As it happens the Canadian Soccer Association’s streaming a brace of Voyageurs Cup semi-finals went none too badly. There were performance issues but, if you got off Google Chrome, nothing debilitating. The commentary worked, though the Montreal – Vancouver stream had Nick Sabetti miced way below play-by-play man Rick Moffat. Video quality was fine, they only cut away from the play to show random graphics a couple of times, the cameras were usually aimed at the ball, it was a significant improvement over the MyCujoo “due to high winds commentary of this game cannot be broadcast” experience. Three out of five.
Nor were we starved of viewers. Clearly the media followed along. In Ottawa a group of Toronto FC fans who were absolutely definitely positively not the Inebriatti were caught nearly burning down the Glebe and why yes there is video. Despite the obscure web stream this incident made Global News, the Toronto Sun, and was highlighted in the Canadian Press wire report. Even Canadian journalism inside-baseballist 12:36 threw some, er, love to the Toronto Sun‘s coverage, headlined “VIOLENCE MARS CANADIAN CONTEST.”
That wasn’t violence. Nobody tried to hurt anybody and no injuries were reported. But it was unquestionably dangerous. The ultras set off flares with no obvious way to support or extinguish them. Apparently unfamiliar with exothermic reactions, the ill-informed ultras found the flares growing too hot to hold and threw them onto the pitch, causing avoidable and pricey damage to Ottawa’s artificial turf. Meanwhile yahoos waved flags over the fire, ran around waving flares like morons, and displayed carelessness inappropriate in a six-year-old. Firework explosions were even reported. The ultras were in an isolated section so no “civilians” were in danger but it was still way over the line, enough for Toronto FC to issue a venomous press release. The vital part read “we are left with no choice but to suspend all recognized supporter group privileges indefinitely.” This is apparently a general ban to all groups, though time will tell on how it is enforced.
If you aren’t steeped in this culture you may need some background explained. First: in Major League Soccer “supporter group privileges” refer to exceptions to the usual stadium rules given to recognized, organized soccer supporters’ groups. The supporters agree to sing in marketing-friendly ways, keep everything clean and safe, police their own ranks for trouble, and generally provide an inoffensive facsimile of the European soccer experience. In exchange the MLS team permits these groups to bring in drums, megaphones, enormous flags, and banners which would otherwise be turned away at the gate by security. They can come in early to set up large displays (“tifo,” from the Italian “tifosi” meaning “fans”), may often designate supporters to come onto the field and lead chants, and get other privileges to make them look and sound impressive despite restrictions that ought to neuter them.
These privileges are serious business, and MLS teams usually sign formal contracts with their supporters’ groups representatives which include them. In practice there is quite a bit of leeway, as MLS teams now view supporters as vital marketing tools. For example, formally Vancouver supporters are forbidden from chanting obscenities, but modestly problematic shouts fill the air at BC Place with no trouble provided the capos with field access don’t lead them. That is custom, though, not law. These privileges are given at the MLS team’s discretion and may be unilaterally revoked.
This happens every year or so. Some supporters make fools of themselves or offend a bigwig, the MLS team pulls their privileges, there is a modest hullabaloo, it all blows over. After all, if you didn’t have a fairly high tolerance for being jerked around and treated like a commodity you would not be a supporter in MLS. But the Ottawa incident has led to punishment on an extreme scale. A game that wasn’t on TV, a patch of maybe twelve TFC ultras, an incident that had nothing to do with supporters’ group privileges (the Ottawa Fury ban fireworks and flares in any event and acknowledge that their security missed them until they were deployed), and a suspension that affects thousands of supporters from groups that definitely had nothing to do with the incident.
That leads to the second piece of background. Everyone, inside Toronto as well as out, is inclined to blame infamous Toronto FC ultras the Inebriatti for this incident. They have a reputation for exactly this kind of thing, and their name accurately reflects their approach to matches. They have been formally sanctioned before, as recently as June, and raised a banner that read “football without ultras is nothing” before taking the game off in protest. They favour pyro and have never been averse to skirting the rules. Toronto FC supporters of extremely long standing, true reds from way back, have been public in saying that this is all Inebriatti’s fault. Non-Toronto fans, and for that matter this very post, are therefore nonchalant in assuming this was probably them.
I myself have had my problems with these guys and I am the sunniest, most easy-going fellow it is possible to meet. But there is no proof. The Inebriatti’s statement, linked above, is unequivocal: “We had no part in the flare that was thrown into the field or the explosion at last night’s match in Ottawa.” The statement originally read “alleged explosion” (my emphasis), giving rise to much banter that was not good-natured in the least, but the Inebriatti edited the post later. The video of the evidence is low-resolution and nobody has yet definitively identified one of the masked men. In short, the case is not yet proven, at least not to Toronto FC who would assuredly be happy not to light up all their supporters for this incident if they could instead punish known problem children.
But how to define “problem” is one more typically Canadian complication. Pyro has a difficult place in soccer culture around the world but especially in Canada and the United States. On the continent it is, by and large, accepted, except when it isn’t for reasons opaque to an outsider. In England, the nation which has given the anglosphere most of its soccer traditions, it is more-or-less banned. In Canada, how much pyro you can get away with seems to depend entirely on which level the soccer game is at. USL PDL matches, featuring amateur or semi-professional players before a crowd that is lucky to top a thousand, can be washed out by waves of smoke blowing out of the supporters’ ends after a goal as the delirious ultras set off enough pyrotechnics to sink the Bismarck. At the NASL or USL level you can pretty much get away with it, though opinions vary, and in MLS you are taking your life in your hands. Not that MLS won’t cry out as they strike you, putting supposedly egregiously offenses in their advertising, but despite this hypocrisy punishing fans for pyrotechnics is one of the few things they do consistently.
Now, by any standard, the TFC ultras in Ottawa were way outside the norm. They were reckless with their flares to a degree that might well be criminal and nobody anywhere wants fireworks in the stands. Understandably some (non-Toronto) fans are calling for stricter penalties: forcing the return leg at BMO Field next Wednesday to be played behind closed doors or even expelling Toronto FC from the 2018 Voyageurs Cup entirely. Such punishment would be unprecedented in Canada or the United States. In Europe those are accepted responses to 10,000 ultras setting off flares while chanting “heil Hitler” at a UEFA Champions League match or the like, but Wednesday’s Toronto drunks would barely crack the “It’s a Funny Ol’ Game” column in the back of the Sarajevo Gazette. Elsewhere in Canada, where pyro is winked at if not formally permitted, responsibility for the smoke and the fire falls upon those most able to take it rather than those reckless fools who don’t give a damn, and results are correspondingly safe. We with first-hand experience have seen this in action, but the casual fan cannot be blamed if he sees one Voyageurs Cup semifinal where it isn’t, and lets that inform his view of whether pyro should be permitted.
So here we are. The great mass of Toronto FC supporters is being punished for the actions of an anonymous few who everybody, except the group being scapegoated, is convinced represent a scapegoated group. The actions in question could easily be met with civil penalties, but also feed into an unjustified North American skepticism of pyrotechnics that only encourages them to be deployed unsafely. And, because MLS’s attitude towards supporters is based on allowing a few elites to provide atmosphere rather than assuming atmosphere should be provided but banning hooligans, the reaction to almost any incident is collective punishment, and if you can’t identify specific culprits then just expand the collective.
Welcome to Canadian soccer, where problem fans with firesticks only create more problems. The Canadian Premier League is going to be busy.