The Canadian men’s national team are heading into unprecedented territory on Friday evening, in a game that could serve as not only a symbolic break from the past, but a harbinger of the program’s future.
That game – a World Cup qualifier against Mexico at Vancouver’s BC Place (10 pm ET, TSN in Canada, UniMas in the US) – has big implications for Canada’s chances of escaping their group in the semifinal round of CONCACAF qualifying. But it may also mark a turning point for the country’s perception of its men’s national team, which has historically had as much to do with off-field issues as it has with the team’s lack of on-field success.
The biggest headline in the buildup to Friday’s showdown is the size of the crowd: As of late last week, more than 46,000 tickets had been sold at the 54,000-seat venue. The previous attendance record for a home World Cup qualifier (27,775, back in 1993) has been obliterated; the record for highest-ever attendance at a men’s national team game (51,936, for a 1994 friendly vs. Brazil) is also likely to fall.
It remains to be seen just how many fans will be supporting the hometown Canadian side, and how many (including those making the trip from the United States) will be rooting for Mexico. But the recent history of patriotic sporting events in Vancouver suggests the fears of an El Tri takeover might be overblown.
Home support at the 2010 Winter Olympics helped propel the Canadian team to an all-time record medal haul. At last summer’s Women’s World Cup, Canadian fans packed BC Place twice (attendances of 53,855 and 54,027) for the host nation’s two knockout round matches. Earlier this month, record crowds watched Canada compete in a Rugby Sevens tournament in that stadium.
A giant crowd would be a historic anomaly for the team. A giant, pro-Canadian crowd would be even more remarkable.
Canadian fans have traditionally been outnumbered in their own stadiums by supporters of the opposing team. But the tide has turned in recent years.
The Canadian Soccer Association is now working in earnest with the Voyageurs, the national team’s supporters group, to build pro-Canadian environments for home games. For Friday’s match, all primary-market ticket sales were restricted to buyers with Canadian mailing addresses.
And, as CSA president Victor Montagliani told MLSsoccer.com in December, the organization’s decision to open the upper bowl was guided by “considering the dynamics” of fan support.
It’s impossible for any organizer to control what happens on the secondary market, of course. But it’s a welcome change from years gone by, when steel drums and passionate anthem singers greeted Caribbean opponents on Canadian soil.
It’s also a welcome change for the players, especially those who’ve been with the program for a long time.
“Hearing these astronomical numbers, attendance for a men’s national team game, it brings goosebumps,” Canada captain Julian de Guzman said late last week. “It’s one thing playing for your country and representing them at a top level, but to have this type of support for a home game, it’s amazing.”
The game also represents the reversal of another long-running trend for the Canadian team. For years, fans bemoaned the loss of high-profile players to other national team programs, be it Owen Hargreaves (England), Asmir Begovic (Bosnia) or even de Guzman’s younger brother, Jonathan (Netherlands).
Ahead of the Mexico showdown, however, the focus is on Scott Arfield, the newest high-profile addition to the Canadian team. He’s the latest in a list of newcomers who have committed to the program since the start of 2015, joining Tesho Akindele, Junior Hoilett, Fraser Aird, Wandrille Lefevre and Steven Vitoria.
While each player’s decision was different, the sentiment is clear: For players eligible for multiple national teams, Canada is now an attractive option.
“The timing couldn’t have been any better than now. We’re becoming a stronger team,” said de Guzman. “It’s really good to see the commitment now from the national team players, it’s different than it was before. It becomes a domino effect down the road, as long as the results keep coming in.”
Ah yes, the results. Sure, playing in front of 50,000 fans in the stadium and a national audience on domestic TV is massive for the Canadian team, but it can be a double-edged sword. Perform well against Mexico, and the momentum continues. Fall short, and the team’s negative stereotypes simply get reinforced once more.
“This one game at home could change the future for Canadian soccer,” said de Guzman. “It could change the respect that we’ve been getting in the past, and open up opportunities for Canadian players in the future.”
Indeed, de Guzman, the country’s all-time leader in caps, isn’t shying away from the potential off-field ramifications of the game. If anything, he sees this much-hyped game as vindication for the untold hours he’s put in over the past decade-and-a-half, trying to bring the national team to prominence.
“This is a great time to prove our worth,” he said. “This is something a lot of Canadians and guys who’ve been part of this program, they dream of moments like this.
“We’ve seen the women get this kind of reception before, and it happens when you perform on the big stage. This is now our turn, our opportunity to make it happen for the men’s side.”
In the grand scheme of the qualifying campaign, a loss on Friday wouldn’t be lethal to Canada’s chances of reaching the Hex, nor would a win clinch anything.
But at BC Place on Friday evening, Canada has their best opportunity yet to exorcise the demons of the program’s past and help usher in a new era for the men’s game in the Great White North.