Canadian international soccer is a disgrace. The Canadian men’s team can barely score a goal let alone make it anywhere near the – now expanded to be more inclusive – World Cup finals tournament. Now, okay, the men’s game is perhaps the most competitive international sporting event on the planet...and well, Canada’s not really a soccer country, are we?
The Canadian women’s team on the other hand, while ranked seventh in the world, collapsed in the recent Women’s World Cup to finish last, and yes while they did turn around and win the Gold Cup this past year, they’re consummate under-performers. But well, Canada’s not really a soccer country, are we?
The truth, however, is that we are in fact a soccer country. Take a drive through any town across Canada come spring time, and you’ll see thousands of kids chasing that little white ball around a green pitch every weekend. In fact, there are far more kids playing soccer than are playing hockey. And yet our boys finishing third in the past World Juniors hockey competition – despite my mother’s protestations that third is ‘still pretty good’ – was overwhelmingly considered by much of the country as ‘rather disappointing’.
Our soccer defeats are hardly even noticed let alone commented upon.
However, though we are a soccer country, we are hardly to be considered a soccer – or football as it should more appropriately be called – culture. We are a hockey culture. Even if you didn’t grow up playing hockey, you grew up watching it, and not just on TV. We grew up watching hockey at the local rinks and arenas – places purpose-built for hockey with all the attendant smells and sounds and tastes. There was always a certain atmosphere in the hockey rink. The smell of ice. The chill of the air. Stale, buttered popcorn and cheap hotdogs. The flash of skates cutting into ice, the puck ringing off the post, of the boards bouncing as bodies barrel heedlessly into them. The arenas and rinks where not simply places to watch hockey, they were hockey. And as you grew up, the venue never really changed. The kids played on the same ice as the young men aiming for the pros. And professionals played in places that were designed for hockey, and that held much of the same sounds and smells and tastes as their amateur counterparts. Our professional arenas are simply bigger, fancier versions of the local rink with fresher popcorn, more gourmet hotdogs, and fancy mustards.
I grew up playing baseball and soccer. But whereas soccer was a game we played, it was never anything more than this. Baseball on the other hand, well, baseball was more than something we played. It was a ritual. I remember fondly the smell of fresh cut grass, the sound of leather hitting leather, the ting of ball meeting bat, the called third strike – Yooooouuurrrr’eee OUT! And the places I played baseball, the fields, the grass, the stands, and the places I watched baseball, where I used to watch the bigger kids play and where I would watch the local pro team were just bigger, fancier versions of the places I grew up playing. They were places that, alongside the hockey arena, became lodged deeply in my cultural experience of the game. There was a not simply a material continuity between the places we played and watched the games, but also a cultural and temporal continuity acknowledged in the very physical design of these, our modern houses of the holy.
As Tom Verducci explains in his reminiscences about Fenway Park – the now 100 year-old baseball stadium in Boston – the building itself is more than just a physical space:
“Fenway turns 100 today, and as I am back for the celebration, I think about how my memories are simply part of a catalog of millions over a century -- how personal a building can be to so many. Ballparks bind us in spirit like no other sporting venues -- so much so that they often are compared to cathedrals. But Fenway, friendly and familiar, is more public square than cathedral. There are no great spires or soaring heights. It is Fenway's humility that is so powerful.
Why? Why should the bond between a people and their baseball team be so intense? Fenway Park is part of it, offering a physical continuum to the bond, not only because Papi [David Ortiz] can stand in the same batter’s box as Teddy Ballgame [Ted Williams], but also because a son might sit in the same wooden-slated seat as his father.”
There were rituals and behaviours and customs associated not simply with the games we watch but more importantly with the places we watch them in. And it is these things that make the game so much more than a game, that make it a cultural event.
Soccer in Canada is played predominantly in the local parks, by kids. At the more elite levels it’s mostly still played in the local parks and generally away from the prying eyes of the public!
I would wager that the stadium built for Toronto FC in the last decade was probably the first purpose-built soccer stadium in the country and it was modeled on the European pitches. And so while the necessity of housing the game of soccer in its own house was finally acknowledged, it was not something that rose naturally from a deep cultural tradition, but was rather imported. It was however an immediate success (even though the team itself was not an immediate – or long-term for that matter – success on the field). It was filled by thousands of soccer fans, mostly those who grew up playing and watching soccer elsewhere in the world. That’s not to say there were no native Canadian fans, not at all. There were many, but the culture was imported; the singing, the drumming, the profane taunts were grown elsewhere but did indeed seem to fit nicely with the place itself.
