Why screaming children are the future of Canadian soccer

Last night’s Canada/USA women’s match was… interesting. The match itself left a lot to be desired on the Canadian front, as the only Canuck girls who seemed to be doing anything of use were midfielder Kelly Parker and striker Jodi-Ann Robinson. The team was clearly playing a lot less hoof-and-chase than they did under Pellerud, but it became obvious pretty quickly that the Americans had much more experience and proficiency in playing a possession game, and the Canadians were out of their element. While we looked to be gaining some strength towards the end of the first half, after conceding a goal in the first two minutes, the USA’s second goal, at the end of the first half, really took the wind out of our sails.

OK, that’s enough of my shoddy attempts at analysis, now onto the colour: crap on “family” crowds all you want if it makes you feel like a better footie fan, but here’s the truth — last night’s crowd of screaming, shrieking kids and teenagers seemed a hell of a lot more committed to the match than most other BMO Field crowds I’ve seen.

Yes, as expected, out of the crowd of about 9,000 (my estimate, didn’t hear the announced attendance), about 8,000 seats were occupied by young soccer players and their families. I assume a lot of this had to do with the customary superhuman efforts of Dino Rossi to distribute tickets far and wide (which also included reaching out to the Voyageurs, Red Patch Boys and U-Sector in an attempt to build a TFC-style supporters section).

While my tickets were in the first row of section 113, most of the red scarf-clad, yelling-and-screaming lot (including myself, Jamie, Emma, Rollins, Sam and a number of other Vs) congregated into a makeshift supporter section at the top of 112. At first, our chanting and yelling of some TFC and Canada standbys (all G-rated, I swear) was mostly to amuse ourselves. But then, something funny happened. We started linking up with the sections around us.

The teams of 11-year-old girls (who many footie fans would deride as scourges of the stadium) began following us, and seemed genuinely enthused to roll right along with “Come on you reds”, “When the reds go marching in”, and so on. And y’know what? We even linked up with their high-pitched “Let’s go Canada, let’s go!” a few times (I swear Ben, it did happen).

These girls had that wonderful, shameless excitement that kids have (and which people our age usually need to consume alcohol in order to replicate)… and it was directed at a soccer game. These girls weren’t chanting to gain hipster cache with their buddies, or to have material for ironic videos they could toss on their facebook sites. They were cheering, chanting and screaming because they cared, and because they were having fun.

I don’t think I can say the same for many of the tourists who clog up all areas of BMO Field on matchdays… the folks who roll into their seats in the 12th minute, head to the concourse at the 40th, come back at the 55th and leave in the 80th, regardless of the score. The traffic-beaters whose interest is merely to tell their pals around three-dollar bottles of Labatt 50 at some Now Magazine-endorsed gastropub that they spent the afternoon “watching the FC”. But these little girls? They were cheering and singing all the way to full time, despite the 4-0 scoreline. As soon as the final whistle blew, they streamed down to the front rows with all the urgency of Corinthians fans charging towards the pitch following a goal… all for the chance to wave and smile at their on-field heroes.

These girls are the future of Canadian soccer. Not the nimrods who drop $150 on TFC merchandise but then spend the entire game in the north-end beer garden, absent-mindedly chatting about the economy.

There is, however, a difference between these “family” crowds and the family crowds that many fans think should be banned from the stadium. These families weren’t there to jump on bouncy castles, or meet the team mascot, or to use soccer as just another generic way to kill the afternoon, with no thought given to the game itself. They were actually there to watch the game. Maybe they can’t necessarily discuss the sport with the same level of sophistication that those of us huddled in the south end. But they live the game. They get it. They care.

There’s not just families, they’re soccer families. And there’s a very big difference. For soccer to truly grow in this country, these are the people who must be exposed to the game at its highest levels, beer-guzzling dilettantes be damned.

Sure, having kids in the crowd means that the hardcores probably can’t swear at the top of their lungs, get fall-down drunk or hurl objects at the field. But hey, I was throwing back the $9.75 Carlsbergs at a decent clip last night, and still managed to keep my natural profanity under control, as did everyone around me. While a soccer match is a good excuse to get plastered and blow off some steam, that’s not all that it’s about. It’s about enjoying the beautiful game for what it is. And these kids are able to do that, without beer.

