The Canadian soccer writing landscape has exploded over the last few years. It almost feels redundant to write this, but the number of Canadian soccer sources now available on the web is truly remarkable.
I don’t want to get in a long-winded breakdown of the “history” of online soccer coverage in Canada, but suffice it to say, before the internet there were one or two newspaper reporters who owned the soccer beat, and even then, coverage was sparse. Outside of a few specialty magazines, that was about it.
Then came the birth of Toronto FC in 2007, and with it a slew of Canadian amateur blogs. A handful wanted to take soccer writing in a personalized, Bill Simmons-esque direction. Others wanted to use blogging as a way to jump the not-always-merit-based print journalism queue. The result was a few sites with plenty of first person, primary source reporting which evolved into blogs like Canadian Soccer News and RedNation.
In the early days however, there was a lot of distrust between bloggers and mainstream soccer reporters. First, football bloggers weren’t journalists, at least at the start. They were opinion generators, working off the primary source work of their equivalents in the journalism world. But the quality on offer from some the amateur’ soccer bloggers called into question the credentials of full-time newspaper sports journalists, some of whom had, quite frankly, been phoning in an inadequate product for years. It turns out access to a locker-room does not always make a great journalist. The result: some journalists dismissed bloggers as pajama-clad poseurs, and some bloggers dismissed journalists as careerist hacks.
Now, the soccer blogging landscape has evolved to the point where it’s not unrealistic for a talented, hard-working soccer writer, regardless of who they know or if they went to journalism school, to get a wide audience, popularity, and with it (if they’re really lucky) some money, too. Sometimes the breadth of that soccer audience comes as a surprise and breeds panic; bloggers feel they must tame their criticisms, either of influential sources or fellow colleagues, in order to get ahead of an increasingly crowded field.
The risk of course is that the things that made these “outside” voices popular in the first place—freedom to express their opinions about soccer, including publicly disagreeing with more established football journalists—will disappear.
In a perfect world, football writers should be able to disagree with more established writers without the need to protect their careers, so long as they don’t resort to ad hominem attacks. However in the incestuously small Canadian soccer scene, the reality is a lot of bloggers don’t want to rock the boat, so they either diplomatically skirt direct criticism of their colleagues with “they’re a great writer, but,” or don’t bother voicing their honest opinion at all. Fear of career repercussions for up-and-coming soccer writers isn’t completely crazy either; I know of at least one who’s lost work for being a bit too outspoken at more than one publication.
That said, I think it’s far more insidious for a soccer writer to worry about their career rather than write what they think, even if it what they think isn’t popular, or directly criticizes a contemporary who might be able to give them a job one day.
I’ve been called “stupid” by people I’ve later had drinks with in the past, and vice versa. If you’re going to write about a sport people care about so passionately, you’re going to come across people who don’t like what you have to say, or how you say it. This is not the end of the world.
I think it’s fair to disagree with one another and do so emphatically; if we’re scared if hurting our careers by keeping our opinions to ourselves, we do our readers a grave disservice. Moreover, we’re doing Canadian soccer a disservice. Antithesis is the path to synthesis when it’s both constructive and honest. Granted, that's a hard balance to find, and I've not been able to find it in the past, particularly on my Twitter feed. But if we’re going to take on the challenges our sport faces seriously, we need to be able to give our honest opinion, to call bullshit when we see it, to recognize that having a name does not make you immune to fair criticism, and that lively, contentious debate about football in this country will do more for the cause than softball interviews and posts that are diplomatic to a fault.