The Grim Pride of Protest

By Benjamin Massey · November 25th, 2016 · No comments

Sports really don’t matter. That’s why they are such a healthy channel for emotion and tribalism, natural human characteristics that cause trouble when misdirected. We go mad for strangers in the right-coloured shirts, and it’s better to chant for them than to chant for politicians. The invigorating uselessness of these rituals means that when our sporting communities are attacked it is right to be angry, and when they are defended it is right to be proud.

My European club, Charlton Athletic, is owned by Belgian entrepreneur, small-time politician, and faintly Social Credit-ist basic income crank Roland Duchâtelet. He owns several other clubs around Europe and last year was pressured into selling Standard Liège by fan opposition, but lately Charlton has been the squeakiest wheel.

When Duchâtelet bought Charlton in 2014, the club was hopelessly broke and, on the field, at their best since the Premier League era. Having escaped League One, they finished 2012–13 three points short of the Championship playoffs. Under manager and club icon Chris Powell the paltry bank balance had been invested with uncommon shrewdness. Bargain signings like Ben Hamer, Yann Kermorgant, and Dale Stephens outperformed, while the Academy turned out a bevy of useful players from Chris Solly onward. Non-competitively, there was the well-earned reputation as a community club and considerable long-term support that had kept attendance strong even in the third division. It was not a sure-fire investment for Duchâtelet: the grass at the Valley was in urgent need of replacement, contracts were expiring, a proper training ground was long overdue, and there were even unpaid bills. But he had the cash, and that looked like the only missing ingredient.

He spent it, too. That cow pasture was replaced as part of a suite of stadium upgrades, a training centre seems mired in almost permanent delay but has had shovels put in the ground, and no creditors claw at the door. But on the field Charlton is not only back in League One, they’re not favourites to go back up.

The club recently sacked manager Russell Slade and replaced him with former MK Dons man Karl Robinson, the club’s eighth permanent boss* in the two-and-a-half-year Duchâtelet era. Many favourites have left both the roster and the front office, starting with the sale of Kermorgant and Stephens in 2014 without adequate replacement. The club’s media relations are a shambles, changing hands with bewildering frequency. Even the ticket office and gift shop have been put on reduced hours. This level of incompetence would suffice to irritate fans, but Charlton’s had lousy or skinflint owners before. They’ve spent the past decade putting a brave face on failure; for their first two seasons in League One the Addicks’ attendance was behind only fallen giants Sheffield United and still strong by Championship standards. Duchâtelet is different.

Of course there’s the usual “modern football” stuff. The much-ridiculed “UK’s first pitchside fan sofa.” The degradation of the match-day programme, which in the British tradition had once been a genuine collectible and is now entirely supplanted by the Voice of the Valley independent fanzine. Reported, but highly hush-hush, plans to sell part of the Valley for development, and the imposition of price-gouging surcharges at the Valley ticket office despite diminishing attendance. Anti-ownership banners have been confiscated at the ground and four plain-clothes security men were recently sacked for attacking fans. A fan was told he’d lose his season ticket unless he agreed to stop slamming the club on social media. The club’s PR men even distributed a bogus video of a couple having sex on the field to drum up attention for their pitch-hire service. Contemptible, top to bottom, but hardly unique to Charlton Athletic.

No, this level of venom comes from the personalities of Duchâtelet and his appointed Charlton chief executive, Katrien Meire. Ignorance is hard enough to forgive; ignorance combined with condescension is poison.

Duchâtelet himself does not attend Charlton Athletic games, even when business brings him to London. As early as March of 2014, with the club still safe in the Championship, fans were nervously seeking a meeting with Duchâtelet and Meire, but the lofty powers descended from their heaven only to sack managers, send out players, and interfere in squad selection. Powell, the Charlton legend, realized he was doomed when he first met Duchâtelet and was told to replace top players with mediocrities from his other clubs. New signings Powell had never heard of, let alone signed would appear at Charlton’s office or their training sessions. Reportedly Powell was fired having just signed a new contract offer. Charlton never said a word in praise of one of their most beloved men, which given their treatment of him might actually be integrity.

Meire, at least, goes to many conferences and makes frequent statements. Early on, she bluntly said fans “must accept how owner Roland Duchâtelet runs the club.” The first protests brought an angry Meire telling fans to “stand up” to protesters and not “give them a platform.” Not long after, she dragooned anguished-looking board members and captain Johnnie Jackson into a meeting with supporters. They sat silently behind a CEO who insisted they were a team while she spoke at aimless length and showed a meaningless PowerPoint presentation she took credit for. Almost her first words were an irritated “I thought we already explained this several times,” later adding a pronouncement that only 2% of fans objected to their regime. She was almost immediately proven wrong. At one of her many conference appearances she seemed genuinely confused that Charlton fans thought they were owed any more respect or loyalty than movie theatre patrons. To contain criticism, Meire and Charlton launched an astroturf “Target 20,000” supporters society, an insulting callback to the Target 10,000 group that revived the club’s fortunes in the mid-1990s. Like everything else to come from the front office Target 20,000 has been secret and duplicitious.

Hang on, I need a paragraph break. Before a critical, televised March game against Middlesbrough, fans staged a mock funeral and bombarded the pitch with beach balls while chanting “we want Roland out.” After this protest an un-bylined statement was posted to the club website stating that “some individuals did not come to The Valley to watch the game and support the team, but came to create disorder on the pitch and interfere with the players and the game” and that “some individuals seem to want the club to fail.” Both Duchâtelet and Meire are referred to in the third person, but the statement was reported to be by Duchâtelet himself and led to the principled resignation of recently-appointed Charlton communications head Mel Baroni. When former Charlton executive Peter Varney made an approach representing an interested buyer, Meire accused him of wanting to move the club and provoked an irate Varney to threaten legal action. Facing a critical storm, Meire publicly accused fans of “abuse and criminal offences” against her, while in a visit with Target 20,000 Duchâtelet dismissived Charlton as 1.5% of his business interest. Just a week and a half ago Duchâtelet, responding to yet another protest and yet another managerial sacking, texted a radio station saying “these protests have nothing to do with reason” and that the “whatever we do or say, the core actors within that group will always criticize” while reportedly telling his local paper that the malcontents were simply misogynistic, bitter ex-employees.

Salvation seems unlikely: Duchâtelet supposedly wants his money back on a club that’s gone from near the Premier League to mid-table League One and has been hopelessly gutted organizationally. Neither the owner nor the executive seem to give a damn. There is no reason for a Charlton fan to hope for better.

Yet the protests continue, and only grow in intensity. Ticket sales are thousands below the last run to League One, and the club’s regular “Football for a Fiver” promotion was an unprecedented disaster. Gates of 8,745 against Oldham Athletic or 8,992 against Port Vale is horror show stuff by Charlton standards, and that’s without counting the barely-four-digit crowds for the running joke of the EFL Trophy. Almost all the passion at a Charlton game comes from the protesters.

It is enough to make a fan, even a fake fan from across the Atlantic who follows the Addicks because he liked them on TV and has never even been to the Valley, feel genuinely proud.

A list of protests could be a blog post in itself. From humble beginnings, requests for meetings, and optimistically promises of better communication, came protests that only grew in strength under the executives’ pressure. The “2%” cards were a visual hit, but the great beach ball extravaganza got Charlton international notice. At the last game of the 2015–16 season, also televised, with Charlton relegated and opponents Burnley set to clinch the title, Addicks fans went all out. A sitting protest outside the ground, match-long pyrotechnics, two hours of vicious anti-ownership chanting, and at last a pitch invasion alongside celebrating, friendly Burnley fans culminating in destruction of the hated sofa. All this alongside boycotts of club concessions and merchandise, a vibrant social media campaign under the fairly unified auspices of CARD (the Coalition Against Roland Duchatelet), and the inevitable attrition of ticket-holders.