Go ahead, tell me I’m wrong. Tell me that having kids in the stadium ruins the atmosphere. Tell me that the supporters groups can’t fully “do their thing” in the presence of kids. Don’t get me wrong — the TFC supporters groups are the single biggest reason for the ongoing buzz surrounding the team, and their dedication is admirable. But aside from those 3,000 ladies and gents, it’s getting increasingly difficult to call Toronto’s fans “the best in MLS” with a straight face, considering that the east end of the stadium is half empty for 90% of the games.

People wonder why soccer hasn’t caught on in the mainstream here, even though there are over 800,000 kids who play the game (that’s significantly more than hockey, by the way). It’s because there’s no perception of a future for kids in soccer. Young hockey-players (and their parents) are already dreaming of lacing it up in the NHL from the first time they set foot on the ice. But young soccer players? If they can’t foresee a long-term future in the sport, they drift away from it. Enrolment rates drop off precipitously in soccer around the age of 12.

The lack of a cohesive, comprehensive player development system that funnels young players into academies and pro teams is the biggest sticking point, obviously. But part of it, too, is that these kids don’t get a chance to be exposed to the game at its highest levels. Maybe, for some of the girls in the crowd last night, having an opportunity to watch their role models play live ignited a new passion for the sport. And maybe, just maybe, one or two girls who were in the crowd last night will be out on the pitch representing Canada in 10 years’ time. Or, at the very least, maybe they’ll be in the south end, answering the calls of “Qu’est-ce que vous chantez?”

So, my point… to hell with family crowds. But soccer families? I’m all for ’em. I’m probably biased because I grew up in one such family (my brother and I both played competitively growing up, while my dad was a coach and league administrator for years). But because of my experience, I’m now doing all I can to pass the love of Canadian soccer onto the next generation. Both through this website (shitty as it may be) and through other measures, like standing outside BMO Field handing out hundreds of flyers (which I voluntarily paid to produce) promoting a World Cup qualifier, or contacting dozens of youth coaches to let them know about last night’s fixture.

And if the trade-off I need to make, to forward the cause of soccer development in Canada, is to cut back on the beer intake and restrict my f-bomb dropping during matches, then that’s something I’m willing to do.

How ’bout you?

8 Responses to “Why screaming children are the future of Canadian soccer”

  1. I agree with your post, Squizz, but I’m saddened that you failed to mention our section’s lusty – if ultimately ill-advised – rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

    More importantly, I’m amazed that you managed to draw positives from a 4-0 drubbing. Not that such a thing can’t be done, but that YOU specifically – the most ardent pessimist that I know – managed to do it. Progress!

  2. Well, I got enough guff from Knight about our butchering of Freddy Mercury’s legacy to have already blocked the whole thing from my mind.

    As for the perceived optimism… I’m full of surprises.

  3. I couldn’t agree more Squizz. I noticed when I walked into the stadium the surrounding fans in 113 actually looked rather pleased to see some Canadian Vs in their section and had smiles on their faces. I wish I would’ve had the opportunity to watch a professional soccer game when I was 9 or 10. But it was a great showing by many young supporters, a much different atmosphere (from what I remember growing up watching Hamilton bulldogs games and only being there for the sake of killing a night) to what I would have expected from surrounding families. Good on them, hopefully some of them will go on to follow the national team to the extent (and even greater extent for some) that us voyageurs do.

  4. you say “considering that the east end of the stadium is half empty for 90% of the games.”

    I sit in the west stand directly across from the east stand and it’s never been half empty at the 25th and 65th minute marks. NEVER.

    At the start of the game? Maybe… at the start of the second half? Maybe.
    But it fills up pretty good eventually.

    I’m just sick of people like you defining what it means to be a true supporter. First year or two all we heard is “the south enders are true supporters”.. now it’s young girls? You acknowledge the “problem” people talk about when they deride “families” at the game.. but then you define these girls as OK. Many would disagree.

    Why not just say anybody who pays good money for the often highpriced tickets at BMO Field is supporting soccer.

    Cuz if you wanna get into a debate about whether a certain segment of the attendance is better than the other segments, you’ll always lose.

