In honour of the first day of the World Cup, I thought I would spend some time thinking about The Beautiful Game. I listened to a long conversation today about soccer in Canada and why it is that professional football has never taken a hold of the Canadian or American imaginations. As a parent of a soccer playing nut, it is easy to see why so many people play the game as kids: its great socialization, exercise and, above all, a lot of fun. But when the pros play here, I don't know anyone that goes. In Europe, it seems, kids are out watching their local side by the age of 2. days. Here, soccer is an after thought when it comes to entertainment. And I think it has a lot to do with geography.
When you think about European countries with strong soccer cultures, you don't generally think of wide open spaces. Lets use as an example England (not the whole of the UK, just England). In a land area about 20% of Alberta (131,395 km² compared to 661,848 km²), England has 92 professional clubs and an estimated 7000 non-league clubs. Just by accident you'd be guaranteed to see more soccer there than you could here by going out of your way. But proximity doesn't necessarily breed loyalty. When people live so close together they need to find ways of developing an identity. Neighbourhoods become incredibly important, not to mention any other regional breakdown. The local side, I think, becomes a bit of an identity for the community. But in Europe, other soccer playing Nations are so close that even without the local loyalty, finding a game that could trigger your national pride probably isn't that hard either.
When I saw John Herdman speak last year, his passion and loyalty for his team was addictive. I was convinced then and there that I was taking everyone I knew to see the Canadian women play. But the distance of time and space muted that and I missed the one game they played in Edmonton 4 months later. In a place where no one else is going, where you see them play, at most, once a year, even nationalistic pride couldn't get me out to the pitch. But there was a quote I heard today that leads me to believe that it might be more than just geography:> There is a language to soccer around the world. In Canada, I fear we've been too well off for too long to speak that language.Much of the world's soccer crazy population does not live an affluent life. Without a job that feeds your soul, I think many of those fans will be missing a strong personal identity. Commitment and loyalty to your team could give you a purpose when nothing else does. In Canada, with the richest middle class in the world, perhaps we just don't need that for our sense of self.
I love to watch soccer. Now that my daughter has decided to play, I even love to watch 6 year olds play. But at the end of the day, I don't have a deep and unabiding love for any sports team. And I can't see many Canadians developing a loyalty to the Canadian professional teams when for most Canadians, they play half a world away. Thankfully, without that loyalty, I can watch the World Cup and not lament that my country's team is missing. Instead I can just enjoy the Beautiful Game.