The first weeks in League One were protest-free to give the team a chance. A false hope, nothing improved, so come October it was all back on. The Charlton – Coventry City game got more than the usual chants and rallies. Coventry supporters, with their own hateful owner to protest, pitched in, and thousands of toy pigs flew onto the Valley turf. With anti-regime displays often confiscated, an airplane was hired to take a banner over Gillingham’s stadium on match day saying it was #TimeToFly. Finally, since Duchâtelet was so unwilling to come to England, the protesters came to him, crossing the Channel in a personalized taxi to celebrate Duchâtelet’s 70th birthday and spreading the message at his business, the European Parliament, and his remaining Belgian club, Sint-Truiden.

It’s gotten to the point where CARD can break the news of Slade’s sacking hours in advance of the official announcement. A protest kit, bearing the name of a disgusted former club sponsor, sold nearly a thousand copies and raised £7,000 for charity. The grandson of another club legend, former manager Jimmy Seed, withdrew support from an attempt by the front office to renovate a sign in Seed’s honour out of protest for what the club has become. The Charlton Athletic Supporters Trust, which as an organization precedes Duchâtelet’s ownership, as a concept is an heir to the fan-derived ownership and “Valley Party” that kept the club alive in the ’80s and ’90s, and represents thousands of Charlton supporters, has been utterly ignored by the regime and inevitably come in against it.

It’s funny that a club which currently exemplifies everything that’s wrong with soccer can lead to such positive feelings among their fans, but that’s the strange, almost contradictory nature of sporting passion. The satisfaction of unifying in a just cause is rarely so well-earned. Not every fan agrees with the protest, not every protesting fan has been civilized in his objections, but by and large when Charlton gets in the news it’s because its supporters are doing something dramatic and decent to stand up for a club they love, being killed before their eyes. That level of defiance in the face of the odds is beautiful; no less so for being spent on sport.

(notes and comments…)

Comparing Independent and Reserve Attendances in Lower Divisions

By Benjamin Massey · December 2nd, 2014 · 1 comment

As you know the third division of American soccer, USL Pro, has become an affiliate league to Major League Soccer. While most teams remain independent, starting in 2014 USL Pro began admitting MLS reserve teams, and this system will massively expand for 2015 with several reserve teams in Canada and the United States.

Nobody runs their reserve team to make money, but many Major League Soccer front offices are marketing hard and hunting paying customers. Some, such as the Vancouver Whitecaps reserves, charge higher prices for tickets than the best reserve teams in the world. They’re making progress: how many times have we heard the reserve sides of Toronto FC, Montreal Impact, and Vancouver Whitecaps been called “new professional teams!!!” by the excitable, rather than an expansion of what already existed?

This model isn’t new. Several countries run reserve teams in the same league pyramid as independent clubs: Spain and Germany are the most famous but we see it all over the world, from Norway to Japan. Indeed, even in North America professional youth teams have operated alongside the independent semi-pros and amateurs of USL PDL for several years. So what does this mean for fans? Is a reserve team in a real league worth as much as a real team in the same league?

Inspired by an old Tyler Dellow post on mc79hockey.com, now removed from the Internet[1], I set out to compare the attendances of independent and reserve clubs in the same league.

Unfortunately, reliable attendance information for many such leagues, toiling in the lower divisions of non-English-speaking countries, is not readily available. Trying to compile data, I wound up with a total of ten seasons covering leagues in Spain, Germany, and the United States since 2012[2].

The distinction between “reserve team” and “non-reserve team” in North America can be slightly arbitrary: I did my best, erring towards considering teams independent. For example, Chivas USA and New York City FC did and will not appear on my lists; nor do USL Pro or USL PDL affiliates which are more like parents/feeders than full farm clubs. In the great scheme of thing potentially controversial cases are heavily outnumbered by clearcut Bayern Munich II/Chicago Fire Premier types.

Season League Level Avg. Attend/G Reserve Teams Non-Res Attend/G Reserve Attend/G Diff # Diff %
2012-13 Liga Adelante Spain 2 6724 2 6998 3990 3008 75.39%
2013-14 Liga Adelante Spain 2 7879 2 8328 3395 4932 145.26%
2012-13 3. Liga Germany 3 6162 2 6616 2077 4539 218.52%
2013-14 3. Liga Germany 3 6071 2 6556 1707 4849 284.15%
2012-13 Regionalliga Germany 4 1022 27 1288 390 898 230.62%
2013-14 Regionalliga Germany 4 1139 25 1380 524 856 163.36%
2014 USL Pro USA 3 3114 1 3308 597 2711 454.03%
2012 USL PDL USA 4 488 5 455 1026 -571 -55.63%
2013 USL PDL USA 4 588 7 578 686 -109 -15.81%
2014 USL PDL USA 4 590 9 606 482 124 25.83%
Averages 2563 2981 794 2188 275.59%

It’s not even close. At the same level, independent clubs are massively more popular than reserve teams, even considering cheaper (or free) tickets for reserve football, and this sample including the reserve sides for some of the world’s biggest clubs.

Look at Spain. The two reserve teams in the Liga Adelante in 2012-13 and 2013-14 are as huge as you can get: Barcelona B and Real Madrid Castilla. This is first-rate soccer. The current Real Madrid Castilla team includes three full internationals and Barcelona B has four. Both also have a handful of players who we’ll see on the senior Spanish side someday. And the attendance? Barça B had a middling year in 2012-13 but, on average, both these world-class development sides drew crowds that would shame an NASL team. (Most La Liga reserve sides, including Real Madrid Castilla this season, play in the Segunda División B, a level down, where attendance numbers are not reliably available.)

The two reserve teams in the German 3. Liga, Borussia Dortmund II and VfB Stuttgart II, boast big senior sides. But attendance-wise they finish behind almost everybody. In 2012-13 Stuttgart and Dortmund were second-last and last, respectively, in attendance. In 2013-14 Borussia Dortmund II improved to fifth from bottom, but still well behind 14th-place SV Wehen Wiesbaden (who they?!) while VfB Stuttgart II brought up the rear.

The largest group of reserve teams for which I had attendance data was in the German Regionalliga, made up of five regions and over 90 teams. In 2012-13 only three reserve teams (FC Bayern München II, 1. FC Köln II, and TSV 1860 München II) finished above the median in Regionalliga attendance. 15 of the 25 worst-supported Regionalliga teams, and all of the last seven, were reserve teams. Not bad when only 27 reserve teams played in the division.

It’s the same story in 2013-14. Three Regionalliga reserve teams (TSV 1860 München II, FC Bayern München II, and Hertha BSC II) again finished above the median attendance. 14 of the 25 worst-supported teams, and again all of the last seven, were reserve teams. Some of these sides drew truly atrocious crowds. 2012-13 SC Freiburg II got 164 fans a night, which would have embarrassed USL PDL.

Over in the United States, one reserve team operated in USL Pro last year: the Los Angeles Galaxy II. They did not draw flies, despite offering season tickets free with the MLS package and independent seats starting at US$72[3].

North American fans will be inspired, however, by USL PDL. In 2012 and 2013 the PDL affiliate teams actually drew better than the independent ones, and in 2014 they were darn close. This bucks the trend in Spain and Germany, and might mean that North America’s different culture and greater familiarity with minor-league teams will bring more success.

