Top of the FIFA World Cup (WC) qualification table, unbeaten in 8 matches, only 5 goals conceded and wins against the 9th and 13th ranked teams of the world. Sounds like a record you expect from a European powerhouse, not 40th ranked ‘minnows’ Canada. But that is exactly what has happened, and it has not surprised anyone, with good reason. Canadian soccer has been taking the world by storm for a few years now, and names like Alphonso Davies and Christine Sinclaire have become famous in the global soccer community. While the women’s team has always been a huge source of national pride for us, the men’s team has grown into a force to be reckoned with as well. How did this change come about? And what does that mean for the future of soccer in Canada? Let’s start at the very bottom.
It would not be wrong to say that Canadian soccer was dying a slow death ever since the golden generation of 1986 played at the FIFA WC in Mexico. After the dissolution of the Canadian Soccer League, there was a period in time when we had to rely on the US Pro Leagues to create professional opportunities for our players. That was about to change following the unexpected CONCACAF Gold Cup victory in 2000: in 2002, the Canadian Soccer Association decided to address this gap and created a Grassroots Standards for growing the game. However, even this path was filled with hurdles and it wasn’t until 2006 that this idea was implemented seriously on a national level to Long Term Player Development. This process has involved significant work but has finally started to fundamentally change the way Canadians see soccer and play it, particularly at youth level.
Between 2014 and 2016, soccer overtook hockey as the largest sport in the country by youth player participation. With nearly three quarters of a million registered players, soccer was the top team sport in the country in 2014, only outdone by swimming overall. Soccer was the top team sport for kids aged 3-6, tweens 7-12 and teens 13-17, as well as for both boys and girls. Nearly all regions equally contributed to this growth: the Atlantics with their strong ties to European culture, the four big provinces with their large immigrant base and, surprisingly, even the Prairies took an active interest in soccer participation.
A positive perception around soccer’s ‘image’ has proven to be quite helpful. Studies by the Canadian Youth Sports Report found that most parents think of soccer as cheap, skillful and tactical as opposed to the other major North American sports, which are seen as being expensive, brutal and dangerous; that due to the physical nature of those sports, it is “easy to be injured participating.”
This resurgence of soccer interest in the country has partly been a result of the emergence of an extremely talented squad of players, led by an equally talented coach in John Herdman, an Englishman who learned his trade at the academy of the famous English club, Sunderland. Two players who need no introduction to the soccer faithful worldwide are Alphonso “Phonzie” Davies and Jonathan David. Davies, at the young age of 22, is already considered the best full back in the world, an unbelievable achievement for a Canadian in soccer. In 2020, he played a significant role in making FC Bayern Munich become only the second club in history to have won the sextuple (league title, league cup, domestic cup, club world cup, continental cup and continental supercup). Having already won nearly all there is to win at a club level, Davies has clearly stated his desire to take Canada directly to the upcoming FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022TM. David, while lesser known of the duo, still led the goalscoring charts in the French Ligue 1 last season with Lille as they won the league title themselves. In them, Canada has two world class players who can win a match on their own.
These two talismanic figures are supported by veteran Red Star Belgrade goalkeeper Milan Borjan and 38-year old skipper Atiba Hutchinson who together provide the leadership and experience to this very young team. Alongside Hutchinson in midfield, there is another bright prospect in Stephen Eustaquio, who plays his club football with Portuguese Primeira Liga outfit Pacos Ferreira. In attack, David has shared time with Besiktas striker Cyle Larin, who is proving a sensation in qualifying. Shoring up the defense, we have MLS superstars in the likes of Richie Laryea (Toronto FC), Alistair Johnson (CF Montreal) as well as goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau (Vancouver Whitecaps).
