Friday, February 27, 2009

I like sports, but I might be in love with soccer

It will come as no surprise to many that I like sports. A lot. And not just because they serve as a diversion to real life. They are to me, in fact, as real as it gets in life. And this is not to wax poetically about men and women rising above the odds, meeting the challenges head on, being beaten but not defeated, or even having God on their side - although I'm pretty sure God, or whatever you believe in, is on your side all the time. The better question is, are you on your side? Anyways....

The reason I love sports so much, is that it gives you a glimpse into the soul of where you are, in that moment. Unedited and unabashed. Whether it is parents rising at 6 am to get the kids off to practice, a coach giving their time to be in the gym, some athlete lifting themselves to unforeseen levels, or a fan giving up two or three hours to yell, cheer, stomp, and curse their team to victory, you are seeing what people hold dear to them - human connections.

These connections transcend time and space. How else do you explain me not being the only one to miss the first day of teacher's college in Australia because Canada finally won Olympic hockey gold? Or the fact that three guys who'd just learned about this weird game called cricket nearly get evicted for noise complaints - in the middle of a Saturday afternoon - as they watch a Canadian smash his way to the fastest century (100 runs ) in Cricket World Cup history??
Blogger's note: Yes I was as surprised then, as you are now, to learn cricket had a World Cup, and even more surprised to learn Canada had a squad in it!?!

Sport brings people together, removing class dinstictions (except at the Air Canada Centre) and giving everyone a chance to be themselves. And so it why in my brief appearance on his planet, I believe nothing unites people more than sport, and in my even brief-er(?) sojourns around the world, nothing unites like soccer, umm futbol, umm, football...oh whatever, soccer!

The country I find myself in now, Korea, first fell in love with the beautiful game right around the same time as I did. It was 2002 and the world's eyes were on Korea and Japan as they were hosting the World Cup. And boy, did they ever. World Cup fever gripped this nation, and in fact you can still get "Be the Reds" (ahhh, Korean English) t-shirts around town. I was in Australia. I had never given the game much thought except to laugh at my Canadian-Italian buddies when Italy choked in 1994, or cheer along with my Canadian-Croatian friends as they made an improbable run in 1998. In fact, even with the U.S. hosting it in 1994, I really didn't care, outside of the aforementioned choke by the Italians, and I certainly wasn't old enough to understand the significance of Canada's first and only entry into the tournament when Mexico hosted in 1986.

This time would be different. I was traveling, the tournament was in the same time zone as where I was, and school was out. A recipe for sport watching success if there ever was one, but then add living on the very beaten backpacking track of eastern Australia and I was in for a treat. This backpacking trail brought people from all over the world to my little corner, and with them, a permeating excitement I had never witnessed. The clincher came when I headed north to Cairns for some traveling and we wound up watching the England-Brazil semifinal game on a patio that had three giant TVs and about 600 people. But it wasn't just the bar. It was the city. The whole place shut down, but at the same time was electric. And when the final whistle went, and with it, just about every Englishman's pint, I was in for life.

But sadly, after that, there would be no outlet for this new passion for years. In the next year or so I would have love affairs with cricket, rugby, and Aussie Rules Football - which nearly won me over - but something about soccer just stuck with me.
Blogger's note: I still consider myself a hockey guy and then a basketball guy, but soccer has probably moved to #3, just ahead of the football (CFL first, NFL second)...which all take a backseat every two years to the Olympics. Oh, and lacrosse is in there somewhere, and I don't mind golf when Weirsy or Woods are up to something, and the tenth end of curling can get pretty damn dramatic - did I mention I like sports?

But it all changed in 2006 when it was announced that Toronto was getting it's very own, shiny, brand new Major League Soccer franchise. Now I must admit, I was skeptical. The MLS was an American version of soccer that had failed so many times already, and Toronto had no proven track record for supporting it (we had the Blizzard and we have the Lynx, but neither have ever captured the attention of the fickle Toronto sports fan). But with the unveiling of the team in early 2007, I was hooked, and that passion I had first discovered in Australia came bubbling to the surface. And with Toronto hosting the FIFA Under-20 World Cup, I was ready to rekindle the romance. That summer, I made it to the first ever TFC game (thanks Lids), a couple of those World Cup games where we got to see what real soccer fanatacism is (thanks Chile) and witnessed the historic and electric first ever goal for TFC. But just as this love was blossoming, I was again on the move.

This time though, I was going to South America, to where soccer really is a way of life and likely a religion - I believe in Ecuador about 95% of the country claim to be Catholic, 100% ARE Ecuadorian soccer fans. I was in for a true education in soccer. Stepping off the plane sporting my Toronto FC jersey, I was immediately spotted and knew from that moment I was in a different sporting world.

Ecuadorians live and breathe soccer the way Canadian live and breathe hockey - except they continue to live and breathe it when they're aren't even the best team on their continent, let alone the world - I think we'd do the same, wouldn't we?

As part of my Soccer 101, I took part in marches across the city...I stood in a line that wrapped the entire stadium just to get tickets...I got out of the way when the crowd surged through the security doors (after they had jumped the fences to get in) for a club match...I stood in the rain for three hours to hold our seats during World Cup qualifying, only to be told to sit down once the game started...I sang songs, singing words I didn't know or understand...I drank beer...I hugged strangers...I hung my head and yelled Spanish obscenities at the referee...and I loved every second of it!

And now with my imminent return to Canada this summer, I am thrilled with where soccer has gone in our great, multi-cultural country in just two years. Sure we still suck as a nation, but Toronto FC has added more skill (incidently, two major additions are Canadian) and Montreal just hosted 55,000+ people in the 'O', in freaking February, to wacth the Impact battle it out in our continent's Champions League (Blogger's note: while I am cheering for Montreal at this stage in the game, they are now Toronto's arch-enemy having defeated them earlier in this tournament, and this will be the last time I cheer for them!). Should Montreal manage to get through to the semi-final, they are talking about 60,000+ screaming, flag-waving, drum-beating fans. Unheard of! And I love it. And if you can, you should go. It just may be a part of our nation expressing itself that hasn't been given the chance.

Sports. Unbashed. Unedited. Loved.

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