But I will respond with three words: the Portland Timbers. When it comes to reserve team popularity Portland is an exception; Portland is always an exception.

In 2012, the Portland Timbers U-23s were the third-best supported team in USL PDL. In 2013 they were third again, and in 2014 they were actually second. Portland’s U-23s regularly beat USL Pro teams in the attendance race. This is a credit to Portland fans, but it also weighs unusually heavily in our table; it takes only a few well-attended games to drag up the average number when such a small proportion of the league is reserve teams.

To demonstrate Portland’s distorting effect, let’s remove the Portland Timbers U-23s and the best-supported independent team all three years, the Des Moines Menace, from the USL PDL list and see what happens.

USL PDL Attendances 2012-14 (without Des Moines and Portland)
Season League Level Avg. Attend/G Reserve Teams Non-Res Attend/G Reserve Attend/G Diff # Diff %
2012 USL PDL USA 4 393 4 400 243 157 64.36%
2013 USL PDL USA 4 505 6 526 262 264 100.67%
2014 USL PDL USA 4 503 8 546 167 380 227.99%

Take away those maniacs in Portland and USL PDL lines up a lot more with Europe. Well-supported Cascadia rivals Seattle Sounders had a USL PDL team in 2013 and 2014 and have had below-average attendance. The Vancouver Whitecaps had a PDL team (and quite a successful one) for almost a decade, and their attendance is regularly in the basement.

Note as well that USL PDL attendances are not entirely reliable. Many teams, especially badly supported ones, do not report their attendance for all games. Orlando City U-23, who draw two- or single-digit crowds, reported only one game in 2013 and none at all in 2014. The Chicago Fire Premier/U-23 miss a couple games every year. Games not reported are not included in these tables, but would lower all average numbers and disproportionately hurt affiliated teams.

Obviously nothing in this post is related to player development: the most important job of a reserve team. But those looking to reserve teams to grow soccer in Canada and the United States should look elsewhere. Fans can get behind their own club even at the lowest levels but reserve teams? They just don’t care.

(notes and comments…)

That Soccer Saturday in Canada, in Full

By Benjamin Massey · October 24th, 2014 · No comments

Real Madrid v. Barcelona, 9 AM Pacific, beIN Sport — I know, I know, el Clásico is the soccer equivalent of pizza. Everybody has it, almost everybody loves it, but we know every worthwhile variation off by heart. The last original thought was back in 2003, there’s hardly any point in Tweeting about it, every comment you make was made six hundred times before your synapses even warmed up. But, again like pizza, even when it’s very bad it’s very good. And the Spaniards, who know a thing or two about sleeping in, have scheduled this world-dominating affray at a perfectly reasonable time for us left-coasters. Enjoy a bit of classic Spanish flair, flopping, and inadequate defense over your tea and scones. (beIN Sport isn’t common in Canadian households but this is going to be the most illegally-streamed game of the fall so don’t sweat it.)

Canada WNT v. Japan WNT, 1 PM Pacific, all the Sportsnets — After our Iberian appetizer comes lunch. Given that Japan is one of the world’s leading women’s soccer teams and Canada’s not quite that, our occasional meetings have been a lot of fun. Japan beat Canada 2-1 in the round robin of the 2012 Summer Olympics; a well-deserved victory for the Japanese who wound up being the tournament’s best team, but also an exciting contest. Prior to that, Canada whooped Japan 3-0 at the 2008 Cyprus Cup on a Christine Sinclair hat trick. The Edmonton crowd, which has worshiped Sinclair for twelve years now, would dearly like a repeat performance. Don’t hold your breath.

Japan is one of the world’s top teams: not Germany good but medal contenders in anything. Their recent form has been solid; check out Emily Dulhanty on Red Nation Online for an up-to-date perspective but suffice to say they are fresh off their first ever win at the Women’s Asian Cup. It’s a big achievement, and yet…

I didn’t watch the Asian tournament but Japan’s results weren’t quite the standard I’d expect. The Japanese got a fortunate draw, avoiding both Koreas and facing only teams they should enjoy a comfortable margin over. A 1-0 victory over Australia in the final was unusually tight for the Japanese against the third-rate-but-improving Aussies. In the round robin the pair actually drew, with Japan lucky to get the single point thanks to an Aussie own goal. We can say that in Asia Japan is still comfortably better than China and Australia, but they’ve been fairly even lately with both Koreas while a couple years ago Japan was a solid half-stride ahead. They look, in short, like a team that’s still dangerous, and still probably Canada’s superior, but just starting to overrun their prime.

It’s so stupid! There’s no reason for that! Of Japan’s core players only goalkeeper Niko Fukumoto is over thirty years old. Midfielder Aya Miyama is going to be in the Ballon d’Or argument and at 29 is in the prime of life. Yuki Ogimi is still kicking around, still dangerous. The legendary Homare Sawa is off this roster after playing the Asian Cup, but she hasn’t been a first-rate player for a couple years. The one thing you can say about the Japanese is that they haven’t much young blood: forward Mana Iwabuchi is their only player under 23 and her early accomplishments have been slightly disappointing. Have they just relied on the same core for too long and worn it out?

Doubt it. Japan can safely expect four points from their two games in Canada and wouldn’t be surprised to take all six. Even at their best they’ve never really been terrifying in the way France, Germany, or the United States could be: they just sort of win games, and they’re gonna be a cut above Canada. I don’t forecast a tonne of thrills, but Miyama is an absolute top player and worth the price of admission on her own. Attendance is looking disappointing, maybe below 10,000, so I’d urge you all to get your asses down to Commonwealth Stadium and load up. For those of us not in Edmonton, the game will be on all four of the main Sportsnets with Gerry Dobson in the booth, so the afternoon holds promise.

Fort Lauderdale Strikers v. FC Edmonton, 4:30 PM Pacific, NASL Live — How about this for some pressure? FC Edmonton, after being buried alive like the Undertaker this summer, is now playing for their playoff lives in Fort Lauderdale. The Eddies and the Strikers are competing for the last playoff spot in the North American Soccer League. Fort Lauderdale is two points up but this game means Edmonton controls their own destiny. Win, and Edmonton just needs a result at home (in November, against an Atlanta Silverbacks team that seems weeks from folding or self-relegating) to make the NASL playoffs for the second time ever. Lose, and Edmonton is eliminated. The one time the Eddies made the playoffs was in 2011, when they lost their only playoff game 5-0… in Fort Lauderdale, to the Strikers. Call this one the Rein Baart Revenge Match.

Fort Lauderdale is a hard team to beat. The Carolina Railhawks found this out last week to their woe. Their game was terrific but in the end only luck let Carolina get out of that home game with a point. Fort Lauderdale has a couple players who will be especially hungry to stick it to Edmonton: midfielder Chris Nurse was an Eddie last season but left in a tsunami of bad blood, while winger Martin Nunez was signed to FC Edmonton at the beginning of the 2013 season then cut in training camp by Colin Miller. And Fort Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium is a bloody difficult venue. The Strikers have lost once at home this fall, 3-0 to league leaders Minnesota, and won three on the trot.

The bad news for Fort Lauderdale? Strikers head coach Günter Kronsteiner, who is a little insane, has spent the past few weeks feuding with his best player, Fafà Picault. Picault was benched in Carolina and is widely rumoured to be leaving the Strikers at the end of this season. No coach would be crazy enough to leave Picault out in this kill-or-be-killed home fixture… but then again no coach would be crazy enough to force the Edmonton city police to throw him out of Clarke Stadium and Kronsteiner’s done that too.

