So even the announced 6,026 fans at Saputo Stadium to watch Canada play Curaçao (formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles, now a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands with a population of 160,000) was fake news. Saputo holds 20,801. One sideline and one endzone were basically empty. The other sideline stand was probably not half full. The southern terrace, where the few dozen supporters congregated, was very empty indeed. Only one gate was open and it had no queue to speak of despite plenty of security theatre. Samuel Piette got a few hundred tickets for friends, family, and friends of family and created a statistically significant part of the crowd. The number of bums in seats was probably nearer four thousand than six.
You have to go back to pre-2012 women’s friendlies for a crowd that small. Granted we’re talking about a Tuesday evening friendly against an opponent that, while ranked ahead of Canada in the latest FIFA tables, is so obscure I felt the need to parenthetically describe it in an earlier paragraph. Even those going expected the game to be fairly terrible, and they were right. Though Canada came from behind to win 2-1, the match was overall a dog.
Canadian soccer fans are fond of argument, so this caused one. Montreal had disgraced itself! Canada has hosted only seven men’s friendlies in the past decade; wasting something so rare on a city that can’t be bothered is crazy. There are cities which would have fallen over themselves supporting even such a drab game. It’s too late to fix the past, but we can at least look to the future and keep Canadian soccer out of Montreal until they give a damn.
First off, those who weren’t there should know the Montreal experience had huge positives. Fans who did show up were enthusiastic, from top to bottom. The standard of the supporters’ section was excellent. An anglo there will always enjoy trying to figure out what those crazy bilingual bastards are on about, but more than that they were energetic and fun. Not to walk into the satanic mill that is supporters’ politics, but every time we have a game in Montreal I hear about how those damned Impact ultras are all too Frenchified to ever support Canada willingly, and every time I walk out thinking that it would criminal not to give those blessed maniacs all of the games their intensity and effort deserve. Despite dismal predictions there was no phalanx of Canada haters cheering Curaçao out of separatist spite. It was a perfect crowd in everything but numbers. It was good enough for the players, who fought back, won, and stayed late to salute the crowd. Milan Borjan scooped up a supporter’s cigarettes after he accidentally spilled them onto the field. It was a nice night.
But what of all those empty seats? What of Montreal’s lukewarm interest in Canadian soccer? It makes sense when you remember that, lately, Canadian soccer has had a lukewarm interest in Montreal.
Infamously, Montreal hosted a men’s World Cup qualifier in September 2008 that saw Canada lose 2-1 to Honduras in one of the most horrifying experiences of all time. In nearly nine years since then, Canada’s second-largest city has hosted four Canadian games: the Curaçao match, a 2010 men’s friendly also against Honduras, a U-20 Women’s World Cup group game against North Korea, and a senior Women’s World Cup group game against the Netherlands. In the same timeframe Toronto has hosted 19 games (not counting the Pan-Ams in Hamilton), Vancouver 14, and Edmonton six. Those cities also had more glamorous matches; only Montreal’s Women’s World Cup game could exactly be called must-see.
Vancouver did not host any senior international Canadian games between March 2006 and January 2012. That January 2012 game, at newly-renovated BC Place, saw only a very-generously-counted 7,627 fans to watch Canada’s women beat Haiti 6-0. Haiti, like Curaçao, is a small Caribbean island nation that is better than you might guess. It was another midweek evening match, not saved by strong promotion of hometown heroes (Patrice Bernier and Samuel Piette in Montreal, in Vancouver an obscure young lady named Christine Sinclair). Unlike last Tuesday’s game, the Canada – Haiti match was a competitive fixture as the teams tried to qualify for the London Olympics. The tickets were cheaper, starting at $10 for a double-header. Had you judged Vancouver on that game alone, you might never have gone back.
Fortunately the Olympic qualifiers were a multi-game tournament. As the women won stylishly attendance grew, culminating in a competition-record 25,427 to see Canada lose 4-0 to the United States in the technically-meaningless final. Those 7,627 fans, it turns out, witnessed the first steps of the John Herdman golden generation that’s so far won two Olympic bronze medals. Vancouver now regularly packs them into BC Place, including 22,508 for a recent women’s friendly against Mexico.
Every city in the Dominion has experienced the unjust withdrawal of international soccer. Toronto prior to the opening of BMO Field, Vancouver between 2006 and 2012, Montreal now. Fans in each of these cities know the stagnation that comes from only seeing “your” national team on television, as those without an existing, unbreakable bond inevitably find not only that their interest wanes but that it does not automatically return with a single game. Then, when their city is blessed and another loses out, they forget those lessons and criticize that unlucky town for facing the same challenges in the same way.
This country is big, and it’s hard for anyone but the well-heeled or fanatical to travel for many games even domestically. The only solution is for every part of the country to get a reasonable share of national team matches. Between the men and the women there’s no excuse for Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal to not each see a game every year, with additional fixtures spread between your Edmontons, Calgarys, Winnipegs, Reginas, Hamiltons, Victorias, Monctons, and St. John’ss. It’s the only way to build a truly national fanbase for this program, because otherwise you see what we’ve seen in Montreal: the diminution of interest, and the alienating blame that goes along with it.