  5. The contention that their level of passion for the game makes these girls the “future of Canadian soccer” is overwrought gibberish. Even at its most elite level, women’s soccer is, in terms of skill and entertainment value, still decades behind the men’s game. So passionately supporting it will do very little, in terms of improving the game overall in this country.

    Beyond which, the column is predicated on the theory that TFC’s support is a fad, a weekly party, with little to do with soccer.

    Must be a hell of a fad, to have an eight-year waiting list for season tickets.

    Preposterous nonsense.

  6. @rameo:
    For what it’s worth, I’m not a season-ticket holder myself, not a member of any official Toronto FC supporters group, and am not making the claim that no one sitting outside of the south end has any interest in the game. I’m just saying that there a lot of people who are unable to attend Toronto FC games who are more passionately interested in the sport than some (SOME) of the people who do attend. Some of those passionate people happen to be 11-year-old girls.

    “Why not just say anybody who pays good money for the often highpriced tickets at BMO Field is supporting soccer.”

    Sure thing. Anybody who pays good money for the often high-priced tickets at BMO Field is supporting soccer (unless they’re there to watch a field lacrosse game or Genesis concert, naturally).

    Well, what you call overwrought gibberish, I call an intentionally exaggerated headline meant to provoke reaction from overly sensitive Toronto FC supporters. One of us is definitely right.

    You’d know, if you read some of my other posts (which I suspect you haven’t), that while I routinely take the piss out of some of the dilettantes who routinely attend TFC home matches, I have nothing but respect for the real dedication and passion of the squad’s hardcore supporters.

    What I’m saying is that there IS a hell of a lot of deep-rooted passion for the game in this city. And a lot of it exists within people who, for various reasons, are unable to attend games now. The first 16,000 people who happened to get their names in the season ticket pool aren’t automatically the 16,000 biggest soccer fans in the city… they’re fortunate folk (many of whom are probably scalpers/ticket brokers anyway).

    By the way, could you find me the spot in my post where I suggest support for TFC is a “fad”? I’m well aware that if the Labatt 50-swilling hipsters I refer to gave up their tickets, there would be plenty of soccer-hungry, dedicated folks to take their place… and that’s my point!

    In that respect, you and I agree. In terms of your implication that girls only support the women’s team (who’s to say these girls don’t also support TFC and the men’s national team?), well, that’s another story.

  7. @Jamie & Squizz

    The Bohemian Rhapsody idea was borne out of the absurdity of what some clubs have as a club anthem. It was picked due to the difficulty, length and familiarity, nothing more.

    Also, the idea of 5000 people potentially singing the last part of the song would have hairs standing up on people’s necks, methinks.

    The girls chanting “Go Canada Go” is no different than singing any other TFC song at any point of a match. It’s blind. Whether it’s a sheep mentality ‘TFC ole when they’ve stopped trying’ or pavlovian ‘this is what you’re supposed to do at these things’ approach, the result is atmosphere.

    Some of us dream of being in a south terrace with people who watch and talk the game and react, but I’m willing to take what I can get when I can get it.

    For what it’s worth, I spent about the same amount of money on the Terminator movie on Friday night and still thing I got better entertainment value watching women’s footie regardless of the score. It’s too bad that 99% of the south stand regulars turned their nose up at the idea of watching this. I had a blast with you lads and I look forward to the next match of any consequence.

    I’d like to give a nod to Diana Matheson as my WotM. She was a firecracker who ran at defenders with some good pace and filled up the middle when she could. Very impressed with her.

    And thanks for giving more props to Dino for the ticket distribution. He’s top shelf, that one.

    • Ha ha, thanks for stopping by, man… my hindsight remarks notwithstanding, I can’t deny that I was belting out Bohemian Rhapsody at the top of my terrible, terrible lungs (as I’m sure you heard). Next chance to sing nonsense by our side – July 7 in Columbus! Be there or be… uh, somewhere better.

      Respect on your one-man Massive, by the way.

      Matheson played with some spark, I’ll agree… but when you’re a foot shorter than everyone else, you’ve gotta have some giddy-up.

      Side note: You’re the second person to say Terminator wasn’t all that good. I’m still going to blow $12 on it, but now I’m getting worried…

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