Most importantly, after years of utter haplessness as soon as they got on an airplane FC Edmonton has somehow learned how to play road games. Recent road results include a rollicking 3-2 win in Carolina, a 3-0 loss in San Antonio that was ruined by truly shambolic refereeing, a 1-1 draw in Indy where Edmonton was the better team, another referee-marred 1-1 draw in Tampa, and last weekend a 2-0 win in Ottawa where the Eddies punched the Fury around for about half an hour then sat back for the rest of the game smoking cigarettes, playing pinochle, and letting Tony Donatelli knock out the seats behind the goal with his errant shooting.

This game isn’t on Canadian television, so if you’re not an NASL Live subscriber you’re going to be stuck with me going “AAAAAGH!” on Twitter for two hours. But it’ll be well worth it.

Vancouver Whitecaps v. Colorado Rapids, 7 PM Pacific, TSN — Speaking of playoff lives! The math for the Whitecaps is easy: equal or beat the result of the Portland Timbers. Win and they’re in, taking fifth place in the MLS West (which does count as a playoff spot, Toronto fans). Draw and they qualify if Portland doesn’t beat FU Dallas. Lose and the Whitecaps need Dallas to beat the Timbers outright. Dallas and Portland kick off at 5:30, so we’ll have a good idea of the required result by gametime.

The game is sold out, Fan Appreciation Night, the last home match of the season barring some true playoff glory. Fans are stoked after Toronto FC choked their lives away and the Whitecaps qualified for their first CONCACAF Champions League through the back door; we seem guaranteed a ballsy crowd. The Cascadia Cup champions will be in a strong position, both morally and statistically, to lay yet more pain on the Timbers who, after a dodgy couple of months there, have resumed their traditional place as Cascadian whipping boys. Former captain Jay DeMerit will be in the building being applauded for taking up a load of salary cap room to be Vancouver’s third-best centreback for a few years (hey, when’s Martin Nash night?). In short, it could be a good advertisement for the excitement of Major League Soccer. Or it could be absolutely jackshit if Dallas runs riot over Portland and this game winds up being a friendly.

Most competitions play critical games on the last weekend like this simultaneously, so results in one don’t influence results in the others. In MLS this is allegedly impossible because of television requirements. I actually sort of understand Major League Soccer’s position here: the English Premier League can play hardball with its television stations knowing that if they swing their dick around Sky Sports will happily preempt the darts for some soccer. MLS hasn’t got that sort of leverage. But from a competitive advantage it’s a long way from ideal; luckily this year the scheduling plays into the Whitecaps’ hands, so everything is fine.

Anybody who reads this page will know I’m not really capable of previewing this game intelligently. Even if I was, at any moment standard MLS hijinks could intervene and make all forecasts worthless. So I’ll just say that, for the sake of the Whitecaps organization, fans, and a few of its players, I’ll have my dodgy web stream on and hope in my heart. If MLS must exist, it’ll be a little more tolerable for the Whitecaps doing well in it.

A Hipster Long After It’s Mainstream

By Benjamin Massey · October 23rd, 2014 · No comments

Tomorrow afternoon my European club of choice, Charlton Athletic, will play its annual televised soccer game when they visit Fulham. Since leaving the Premier League actually watching Charlton has been a rare treat indeed: even when they’re on North American TV, which is basically fucking never, it’s always at 6 AM on Sportsnet 8 or something; none of the pubs in Vancouver are open and I don’t have the $900/month cable package which wafts that obscure channel into my television on clouds of myrrh.

But tomorrow Charlton is actually on one of the beIN Sports channels, which some people in Canada can actually watch, and at a human time of day no less. Unfortunately my brief attempt to find a pub showing the game so I can take a three-hour lunch and go drinking has been a disappointment.

I’m not just writing this to try and troll for intelligence on who might be showing this match (although if you know a place by all means leave a comment), but as an excuse to consider how we deal with teams, like Charlton, which are for the moment a cut below the big leagues.

You see, when I go in search of a game like this and tell a fellow Canadian soccer fan I cheer for Charlton, I inevitably get the “god what a hipster” look. Well, compared to the Vancouver Whitecaps, Charlton is by far the more popular on the world stage. The Whitecaps draw more attendance per game, but if you compare Charlton’s first division days to the Whitecaps in MLS, or Charlton’s Championship days to the Whitecaps in USL-1, Charlton wins by thousands. Not counting the Addicks’ larger media profile around the world, nor their more famous alumni, nor their presence in the heart of London, probably the world’s single largest market for soccer, nor their higher prices (Charlton and the other Football League teams charge more for a season of their online radio stream than a year’s subscription to the HD video of MLS Live and NASL Live combined). Anybody who can cheer on the Whitecaps could hardly turn up their noses at Charlton’s obscurity.

I don’t have what you might call a legitimate reason to like Charlton; I’ve never even seen them play in person. Truth be told, I started cheering for them while they were in the Premier League because they were on Fox Sports World a fair bit and those Alan Curbishley teams were a lot of fun. There’s no difference between me cheering for Charlton and all those Ossington-based Barcelona maniacs you’re going to see in a couple days.

It’s curious seeing how the instinctive North American uninterest in lower-division teams manifests itself. It’s the same idea that sees MLS fans feel a big-brotherly affection to Canada’s two NASL teams, even though the NASL fans want to rip off the MLS’s teams’ faces and feast on their innards. We’ll happily pack rinks to watch 19-year-olds in the Canadian Hockey League, but lower-division adult sports doesn’t really “count”. Even many CFL fans and staffers go to pains to say they play the top level of Canadian football, not the second level of American football. The many manifestations of this attitude never fail to intrigue.

Soccer Good vs. Evil

By Benjamin Massey · December 2nd, 2012 · 2 comments

A soccer match is seldom such an unalloyed case of good versus evil. Fatuous imbeciles trumpet that Barcelona is more than a club or that a victory for one club is a victory for its entire country; these things are never true. Most of the time, as Sigmund Freud would have said, a soccer game is just a soccer game.

Not today. Probably every civilized soccer fan was at least passively hoping for AFC Wimbledon to knock off Milton Keynes Dons in the FA Cup this morning. I am a contrarian by nature who happily points out in 3,000 words why everything someone loves is irrelevant, to say nothing of being a fan of another London club in Charlton, and I got up at 4:30 AM to watch this historic game and cheer AFC Wimbledon on. Outside the Milton Keynes fanbase itself I didn’t see any support for MK Dons. It would have been like Londoners cheering for the Luftwaffe.

I do not support AFC Wimbledon. I have not contributed to their Dons Trust and this was only the second game of their’s I’ve ever watched. But I am a soccer fan, and it was in every fan’s interest to cheer on the real Dons this morning.

Those who want supporter ownership and “fan’s rights” would love AFC Wimbledon, maybe the most all-round-successful supporters-run organization in Great Britain. Fans of promotion and relegation would approve of a team that’s living the dream, having gone from Combined Counties League to League Two and international television in a decade. And there was the natural appeal of the underdog, as AFC Wimbledon was a division behind MK Dons and next season it could very easily become three.