Vancouver got itself a professional soccer team last year and they played in a temporary, yet purpose-built stadium that stood on the grounds of the famous but now demolished Empire Stadium on the city’s eastside. Though temporary, it had a certain intimacy. It was built for a soccer team and when filled, had the feel of what I thought – though my experience is limited on this front – it would be to see a game somewhere they actually took this as seriously as we take hockey, a place that has soccer culture. Going to see the game was more than just going to watch twenty-two grown men run around after a little white ball. It was a cultural event. Drums pounded out their rhythms, calling to each other from around the stadium. The crowd threw insults at the opposing players and performed massive voodoo-istic rituals each time the Away team had a corner kick. The sun blared down on us and the white-capped mountains smiled on the crowds and the stadium itself. The intimacy, the sounds and smells (minus the tear gas and burning road flares) and tastes were all there, and while attending the game did sorta feel like a trip abroad, there was a sense of real authenticity, of place, of tradition in the stadium.
The team was playing in the temporary stadium because their future home – the now newly retractable-roofed BC Place – a ‘superdome’, was being renovated. But even this renovation, the new roof and a paint job, can’t hide the fact that the new home of the Vancouver Whitecaps is not a soccer stadium, not even a modified football or baseball field. No, it remains a culture-less, ginormous echo chamber that when even slightly under-capacity looks and sounds empty. It has no character – unless you count its extreme culture-lessness – and no matter how they fill it, it will continue to suck as a venue for anything but boat shows and monster truck rallies, and even then...it still sucks I’m sure.
What the team needs, however, is a soccer stadium.
Now, as noted in a more general point in Trevor’s piece on modernism, modernist architecture cared little for purpose or history, or indeed the human spirit in any capacity. The culmination of this capacity to care little if at all for the relevance of a building upon either the physical or mental landscape is the enclosed ‘super-dome’. The domed sports arena, as a monument to abstract universal principles of mechanical efficiency, came to dominate North American professional sports for a number of reasons. Economic efficiency, as a social and cultural value, became strongly embedded into our collective psyches while history and geography, and indeed the specific needs of particular human activities became obsolete. The activities in this case, the playing and watching of sports, sports with rich histories, traditions, and rituals seem to have been of little concern to the architects of these profane buildings, and their drab and inert character, devoid of all context and relations to the community they are claiming to serve ushered in an era of clean uniforms (no more grass stains) and broken bodies (they were playing football on a carpet over concrete for god’s sake!!). And this separation from nature, from the roots of whichever game was being played there further diminished the cultural value of the sport.
Lewis Mumford, a voracious critic of the modernist style, described buildings built upon these principles as “elegant monuments to nothingness, having no relation to site, climate, insulation, function, or internal activity…[They are] the apotheosis of the compulsive, bureaucratic spirit”.
Superdomes, the physical the space of the stadium, were designed to be multi-functional, to adapt and be ambiguous, to be nothing; to be a place we temporarily project our use upon. And this very slipperyness and elusiveness of context was designed specifically not to hold anything, not to represent anything, not to be a place of memories or tradition.
For the fans watching the soccer games being played in their new home, however, the game itself will be all there is to the experience – and barring a radical improvement in on-field team performance, even this experience will be woefully lacking! The problem is not the team, or the sport, but rather that we’re trying to shoehorn it not only into a culture that has no real experience of the game as anything more than something we watch or kids playing from those cold, wet sidelines, but into a building that doesn’t even offer a cursory tip-of-the-hat to the imported culture captured in Toronto. And what’s more, by housing the game in the characterless BC Place, a physical container designed to repel anything but temporary cultural relevance, there is little chance for the development of a true soccer culture in the city.
We wonder, often ringing our hands in frustration, why it is that we in this nation fare so poorly at the world’s game. But again, it’s not the team or the sport itself that lies at the heart of our disinterest (although there are certain aspects of the international game that we as a culture are averse to – diving for instance, feigning injury for another). It’s just that there’s no geography, no physical container for the game to move into if it is to become a cultural experience. It’s not simply the rituals and customs, the sounds and smells, the stories and myths that give a game greater significance in the zeitgeist. These things need places to reside, to live and be held to really be sacred.
Canada is replete with these houses of hockey, but we have barely one or two shrines to soccer. While Canada is indeed a soccer country we are not a soccer culture. We have no cathedral, no houses of the holy.
Is it still any mystery why Canadian soccer is a shambles?