ensign, a flag featuring symbols from the four provinces, Scotch, French, English, defacing (in the flag sense) the Union Jack. Also to be remembered are the Newfoundlanders who died fighting at Beaumont-Hamel, 1916, a full thirty-three years before these future proud Canadians joined Canada in 1949.


squizz said...

Good piece as usual, Richard. But as someone who's been called out on his supposed "rampant jingoism" in the past, let me offer a quick retort.

You are, of course, correct in saying that neither players nor supporters should accept a national federation unwilling to properly support them.

But it's the introduction of the idea of personal aspirations that irks many people. If players are suiting up for national sides based strictly on their individual desire to reach the World Cup, then what's the point of having restrictions on what nation players can represent? Hell, why have national teams at all?

If we're going to accept -- and I believe we all do -- that playing for artificial constructs such as "nations" in what is, admittedly, a game of kicky-ball is something important, then I think fans are in the right to question the motives of players who spurn their country of birth or predominant residence to play somewhere else.

If, on the other hand, we choose to step back and remind ourselves that it's a tad irrational to get hot and bothered about the athletic pursuits of strangers who happen to wear the flag of the country we happen to have been born in and/or live in, then we remove all the passion and excitement from the game.

And that's not something I'm personally willing to do.

Richard Whittall said...

Hey Squizz, thoughtful comments as usual.

I agree that if we continue to remove impediments to moving between national outfits to the point where national team selection knows no national borders, international football is dead as the dodo.

However, I think there's a third way in maintaining interest in international football while preventing players with the option to play for another country from being shamed into choosing one and not the other.

Pride in the national team has to go beyond showing up flag in hand, whether you're a player or a fan. Pride in the national team should be reflected in our national set-up, which at the moment doesn't do enough to support homegrown talent, whether that talent plays for a provincial or academy team, in the CIS or the NCAA.

That pride has to be reflected at the highest organizational levels, and right now, with the "my kid is my kid and that's that" approach taken by the provincial and national soccer organizers, with Deloitte and Touche recommendations floating around like internet deadwood while the same stays the same, it's just not there. The players know it, and so do many Canadian soccer fans who might be otherwise more interested in what their country is doing.

It's unrealistic to expect players of the highest professional talent to want to stay when that professionalism is lacking in the CSA. Calling them out on pride seems to me like nothing more than calling them names on their way out the door.

Elliott said...

The entire concept of pride and nationalism has been called into question by our ever more rapidly globalizing society. If a player feels the tug of two different countries, how should he decide? I think Richard has a good point about merit - Giusseppi Rossi could have strolled in as a starter for the US, but felt strongly about his parents' homeland in Italy.

As an American, I would have liked to see him in the red & blue - but this is an individual choice which the individual player must make.

-D. (gorn) said...

OTOH, how is the National Team to get more support (funding, sponsors, fans) if some of it's best players leave for (dubiously, ask Johnny de Guzman) greener pastures at first opportunity?

I think Canadians have every right to be upset when players like Hargreaves *are* developed here in Canada, and then choose to abandon them. How *should* the CSA react when it's successful products say "Thanks for the memories, but yer just not good looking enough anymore"?

You seem to have decide which is the chicken & which is the egg. I'm not so sure.

It's also easy to say "Well the system sucks, so why should they care?" but when has that attitude ever solved a problem? A modicum of loyalty is not too much to ask. If there are issues, they should be aired, not left for players not good enough to be wooed elsewhere....