But that’s very little to do with it. As everyone knows MK Dons was once Wimbledon FC. They called that London borough home for over a century, and while there were stadium issues it was nothing that should have endangered the club’s future. But it did, as a series of multi-millionaire owners demanded a new building subsidized by the public[1], threatening to axe culture and history unless they got their way and lying by calling it capitalism. Wimbledon didn’t give in but the owners got their new building, in a so-called “new town” with the very new name of “stadium:MK” (they have since dropped the criminal colon, for what that’s worth). Every fan who has been threatened with his team relocating unless they get a sweet new stadium deal, everyone who lives in a city that supported the hell out of its team but lost it for reasons that have nothing to do with sports, should want a world in which MK Dons is a failure both on the field and off.

This does not require an extremist position against relocation or “franchising”. Such moves can serve the greater good: the NHL world is a better place with the Flames in Calgary rather than Atlanta. It’s a sad truth that some cities just can’t support the team they’re given and relocation is often preferable to termination. But as the Dons have re-demonstrated Wimbledon is not such a case: playing at a low level in a shared ground, AFC Wimbledon has been supported magnificently just as Wimbledon FC usually was before. They did nothing to deserve the loss of their 19th-century club.

It could happen to any of us if we let it. “There but for the grace of God go I”; it is terrifyingly easy for me to envision the Edmonton Oilers moving to their own Milton Keynes. If they did, I like to think NHL fans would cheer for the debauched Oilers to burn in hell.

The game didn’t live up to the off-field drama, as indeed it never could have. Both teams started a Wimbledon FC alum (captain Dean Lewington for Milton Keynes, loanee goalkeeper Neil Sullivan with the Dons), which was nice from a historical perspective, but as always MK Dons was eager to dismiss whatever of Wimbledon FC’s history and identity they couldn’t assume. MK Dons’s antiseptic, self-consciously modern, and shockingly empty stadium was complete with a “We’re the Dons” banner plastered over an expanse of unsold prime seats. That banner on this occasion was like an enormous flashing sign pointing to stadium MK and shouting “WE ARE EVIL”. A professional wrestling heel would think MK Dons lacked subtlety.

Compare that manufactured slogan to the spontaneous joy when AFC Wimbledon’s Jack Midson equalized in the sixtieth minute with what was really more of a falling than a diving header. There was still half an hour to go and nothing had been achieved yet. But an end packed with Wimbledon supporters exploded. A few dozen fans leaped over the fence and invaded the pitch, celebrating in unrestrained glee just for a goal against the evil empire. The play-by-play commentator tut-tutted self-righteously over an expression of pure sporting joy that hurt nobody and barely even held up play. He couldn’t have been more wrong; if there’s anything more beautiful than perfect joy well-earned in the cathedral of your greatest enemy, I can’t think of what it is. The celebration by the home crowd over MK’s 90th-minute winner was subdued in comparison. How couldn’t it be?

MK Dons took the win, of course, as they deserved to despite their fluke of a goal moments after Steven Gregory should have won it on the other end. Wimbledon put ten men behind the ball at almost all times, tried to break Milton Keynes’s constant attack from wide spaces like waves over rocks, and were by far the less beautiful, the less talented, the less good team. Both sides were sloppy, in a way that’s hard to overstate, but Milton Keynes was obviously the more skillful by, ooh, almost two divisions. Stephen Gleeson’s ridiculous outswinging goal from extreme range late in the first half was a highlight reel strike that immediately belonged on YouTube, as beautiful as the winner was pathetic.

But we all knew AFC Wimbledon was going to lose, didn’t we? The odds on a Dons win were running 7-to-1 prior to kickoff. There was no doubt, and even those who were upset at the gutwrenching nature of the defeat were hardly complaining that it happened. That’s not what this first meeting between Dons and Dons was about. The game was a compelling but secondary formality. What mattered was that Wimbledon was alive, healthy, and frankly better everywhere that counted.

Thought was given in AFC Wimbledon circles to boycotting this game. After the heartbreaking result, some who went doubtless wish they hadn’t. I fully understand the desire to starve Pete Winkelman of ticket revenue until he’s sucking dick in Piccadilly Circus for spare change, but the time for boycotts has been passed for years. The battle has been won. MK Dons fans may be allowed into the Football Supporters’ Federation[2], and they’re probably on their way up to the Championship, but there’s no question who has won the war. It’s not the Milton Keynes’s fans they cheer for a club born in hellfire, but the organization itself remains permanently excluded from polite society while AFC Wimbledon could make their slogan “every fan’s second club.”

Because we all recognize the threat of owners demanding public money for their hobbies, and it could so easily happen to us. The scourge of millionaires blackmailing fans versus the ideal of supporters taking their fates into their own hands and securing the future of their beloved team as long as anyone cares. Talk about good versus evil.

(notes and comments…)

The Prestigious Edmonton Cup, and the Rich Teams that Played for It

By Benjamin Massey · July 22nd, 2010 · No comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever

Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton is an excellent place to host a soccer game when it is full. Unfortunately, full for Commonwealth Stadium is 60,081 souls. The fewer people in Commonwealth, the closer you get to an average MLS or, worse, an average NASL team’s attendance, and the more the cavernous emptiness of the place starts to stand out. Chants absorbed by a battalion of empty seats. Seven-eighths of the sections in the stadium closed off and what remains still looking altogether too modest.

Last night, FC Edmonton drew 8,762 fans to watch the new local boys take on the famous foreigners, Portsmouth, for something called the “Edmonton Cup”.

What did those 8,762 fans get? Well, they paid not less than $34, after TicketMaster fees, for an adult ticket (the lowest price for general admission which wasn’t even available online). They got an absolutely spectacular evening to watch soccer. They got an opponent with a famous name but nothing else famous about them. With FC Edmonton sporting their home blues Portsmouth was even forced out of their iconic blue strip and into their white and red away kit, detracting just a little from the air of fame surrounding the opponents.

The team selection was even less inspiring. Nary a name in the lineup would have been familiar to even the most ardent observer of the English leagues. Midfielder Michael Brown was the most famous one to turn out, going all ninety minutes. Striker David Nugent also played ninety minutes. But the rest of the team from top to bottom was reserve players, truly dedicated League bench warmers like Nadir Ciftci, and the dregs of Portsmouth’s already rather poor organization.Five of Pompey’s starting eleven had never played so much as a league game. Anybody who paid their minimum of $34 expecting a display of classic football from European professionals went home horrified.

The game itself was a dreary affair. Even with their watered-down lineup Pompey was clearly more skilled and athletic than FC Edmonton, but the Edmontonians played far better as a team. They kept their shape more readily and read each other better, misplaying far fewer balls and getting some nice opportunities out of well-conceived passing plays. Edmonton actually opened the scoring seven minutes in courtesy former Canadian U-2o and current Canadian beach soccer striker Chris Lemire, converting on one of those lovely Edmonton buildups and forcing the ball (and himself) through keeper Jon Stewart. Stewart was badly injured on Lemire’s goal and left the game with suspicions of a broken leg, being replaced by Liam O’Brien.

O’Brien fumbled with the ball early in his relief appearance but eventually grew more and more steady. More importantly, as the game wore on Portsmouth’s superior athleticism and skill began to tell. The Edmonton players seemed to wear down in spite of the cool evening. Their aerial ability was nil, and Portsmouth started to take more advantage of it. Meanwhile, as Edmonton grew tired their first touch let them down more and more, and balls that once found players began to float into touch.

Portsmouth was due to equalize and did through a nice bit of corner play from Nadir Ciftci, alertly poking in David Ritchie’s curving ball. The teams were level both on the scoreboard and on the pitch, and the decisive match for the Edmonton Cup went to penalties (after some five minutes of confusion where the players seemed uncertain what was going to happen). Portsmouth prevailed, 5-4, and lifted a giant trophy it looked like someone had bought off the shelf of a sporting goods store.