While the average age of the team itself does not cross 25 years, there are fantastic backup options in place with the likes of Toronto’s homegrown Tajon Buchanan, playing in Club Brugge and Theo Corbeanu, a loanee from Wolverhampton Wanderers. This allowed Herdman to create what he describes as the “hockey approach” to team building. Outside of the core players of David and Davies, the Les Rouges constantly change their lineup based on form and tactics, often during the same round. This allowed the team to excel against the more traditional rigid formations other teams deployed and added a very unique Canadian style to the team.
Coincidentally, this national team also reflects the diversity of Canada’s diaspora in a way previous generations couldn’t. Whether you’re a Ghanaian immigrant, or a 3rd generation Italian from Toronto, you have someone like Phonzie or Cavallini to look up to. And the more these young players gain fame and exposure on the global stage, the more soccer gets picked up locally. Therefore, it was no surprise that soccer interest skyrocketed as Canada moved up from rank 97 to 40, becoming the most improved nation in a calendar year.
Another reason that makes soccer such a hit among the young generation is the rise of globalism and national shift in mentality away from US-Canada isolationism. Soccer is the world’s sport and soccer institutions are globally famous, dominating followership. This desire to fit in created the cross cultural dialogue that made basketball a global sport and it is starting to turn Canadians towards soccer as well. While the best Canadian players are already plying their trade in Europe’s heavyweight leagues, the domestic circuit has undergone a massive shift with the introduction of the Canadian Premier League to create a breeding ground for future young talents and give Canadians a team to call their own at home. In true Canadian fashion, it keeps certain Americanisms in the sport such as playoffs, drafts and trades, but discards the US franchise model for a traditional British club model with a promised promotion/relegation system, making it an instant hit among the locals while also garnering curiosity on the international stage.
The biggest unitary factor of soccer these days is the low cost and widespread accessibility of the game, particularly viewings of Canadian soccer teams, on all platforms, whether in person or online. Every major city in Canada now boasts (or is in the process of boasting) at least one Tier 1 soccer team in the CPL or MLS, a fact you cannot say for hockey and certainly not for basketball. Moreover, ticket prices are far more affordable than any other sport. Even foreign leagues like the English Premiership, Championship or European continental competitions cost less to stream here than what viewers pay for in the UK.
While basketball brought a battering ram to door on hockey’s monopoly with the Raptors’ rapid emergence and championship win in 2019, soccer has been slowly creeping up on its more popular rivals for a while with steady organic growth. Soccer now ranks #2 and #3 in Montreal and Vancouver respectively while every team on Canada’s Tier 1 has shown follower increases in the thousands.
This growth culminated in about 50,000 fans flooding into Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium, which had been blanketed by around 20 centimeters of snow the day before, to see Canada beat Mexico and end their twenty-one year winless streak. And that wasn’t all. Another estimated 1.15 million people tuned into Sportsnet’s broadcast of the Canada vs. Mexico game.
To put that number into perspective, it’s about the average number of people who watch CTV news every night, and more than the average viewership of Hockey Night in Canada. Needless to say, it broke all Canadian soccer viewership records. This is no measly feat for a sport that has been constantly ridiculed for being ‘boring’. Not to mention the unreported popularity among young Canadians as seen by iconic moments of the match being shared all over TikTok, Instagram, and Twitch.
A younger demographic is being drawn towards soccer thanks to its financial benefits, an insurgence of new talent, recent success and a generally supportive environment that surrounds the beautiful game. Soccer is growing in Canada in a truly distinct Canadian way, and while the nation hasn’t competed in the World Cup finals since 1986, a decade of practically uncontested growth is about to change that. Now, does any of that guarantee long term success for soccer in Canada? Will soccer turn into a cultural force in the country and matchdays become a day of festivity like in Europe? Or will it just be a flash in the pan? Let me know if you are a licensed prophet. But there’s one thing we know for certain: Canadians love cheering for Canadians. The whole country united with the Raptors against the US in 2019 and again with the women’s team at the Olympics in 2021. If the men’s team can match their performance this time and make it to the biggest sports tournament on Earth, you can bet on us getting together once again to take on the world.