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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Toronto Uncapped?

Most local football supporters will remember Canada’s senior squad debut at The National Soccer Stadium (aka BMO Field) for a couple of reasons. The warm September night featured a solid game against CONCACAF rivals Costa Rica capped off by a cracking equalizer by Scarborough’s own Dwayne De Rosario. The other newsworthy item that night was the noticeable protest by a good number of Canada supporters, voicing (or wearing) their displeasure with the Canadian Soccer Association. The vocal, black-shirted crew showed the CSA how tired they were with the sorry state of football in Canada and even gained admiration from some of the Canadian players on the squad. Overall, it was a notable debut in Toronto’s new stadium despite the fact that the stands were half-full at best.

Despite the decent game and a rare show of protest by Canadian sporting fans, it was in the following days when a disturbing spin began to emerge from the CSA. Not surprisingly, the association did not recognize the protests in the stands nor did they choose to highlight the play on the pitch. Instead, the words that were slowly leaked through the media referred to the CSA’s disappointment at the lackluster attendance at BMO Field. No doubt buoyed by the success of that summer’s U-20 World Cup and enchanted by Toronto FC’s constant sellouts, a bigger crowd was obviously expected by the CSA. However, there are major differences between the matches played at the World Cup or TFC home games and that of the September friendly. The obvious distinction is the fact that the Cup and MLS matches had meaning to them. The results were important, the rivalries full of competition and fire. A friendly is still a friendly no matter how good the match is. Add to the equation that Canada’s first match at its new home was against CONCACAF also-ran Costa Rica did not help. After a summer of international stars, fans could be forgiven for being less that excited to see a team Canada sees in most Gold Cups. No offence meant towards Costa Rica, Canada wishes it had recent the World Cup appearances they have, but a more glamourous fixture surely would have excited the locals a little more. Most importantly, a bigger side could have justified the truly expensive price of some of the tickets. Did the CSA truly believe fans would pay up to $100 for this friendly, no matter how good the seats?

It is in fact the CSA’s views towards Toronto that become truly confusing and thus – worrying. If such “disappointment” at the Toronto supporters was expressed after an overpriced and lackluster friendly that was barely promoted in the media, how will it affect the city’s standing as home of the National squad? Will these inevitable “failures” be used to justify moving future fixtures to other sites around Canada? In most facets of Canadian society, hating Toronto is a favourite hobby for those who don’t live here. There is little doubt that within the CSA, with its powerful provincial fiefdoms, that this attitude surely exists in some circles. Admittedly Toronto has not been a perfect place home for the National team in the past but will these minor negatives be spun to excuse the CSA for moving the side to other stadiums? The federations in places like BC, Alberta and Quebec will likely want their share of the upcoming World Cup qualifiers and will highlight Toronto’s shortcomings. Toronto supporters may soon be hearing grumbling about the state of BMO’s field turf; the tendency for away teams to get a lot of support from ex-pat communities; past attendance woes and any number of Toronto based negatives. If these kind of problems start to be highlighted, then fans can be sure further excuses are on the way.

If and when this scenario develops, Canadian supporters in Toronto will be left scratching their heads. How, after initial investment and excitement in BMO Field could Toronto lose its status as the main home for Team Canada? As with most problems with the CSA, the answer will lay with the eternal infighting between the individual provincial federations. This is a problem far too big to be investigated here but is at the root of most of the association’s lack of success. The truth is, BMO Field is by far the best football facility in Canada and deserves to be the main base of operations for the senior men’s squad. Montreal’s new Saputo Stadium (or Stade Saputo, or Parc Prosciutto – whatever) will be a good minor league venue until it further expands but is not in the same league as BMO yet. Canada’s other stadia such as Edmonton and Burnaby are simply not good enough for our senior team.

In the end, there is no reason why Toronto cannot be the successful home of the team. However, for this to work, the CSA must play smart and fair with the local supporters. The so-called problems are minor, easily addressed and can be fixed. The turf is FIFA approved and was good enough for the U-20 World Cup. Grass would be good but the turf is fine. The away fan issue can be handled by using the approach the rest of the world does. Put all away supporters in one area and let them yell and scream and wave flags all they want, it would spur the Canadian supporters to out-do them. Finally, the biggest complaint has been attendance. Price the matches fairly. Supporters will pay good money to face late qualifiers versus the likes of Mexico and the USA etc. but don’t expect them to pay $100 and up to see St.Vincent and the Grenadines in the preliminary round then whine when no one is crazy enough to pay that amount. Toronto is the correct home for the team. Whether the rest of the country likes it or not, it is the media center of the country and an easier destination for European based players than Alberta or BC. The city has a metropolitan area with about 5 million people, a football specific stadium and a professional club with a strong fan base to draw from. If Toronto is ignored by the CSA in the upcoming World Cup qualifiers and beyond, then one has to assume the decision has less to do with the city and more to do with the internal politics of our national association. But really, would that surprise any Canadian football supporter?