The game was underwhelming, the players often incompetent. It was not of the calibre I’ve grown to expect from the North American second division. But the result was fair and Edmonton fans can say, with pride, that they held the FA Cup finalists to a 1-1 draw.

The 8,000-person crowd will raise a few concerned eyebrows. But it was a ferociously expensive mid-week game against a team that serious football fans can’t really take seriously except as a butt for bankruptcy jokes. There was a surprisingly strong Portsmouth traveling contingent of about thirty souls, mostly middle-aged and very courteous Englishmen who could not, physically, have been less impressed with Edmonton. The recently relegated Blue Army turned out more fans for an utterly pedestrian friendly across the ocean against an obscure club that hasn’t even played in the league yet than Canada gets for the Gold Cup! They were very nice men and women, all, and there for a good time, although when I left them it was after escorting them to a rather loud and quite obnoxious Budweiser “party tent” that I admit to leaving trails of fire running away from.

It was also encouraging to see the development of Edmonton’s supporters culture. The FC Edmonton supporters brigade is both small and nameless, but it seems to be growing and a few fans got caught up in the fun from time to time. The chant repertory consists mostly of old favourites with new words sung unconvincingly, but it improved palpably even as the game wore on (for chanting is the kind of thing that develops only with practice). After Jon Stewart was replaced none of us had any idea who the substitute goalkeeper was, but tall and dressed in pink he made an easy target, so we settled for calling him “Billy” in our heckles until @coxon was nice enough to Tweet me his real name. I dunno. “Billy” was funnier.

It was also my first look at the much-reviled FieldTurf installed at Commonwealth this year. At the time it went in, I opined that for all the guff FieldTurf gets from the peanut gallery it will probably be better than the terrible grass pitch Commonwealth was once cursed by. Now I’ve seen it and it’s definitely better. The ball was not afflicted by the random bumps and skips that were once the bane of soccer players in Edmonton. It stood up well to Edmonton’s mostly ground-based attack and there was never any hint that it was playing anything but perfectly. A skeptic may say that Pompey suffered an inordinate number of injuries in the match, but Edmonton was perfectly healthy and the Portsmouth injuries were generally on account of Edmonton players running into them, not the turf.

All in all, it was a dreary game but a lovely evening. The sun was shining, the fans were cheering, and a professional soccer team in Edmonton was playing before my very eyes for the first time in my adult life. They could have lost 7-0 and I would have enjoyed it anyway.

A Tale of Two Strikers

By Benjamin Massey · July 14th, 2010 · 4 comments

This is Simeon Jackson, hero of Gillingham and seemingly the latest member of newly-promoted Norwich City in what I will have to get used to calling the Npower Championship.

As strikers go, Jackson is little, and unlike most small men he’s not actually all that fast. He is, however, an assassin in front of goal and that allowed him to record a credible fifteen goals in League One last season in spite of ending the year on a five-game scoreless drought while fighting through an injury. He is a legitimate professional talent, even if his strike rate for Canada of one goal in ten appearances is Rob Friend territory and he’s never played a second of his life higher than the English third division.

There’s some enthusiasm about Jackson joining Norwich, which in spite of being recently promoted is expected to hang around the Championship and avoid relegation without difficulty. There’s also some cynicism, but most of it is along the lines of “well, now he’s hurt his chances of playing in the Premier League“. He is only twenty-three, after all. At age twenty-three, Tomasz Radzinski was playing for a bad Belgian team. Rob Friend was just coming out of Moss FK in the Norwegian second division. Twenty-three is young. Barring injury there’s no doubt Jackson has untapped potential and one hopes Norwich will help him realize it.

But it is just potential. An Englishman by the name of Billy Sharp is another 5’9″ striker in his early twenties and he was actually the leading scorer in all of League One two seasons running, yet he has completely failed to accomplish anything at a higher level. League One proves nothing, and in limited experience against better opposition Jackson has one poacher’s goal against Cyprus, one glorious moment against Aston Villa, and over a dozen games of nothing much. Nobody, least of all me, is writing Jackson off, but let’s be realistic. If Jackson can win a starting spot with Norwich that will be a tremendous victory for a young player. If he actually shows Premier League quality, then he’ll get his chance but that’s more than an outside shot. But the excitement over Jackson is disproportionate to his actual accomplishments. If one were to list Canada’s best players under twenty-five, would Jackson break the top five? Adam Straith, Nana Attakora, Will Johnson, Dejan Jakovic, André Hainault, and that was easy.

Hell, Marcus Haber got on a Championship roster last year. Ask him how much good that’s done so far.

Meanwhile, a striker who has actually accomplished something in his career has also found a new team and he’s just coming in for mockery. Ali Gerba signed with the Montreal Impact yesterday, and while the North American Soccer League isn’t exactly the Npower Championship it has got a better name and at least Canadians might be able to start in it.

Shall we get the jokes out of the way? Very well. O ho ho ho Ali Gerba is so fat he doesn’t run around defenders, he runs around defenders. There. Also, he’s in the prime of his career and if he retired tomorrow he’d have the best strike rate of anybody in the history of the Canadian men’s national team among players with over ten caps. He’s had competitive strike rates in the then-Coca-Cola Championship, in Germany, all over North America, in fact just about everywhere except Toronto FC where he saw spot duty and was cut by a manager who said “no, I’d rather have Fuad Ibrahim, thanks.” But Toronto is very nearby, and its soccer media is very loud these days, and so Ali is the fat over the hill guy who can score like mad against banana republics but never against Mexico except for that one time when he did, and Simeon Jackson is the bright young pup who hasn’t actually proven anything against international-quality players yet but is neither fat nor prone to giving The Score personalities embarrassing interviews about how awful the Toronto FC dressing room is.

Of course, at age twenty-three Ali Gerba was named “Ngon” and was playing in something called the “A-League”. One never knows.

Simeon Jackson is developing well, if not brilliantly. But Ali Gerba is there, now, and is clearly our only capable scoring striker. One is the butt of jokes, the other is the subject of hagiography. It’s entirely possible that come the 2011 Gold Cup or even the 2014 World Cup qualifying run, the fat man will score more goals than the prodigy. In fact, if Gerba sticks with a club for the next couple seasons I’d be willing to bet on it. Potential is lovely but never wager against actual, genuine, and proven ability.

Europe Has Its Priorities In Order

By Benjamin Massey · September 14th, 2009 · No comments

Arsenal striker Eduardo: dives, not carded by the official, suspended two games after the fact.

Sheffield United defender Chris Morgan: nearly murders Iain Hume in cold blood with a ruthless, deliberate elbow to the head, not carded by the official, FA utterly dismisses the possibility of post-match sanction.

Yeah, that’s about right.

The Canadian Roundup

By Benjamin Massey · August 31st, 2009 · 2 comments

It’s a shame that the Maple Leaf Forever has been so quiet lately. After all, there’s been quite a bit going on with Canadian players around the world. David Hoilett made his debut with Blackburn, Asmir Begovic is getting first team time with Portsmouth, and of course there are the Jonathan De Guzman transfer rumours…

Okay, none of them are exactly Canadian. Regardless, not a few Canadians have been shuffling about the football world. If you ever want up-to-date information on the tribulations of every Canadian outside Canada, the Voyageurs should be your one-stop shop, particularly the aptly-named Mother of all Canadians Abroad thread, from which I mercilessly lifted much of this news. I did, however, try to add my own insight and research to it, so hopefully even the hardest-core Voyageur will find something in this summary they didn’t already know,

In a sad bit of news, alumnus of the Canadian national team and former Toronto Blizzard standout Fernando Aguiar had retired from football at the age of 37, returning to Canada. Mixed in with sorrow at a great warrior from a bygone era finally hanging up his boots, the most natural response to this is “Jesus Christ, Fernando Aguiar was still playing?”

