Rivalry Week: Toronto and Montreal icons

Montreal vs. Toronto is about more than just soccer: History, culture, politics and city pride at play

Montreal Impact team manager Adam Braz, who played for Toronto FC in their 2007 inaugural season, has an interesting theory on Toronto-Montreal relations: “Any time you ask someone from Montreal if they like Toronto, they’ll say 'no.' They might not necessarily give specific reasons, but they just don’t. And the same applies to people from Toronto.”

Simply put, while they have their reasons, Montrealers and Torontonians feel it's superfluous to even delve into the divide. But when they’re pressed for specifics, they have a pretty good idea of what they are, as MLSsoccer.com found out from representatives of both Toronto FC and Montreal Impact ahead of their Rivalry Week showdown this Saturday at the Olympic Stadium (4 pm ET, TSN/RDS in Canada, MLS LIVE in USA).

With respective populations of 2,615,060 and 1,649,519, Toronto and Montreal are the two largest cities in Canada. The tag of big city typically comes with big business, and Torontonians have wholeheartedly embraced it.

“Toronto is a very fast-paced and business-oriented city and Montreal is kind of laid back,” former TFC defender and Ontario native Adrian Serioux told MLSsoccer.com. “I think Montreal people like that laid-back culture and that’s why they don’t like Toronto much.”

Toronto, to most Canadians from outside the city, has the feel of a big US city in the mold of Chicago or New York. Things move fast and the cost of living is higher, but it is rich in diversity of its citizens. But while Torontonians may enjoy teasing Montreal residents, who have a reputation of taking their time with things, many still mostly enjoy visiting the Quebec metropolis for a taste of Montreal's culture, architecture and atmosphere.

“Montreal’s more of a European city,” Québécois midfielder Patrice Bernier said. “It’s more laid back, more joie de vivre, in a European way.”

Visiting Montreal is also an opportunity for Torontonians to brush up on their French, especially at the stadium, where Montreal supporters chants are nearly exclusively en français.

Modern-day Quebec is unique in North America in that it has remained a primarily French-speaking society: 72.8 percent of Quebecers and 56.5 percent of Montrealers speak only French at home, according to the 2011 Census of Canada. Unsurprisingly, the figure is similar in Toronto for the English language (55.0 percent).

“Obviously, language is a big thing in Montreal and in Québec,” Braz said. “Being French is something that Montrealers and Quebecers are very proud of, and it’s really important for them to identify with.”

And just like most people in Spain identify with either Real Madrid or Barcelona on some level, Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens, in the NHL, polarizes opinion not only in Toronto and Montreal, but in the whole of Canada as well.

Whereas Montreal was home to several hockey teams in the early years of the game, the Canadiens became the only active professional hockey team in town in 1938. Since then, the entire city has rallied behind the Habs when they face the Maple Leafs, who were the only other Canadian team from that 1938 season until 1970. The hockey match-up embodies the sense of pride in both cities, and some of the same characteristics of the rivalry are being carried from the ice to the soccer field.

“When a game is on, people from Toronto insult Montrealers, both cities taunt each other,” Bernier, a hockey enthusiast, said. “It's an [NHL] Original Six rivalry, it's been there for a long time and there's history between the two cities, the language issue and everything.”

Language and national identity is a never-ending theme in Quebec. Last fall’s general election, which made headlines worldwide because of an assassination attempt on premier-elect Pauline Marois, brought back into power the separatist Parti Québécois, who have already lost two referendums on separation from Canada.

Its minority status, however, essentially prevents an eventual third referendum from disrupting a motion approved in 2006 by the Canadian House of Commons, which states that the Québécois are a nation “within a united Canada.”

“It probably starts with the Leafs and Canadiens, but it is also English and French and Ontario and Quebec,” said Paul Beirne, senior director of business operations at Toronto FC. “Those things go back generations and they date back to the conflicts between Upper and Lower Canada that existed.

"In true Canadian form, we are friends when we need to be.”

For 90 minutes on Saturday, though, they'll be anything but.


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