The Canada Games at Their Most Canadian

By Benjamin Massey · August 3rd, 2017 · No comments

Lee Kormish/Canadian Soccer Association

I’ve been watching an unusual amount of Canada Games women’s soccer for the past week. This is to say, I have been watching any Canada Games women’s soccer. The tournament is taking place in Winnipeg and the soccer crowds have, while decent, been largely family members. When runs a webstream you hear parents deriding referees, mumbling about poor tactics, and shouting “let’s go red!” It’s like being back in U-14 except for the camera guy telling the parents they’re on the Internet.

I am a hopelessly absimilated British Columbia resident of thirteen years’ standing, so as always I am cheering for my native Alberta. This has been a better time than you’d think. Alberta beat British Columbia, who feature multiple players 99 Friendship devotees have heard of, 3-0 thanks to clever breaks and two terrific free kicks. Alberta went on to drop its semifinal to Ontario 1-0, which is more than fair enough, and will play Nova Scotia for bronze.

Some players I’ve seen have looked interesting but, with all respect, not worth a blog post. The Canada Games are weird. The soccer tournament is restricted to under-18s and obviously doesn’t lure overseas talent. Their website tantalizes you with top players who have participated, some of whom are very heavy metal, but only the cognoscenti would have known their names at the time. Kara Lang, who played as a 14-year-old in 2001, was as close as you’d get and she was more than a year from her senior international debut.

That’s by design. In fact even youngsters who might lend the Canada Games some star power, a Jordyn Huitema or a Deanne Rose, are deliberately excluded. Canada Games rules forbid not only professional athletes but all senior soccer internationals. Even if Rose and Huitema wanted to go to Winnipeg again they weren’t given the choice. Cara Lang actually is playing for Alberta alongside her twin sister Brooke, but that joke works much better verbally than written down.

The Canada Games are not a glamour tournament. Never have been. It is only natural to make your rules on the “well I didn’t want to go out with that smoking hot woman anyway” principle. Once you’ve accepted your mediocrity there’s even a competitive argument to keep out the occasional slumming elite. Andre De Grasse randomly blitzing the field in athletics wouldn’t help anybody; Jordyn Huitema getting on the end of Julia Grosso and Emma Regan’s excellence would probably have guaranteed British Columbia woso gold but that somehow isn’t a priority of the organizers.

But maybe it should be.

Canadians love inter-provincial competition. The Canada Games themselves seem like they ought to be a joke but never really are; better crowds show up in Sherbrooke or Prince George or Whitehorse to cheer on a bunch of unknown teenagers than you would ever get in any other context.

Soccer provinces are represented by amateur champion clubs fighting for national honours, which is not quite the same thing. Provincial rivalry has never really been a serious part of ice hockey, that greatest Canadian sport, and in Canadian football only the Saskatchewan Roughriders exemplify it. But the other great Canadian winter game knows what’s what.

What is the most respected championship in the world of curling? The Olympic Games, probably, but that’s glory reflecting off five Olympic rings rather than anything intrinsic. If we exclude that as a special case, who’s next? Not the World Championships, tightly contested though they are. Certainly not the European Championships, nor the Pacific-Asia Championships, nor any crown where hundreds of millions of people are represented by the gallant sliding warriors vying to wear it. The answer is the Brier, the Canadian men’s curling championship, and the Tournament of Hearts, the women’s championship. (Curling, not incidentally, joins soccer as the only team sports in Canada where affection for the women rivals that for the men.)

Is it because the best rinks in the world are all Canadian so the worlds are just a coronation for Canucks? Definitely not; prior to this past year Canada had lost eight World Women’s Curling Championships in a row, four times to the Swiss. The best men’s curling team in the world is probably Swedish, that of Niklas Edin. The Worlds have a higher all-round standard than the Brier or the Tournament of Hearts, where 40% of the entrants are always thorough sadsacks. Even if we give Canada special merit for all-round excellence our Olympic trials, where only the best teams compete, are played at a noticeably higher level. Yet the Brier and the Tournament of Hearts are much, much more prestigious.

Though I somehow doubt it was deliberately done, we have the perfect Dominion for sports rivalry. A couple big bad provinces to play the ubiquitous heels, a wide second-tier of provinces with people and resources enough to dominate a particular sport or win on their day, and utterly lovable underdogs in the three Territories. The United States, with fifty states and a bevy of variously-categorized colonies, cannot help but turn interstate competition into dull knockout affairs where you don’t care three-quarters of the time. Australia may have too few states, and those they have are too unbalanced, but Sheffield Shield interstate cricket remains alive. The English do rather well on the county scale with rugby and cricket, though in recent decades the complaint has been that these competitions have become second-class adjutants to big-money tournaments. Then again, in Canadian soccer, that’s all we’re asking for.

Canada is the perfect size. Not only can every province play every other regularly, but any citizen has very specific reasons for hating the other nine. Except maybe New Brunswick. Then again I’m not a Newfoundlander dealing with Saint John versus St. John’s. That’s another happy element: it’s everyone versus Ontario, always, but we also have our own particular rivalries.

Other sub-national entries compete in soccer. In CONCACAF we are used to French insular regions, integral parts of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and whatever Puerto Rico is showing up at the Gold Cup and sometimes even World Cup qualifying. Something similar happens in Oceania. In Spain, both the Basque and Catalan “national” teams occasionally play and beat independent countries, but they are expressions of nationalism rather than competing subdivisions of the Spanish kingdom. Should Canada launch a first-rate inter-provincial soccer competition along the lines of curling it would be unique in the world.

In its current format the Canada Games can never give us what curling already has. To deeply care about U-18 teams with the famous players taken out, you have to be much more personally invested than I am. What’s more, especially on the men’s side, it’s hard to imagine an elite player returning from Europe to spend a week at the Canada Games under any circumstances.

We could still move forward. The Canada Games organizers are no fools and work closely with governing bodies in their respective sports. What would we do if the Canadian Premier League took a ten-day break midseason and sent domestic players to the Canada Games? It would be a hell of a lot more interesting than an All-Star game. This year in particular, while NCAA is out of season and the NWSL has spun down for the European Championships, the women’s Canada Games could have been astonishing, even if McLeod and Sinclair stayed away. Not just the current professionals, but those hoping to kick their way back into the game. Imagine if it was Kara Lang, as well as Cara, suiting up for Alberta.

When looking to grow soccer in Canada, we talk about marketing and elite players and everything everyone in every other country talks about. What we don’t spend enough time on are characteristically Canadian elements. We have our own history, something like our own culture and values still bobbing to the surface through a flood of global sewage. Say “make soccer Canadian” and people imagine MLS and old NASL-style rule changes to attract yokel-fans allegedly too unsophisticated to handle the world’s most popular sport. What we should actually be doing is fitting the game we all love into the right holes in the country we hopefully love even more.