Indeed he was. Aguiar was actually at a surprisingly high level, playing for S.C. Gondomar of the Portugese Liga Vitalis (their second division). Aguiar was once known for speaking before he thought, famously running off his mouth after not being selected for a friendly on the Voyageurs board. But in recent years he has kept his head down while quietly accumulating the best resume of any Canadian outfield player in his age group. The last true casualty of the Yallop-Watson dark age, Aguiar will be remembered fondly.

Andrew Ornoch recently joined the many Canadians plying their trade in the Netherlands, joining up (as reported in superior detail by the Out of Touch guys and by Ben Rycroft) with Heracles Almelo of the Eredivisie. The 24-year-old plays both midfield and striker and enjoys a positive reputation both in Canada and in Europe, where he is called a positive influence as well as a talented player. Ornoch signed on a free transfer after impressing the Dutch in his trial, and the manager has indicated (Dutch) he’ll get a shot in the starting eleven.

Born in Warsaw, Ornoch is (until they change the rules again) a signed, sealed, and delivered Canadian: he appeared in Dale Mitchell’s last match, the famous 3-0 curbstomping in Jamaica which also saw a forgotten Bosnian named Asmir Begovic spend the entire match on the bench. Ornoch has also appeared against Hungary in 2006 and Cyprus earlier this year.

While Ornoch enters the Netherlands, could-be Canadian Jonathan De Guzman is on his way out, being linked to many of the powers of Europe from his current side Feyenoord. Chelsea, Stuttgart, Everton, and Valencia have been linked to the starlet of ambiguous nationality, with the transfer fee rumoured to be in the £4 million range. The Chelsea rumour is getting the most buzz, but that’s probably just because they’re Chelsea: they are reportedly looking to send De Guzman out on loan and the younger De Guzman is not at all happy with that idea.

Jonathan is obviously catching the eye of the European press after an injury-plagued 2008 campaign, which is great for him but a shame for us Canadians as we’d hoped he’d slip under the radar long enough to commit to the maple leaf. For what it’s worth, though, there is still no Dutch national buzz around De Guzman and they seem content to let World Cup Qualifying pass without tying him down. Perhaps the Dutch have no doubts about his loyalties, or perhaps they have no interest. We outsiders can only guess.

The much bigger news for Canada fans came on a much smaller scale, and promising defender Adam Straith, formerly of the Vancouver Whitecaps academy and fresh off of a year on loan in Germany, will stick around in Europe as the Whitecaps agreed on his transfer to 2.Bundesliga Energie Cottbus for an undisclosed fee.

Cottbus have made a habit of acquiring Canadians lately. In addition to Straith and the other half-dozen Whitecaps loanees up and down the Cottbus youth setup, the newly-relegated side also rescued Lars Hirschfeld from obscurity by signing him on a free transfer from CFR Cluj earlier this summer. The Canadians have not yet gotten any first-team experience, with Hirschfeld consigned to the bench until Cottbus manages to transfer out the overqualified Gerhard Tremmel, but both Straith and Hirschfeld were acquired with the expectation that they’ll be starting sooner or later.

Straith, 19, is entirely a product of the British Columbian soccer system, having played with Victoria United of the PCSL, the Whitecaps Residency team, and the usual panoply of elite youth teams. He made five appearances with Cottbus II in his loan spell and acquitted himself very well, and while the Germans will of course train him up to full European standards he and his kinsmen are the much-belated realization of the long-held dream that Canada could develop its own players domestically.

Last but not least, a Canadian goalkeeper has signed in the Scottish second division. There’s not much glory in the Scottish second tier but since I did an entire post on our goalkeeper signing for a soon-to-be-relegated Scottish Premier side, the least I can do is give this guy a paragraph. Cameron McKay agreed to terms earlier this week with Cowdenbeath F.C., joining a promising squad. It’s certainly a leap for McKay, who was previously playing in the Ontario provincial league with the other part-time warriors that dot Canada’s obscure soccer landscape.

According to perpetual newsbreaker of obscure Canadians Dino Rossi, Abney is twenty-four years old, and nobody will be shocked to hear that he has no international resume. I don’t follow the Ontario provincial leagues (surprise surprise) and so I don’t know a damned thing about this kid except what I got out of the Voyageurs thread: most interestingly, he has a blog with six posts but a pretty engaging writing style. He may be even less prolific than I am but he’s also getting paid to play football while I sit in an office staring at the clock all day, so he’s ahead of me there.

Reference to the Canadian Football Fan

By Benjamin Massey · August 30th, 2009 · 8 comments

One of my pet peeves about the sports media in this country is that they have no idea what a Canadian football fan is like.

Seriously. Open up the pages of a major daily and even a respected reporter like Stephen Brunt will burst into generalization and errors of fact when Canadian fans come up. Generalizing Canadian supporters from Toronto FC or Vancouver Whitecaps fans or the guys at the pub in Liverpool jerseys are like assuming all NHL fans are basically Toronto Maple Leafs diehards with different laundry. But football’s heritage in this country is far weaker than hockey’s, and the media hacks flower into cliche because they simply don’t know better.

Never fear, mediocre sports scribes of our glorious dominion. I, Lord Bob, despite never having been further east than Montreal, have taken it upon myself to do the generalizing for you. Merely refer to the 2,000 largely inane words below, and you will understand what it is to be a Canadian football fan.

The Casual

Quote: “Who’s that Canadian on Manchester United again?”

Knowledge Level: Wouldn’t recognize Mike Klukowski if he saw him on the street.

Tell-Tale Symptoms: Owns at least one of an Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, or Liverpool kit. Could tell you how many goals Wayne Rooney scored last year but thinks the New York/New Jersey Metrostars still exist.

By far the most common football fan in Canada, the casual is exactly what he sounds like. He’ll tend to support one of the English Big Four, and perhaps he’ll go to a Major League Soccer game before leaving in the seventy-fifth minute to beat the traffic. This is the sort of guy who’s dragged into a supporter’s section by his buddy, will listen to the singing and chanting and say “this is cool” but not ever, ever join in.

The casuals are perfectly respectable, reasonable people. Many of them are thoroughly decent men and women with rewarding jobs, loving families, and many hobbies besides football. Though they have decided not to arrange their lives around a game, if anything they deserve more of our respect for keeping their priorities so keenly in order.

Real supporters avoid these guys like the plague.

The Apprentice

Quote: That tuneless yelling you get when you don’t quite know a chant yet.

Knowledge Level: Would recognize Mike Klukowski on the street.

Tell-Tale Symptoms: Renews his passport early “just in case”. Buys a Canada kit in the wrong colour because the red ones were out of stock, then feels guilty and spends twice as much to get a red one as well. In the latter stages, becomes genuinely alarmed at how much time and money he’s spending on a losing team that plays in Canada once every two years. Liable to become The Voyageur without swift psychiatric help.

If anybody deserves our pity, it is the apprentice. Lacking the cynicism borne from years of failure, the apprentice is often the most gung-ho member in any supporter’s section. Those casuals who enjoy the supporter’s section a bit too much become the apprentice. When you’re at a sparsely attended match, a person wanders into the supporter’s section, has a beer, has a laugh, and winds up cheering and roaring and chanting and standing on the rail hurling epithets at the referee’s country of origin, you just witnessed the birth of the apprentice.

