Sports: Soccer Fever is Here!

by Claudio Muñoz

It was April 7 and the Elephant and Castle was totally crowded. The restaurant/bar, located in the heart of Toronto – King Street, just in front of Massey Hall – is a sports fan favourite. There were plenty of good reasons to be there that day, including Toronto Maple Leafs against Montreal Canadians for a spot in the hockey playoffs and the Blue Jays playing their third game of the season at Tampa Bay.

But that night the fanatics weren’t there because of hockey or baseball. They went there to witness a special day in the history of sports in Canada: the first official game of Toronto FC, the only Canadian member of Major League Soccer (MLS), North America’s premier professional soccer league.

For 90 minutes, the mostly male audience – wearing red T-shirts, hats, drinking beer and hitting a drum like maniacs – looked like any other soccer supporters of any soccer team around the world. It could have been the Premier League or La Liga final match and you couldn’t have told the difference. Pretty much the same was happening at The Madison up at Bloor and Spadina: people singing, chattering, yelling and making fun of the rivals. If you are a newcomer and your homeland is a “soccer-crazy-country,” this could have felt like home.

It seems like Toronto always had a soccer team, not only since May 11, 2006, when the name, Toronto FC, was announced and the soccer fever was kicked off in the city. “This is an exciting day for soccer fans in Toronto who can now enjoy great quality soccer and a team they can call their own,” Tom Anselmi, executive vice-president and chief operating officer of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (the owners of Toronto FC) said that day as a baptism.

Almost a year after the announcement, it is exciting for an even bigger number of enthusiasts. “Major League Soccer is surprised by the overwhelming support of the city,” explained Paul Beirne, Director of Business Operations of the team. “It’s clear that there’s a market for soccer that has not been served in the last 20 years.”

It makes sense when you realize that more than 60 percent of the city’s residents are immigrants, probably from a “soccer-country” – since that description fits most of the countries on the planet. But that doesn’t explain the fast success of this adventure. So far the tickets for the 2007 season are sold out and the tickets still available are only for some individual games. That means that the 20,000 seats of the brand new BMO Field at the Exhibition Place are going to be full.

On top of that, Bank of Montreal (BMO) bought the Stadium’s naming rights and the T-shirt’s advertisement. With that kind of support, the team owners can be optimistic about the future of the operation. The idea behind bringing soccer to Canada – paying $10 million (US) to MLS for the franchise and spending almost $65 million on the construction of the soccer field (a construction made made possible partly by City of Toronto and Federal government funding) – seems to be working already. A great start for the first expansion of MLS outside USA.

It’s all coming together!

Despite the excitement in the community, this city’s fans are different from the Americans. “The soccer fans, most of the time, follow a team at home,” explains Beirne. “That’s why we don’t want them to leave behind their original team. We want them to support their old team and Toronto FC.”

This respect for the immigrant’s soccer-roots, in perfect harmony with the Canadian “be yourself and Canadian” philosophy of multiculturalism, (as opposed to America’s “be only American”) could be another explanation for the success of the team so far.

“It doesn’t matter where you came from or even if you speak English. We have people from Scotland, South America... The fans are coming in by bus from London or Kingston. I think this is funny because people are always talking about “what is Canada?” Canada is about getting people together and the team is working: here are people from Spain, Portugal, Greece,” says Michael Dubrick, president of The Red Patch Boys, one of Toronto FC’s first fan-clubs.

Besides the support of foreign-based communities like Italians, English, Portuguese and Greeks, Toronto FC is also a big hit with 100 percent Canadians. Dubrick himself is a Torontonian, born and raised in the city, and pretty much one of the craziest T.O.
fanatics. “The big difference with the American teams is that it’s not only people from overseas who are buying into it. People like me – from Toronto, who’ve grown up here, who watched the FIFA World Cup USA ‘94 and liked the sport – are standing to support the team.”

For newcomers, this is great news. Toronto FC could be a great networking opportunity – a way to meet new people from your community and Canadians as well. The fan clubs are waiting for new members (there are no membership dues – just go to a bar when a game is on) because they are just mad about soccer. “Toronto is that kind of city where it is natural for people to support soccer teams. We want to get people together and create what we think a soccer atmosphere should be like. Like in Europe or South America. We want to be crazy. We want the fans be out there with flags and songs, everything,” Dubrick explained.

If you want to attend one of the games at BMO Field, take a look at www.torontofc.ca, the team’s official website for directions and tickets, also available at Ticketmaster (prices start at $30).

On the other hand, if the game is not in Toronto, the best idea is to go out for a drink with the fans. Some of them are the Red Patch Boys (www.redpatchboys.ca), the U-Sector (www.usector.ca) or GoTFC (www.gotorontofc.com). They meet in bars and
restaurants like the Elephant and Castle. Everybody loves to chat about the team, the players or the formation.

Follow the instruction that the team’s coach, Maurice Thomas “Mo” Johnston, gave to the fanatics weeks ago. “Have a beer, take a seat. Enjoy the game.”

CNM