These guys are prone to lapses, both major and minor. Whether it’s thinking Canada has a midfielder named Maxime Bernier or thinking the movie Green Street was a documentary and trying to start a fight with the opposing supporters, no apprentice gets through his first year as a supporter without doing something unbelievably embarrassing. Usually, though, he’ll be the only one who wasn’t embarrassed by it.

The Voyageur

Quote: “Marc Bircham was all right, but he was no Carl Valentine.”

Knowledge Level: Would recognize Mike Klukowski’s extended family on the street.

Tell-Tale Symptoms: Passport has more stamps than a hyperactive kid’s scrapbook. Can recommend cheap hotels in Honduras. Knows where Phillips Bakery is.

Every country has its bloc of guys who care just a little bit too much. In Canada, these guys are the Voyageurs. For those not up on their Canadian history, back in our colonial days voyageurs were Canadian fur traders renowned for hiking vast distances through unknown country filled with hostile natives while carrying two-hundred-pound packs and portaging canoes before plunging through white-water rapids, killing some beavers, and then doing the same thing in the other direction. They were few in number but highly respected and more than a little crazy.

Replace “carrying huge packs and canoes” with “drinking buckets full of beer” and “killing some beavers” with “cheering on Canada and occasionally fighting Hondurans and Costa Ricans” and that’s basically a modern Voyageur in a nutshell.

Most Voyageurs are very normal people in their non-soccer lives, except that once or twice a year they take time off to travel across the continent to stand in a half-empty stadium and cheer for whichever mediocre eleven-man lineup deigned to show up at the match without defecting. They’re the sort of people who’ll stand in Commonwealth Stadium, in Edmonton, at the end of autumn until ten at night and then say “do you know what we need? More beer.” They also know every player in every league in the world with so much as a Canadian grandparent, except for Dominic Imhof.

Normal people avoid these guys like the plague.

The European

Quote: “You guys don’t understand football like we do in the old country.”

Knowledge Level: Irrationally resents Mike Klukowski for something Poland did in the war.

Tell-Tale Symptoms: Looks at North American supporters groups like a particularly cute puppy who just piddled on the rug. Drinks more than anybody else at the pre-game gathering. Sings words that match no known chant but sings them with so much gusto everyone else has to join in. Knows more than two players for the Serbian White Eagles.

Not to be confused with the faux European (see below), the European is from some country where they play football in ninety-year-old stadia with rivalries determined by genocide instead of a Voyageurs Cup match and who is deadlier with half a beer bottle than most people are with handguns. Though they always view the Canadian game as a pale imitation of what they’re used to, these guys are universally popular because they have the best stories out of anyone, they’ll drink so much that their doctors buy a new Mercedes after every World Cup, and even if they say that the Canadian game is small-time and parochial they’ll throw themselves into it with such unreserved determination that even a Voyageur has to take half a step backwards.

If you’re ever at a pre-match gathering and you want to hear things you’d never heard before, find the oldest guy with the weirdest accent and just start buying him drinks.

The Toronto FC Diehard

Quote: “JIMMY BRENNAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Knowledge Level: Thinks Mike Klukowski would already be playing in Toronto if BMO Field had grass.

Tell-Tale Symptoms: Thinks that Canada’s best players are, in order, Brennan, De Rosario, and Serioux. Is irate whenever one of those players is actually called up to Canada. Evaluates all national team members by considering if they’d make a good designated player.

Say what you will about the Toronto FC diehards, but they’re real fans. Most of them became real fans very very quickly, going from “the Toronto Lynx? Aren’t they a women’s lacrosse team” to “THIS IS OUR HOUSE!” in ten seconds flat. But if they needed the hype and attention of MLS to get drawn in, at least they got drawn in eventually.

I like the Toronto FC crowd. They packed BMO Field to the gills when the national team last played there, which was a pleasant surprise and made the Montrealers look really stupid a month later. That wouldn’t have happened without Toronto FC, because when those fans got into the game, they didn’t do it half-assed. Seeing a pro-Canadian crowd, even if it was just on television, hearing chants for our boys… that’s not something I’ll forget any time soon.

But let’s be honest, guys. They do get the blinkers on a bit. The recent Julian de Guzman excitement was a case in point, where these newly-minted hardcore fans mumbled vague wonderings about where Canada’s best player would go, sat straight upright when it looked like he might go to Toronto, pounding talk radio and blog comments with more material than they see in a month, then mumbling some more when the furore passed. They do their research enough to know what a guy like Julian de Guzman means, but not enough to care when he’s not at BMO Field.

Plus they cheer for Amado Guevara, which gets them a reserved table at the sports bar in Hell on its own.

The Faux European

Quote: “Oh, I don’t watch the Major League, I’m a Serie A fan.” (insert pretentious smirk here)

Knowledge Level: Thinks Mike Klukowski played right back for Juventus back in the mid-nineties. Is wrong, of course, but doesn’t expect you to catch him.

Tell-Tale Symptoms: Non-ironically referred to the Toronto – Real Madrid friendly as “the match of the season”. Thinks two of Canada’s professional teams are the Montreal Impacts and the Toronto Effcees. Has never actually been to Swangard, BMO, or Stade Saputo. Will ramble on about how the dogfight between Barcelona and Real Madrid in La Liga will turn out. Will always specify that Barcelona and Real Madrid are in La Liga as if he thought you wouldn’t know that. Knows much, much less about football than he lets on.

The faux European is one of the only truly loathsome parts of the Canadian footballing world. They are plastic supporters for countries they’ve never even been to. They cheer for some major European powerhouse and always have some bullshit reason like “oh, my dad was born in London so of course I cheer for Chelsea” (he was probably born under the shadow of a League One team’s stadium but that doesn’t matter to these glory-hunting fuckfaces) while trying to defuse criticism by saying they have a favourite “lower-league team”, usually considering “lower-league” to mean Serie B or perhaps the bottom-middle half of the English Premiership.

People like this are the reason why, whenever somebody says “my family is from Manchester”, you can assume they’re a United fan and can’t give a shit about City (and don’t even get me started on FC United of Manchester). They’ll refuse to watch any North American league because it’s “beneath them” – obviously football isn’t  interesting when it’s not Cristiano Ronaldo flopping across the pitch like his hamstrings were pieces of Silly Putty.

And the worst part is, for all these assholes talk about Wayne Rooney and Marco van Basten and Francisco Totti, none of these guys actually know shit about football.

Seriously. They’ll talk your ear off about how Didier Drogba is fat and slow and whatever else the colour commentator helpfully told them, but take them to a match and probe them a glimmer of original thought and they’ll freeze up like Chad Barrett with an open header. The thing is, none of them are football fans. They’re fakes, simulacrums of what they think the cool European is, pale imitations of an archetype that never really existed.

If you go to the Kop at Anfield, yank out a diehard, drop him into a Conference North stadium and tell him to watch a match, he’ll still have a ball because the only thing he loves more than Liverpool is football in general. He has nothing to prove. He doesn’t have to shit on the rest of the world for you to know he’s a Liverpool fan. But his Canadian brethren don’t give a damn about the game. They just want you to think they do, and so they put on their ridiculous facade and prance about like they’re not living a lie.

Close your eyes for a moment and think back to 2004 or so, and all the idiots you met at your local football pub who went to school near Newcastle and pretty much had to become a Magpies fan. Now think about the number of Newcastle fans you haven’t met this year. That’ll tell you all you need to know.