Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, and the West in general, doesn't get its due as a bastion of support for the Canadian national teams. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
The attendance for Canada's eastern friendlies has been panned but it wasn't that bad, considering. 10,619 came through the turnstiles at BMO Field for the disappointment Canada - Peru, and 7,525 fans braved the forecast of rain and an eventual monsoon and walked into Stade Saputo to watch Canada finally defeat Honduras on a weeknight. Comparing these to actual meaningful games across the pond between sides close to Canada in skill, 5,980 fans watched Slovakia defeat Macedonia 1-0 last week in Euro 2012 qualifying. It's true the stadium probably wasn't one-third full of Macedonian support, but on an international scale Canada's friendly attendance is by no means a scandal.
Not to say that it was all good news, of course Significant fractions of both houses were filled with supporters for the opposing side as always. The Voyageurs and, in Montreal, the Ultras off-shoot made plenty of noise and were easily heard on the television, but as ever they were only a fraction of the fans at the game. Just because it's not a scandal doesn't mean it's some impressive achievement.
Those games rather put the lie to the idea that Canadian support is far stronger in eastern Canada than the rest of the country. And that lie has been one of the main excuses for almost excluding any of our national teams from traveling east of Thunder Bay in the last decade. "Oh, play in Vancouver? Sure, if you want three Canadian grandmas to show up surrounded by six thousand Costa Ricans!" And the national teams stay snug in their bastions of Montreal and Toronto. The Atlantic provinces get very few games either, of course, but they're far closer to Montreal and Toronto and they still get more than the West.
There are other arguments. It's too much to ask that our highly-trained, immensely tough professional athletes fly for another three and a half hours to get to Vancouver instead of Toronto from their European or eastern United States clubs. Canada plays very few home games so we should put them all in our largest centre of population where they can do the most good. And so on down the line.
Bunk. The rewards for actually letting western Canada see international soccer once in a while far exceed whatever invented cost is being ascribed to it.
If we concentrate on the senior men's team, their most recent trip west was a World Cup qualifier against Mexico in Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium on October 15, 2008. The trip prior to that was to Swangard Stadium July 2, 2005 for a Gold Cup tuneup against Honduras (and the only reason Canada went west on that occasion was their Gold Cup group being at Qwest Field in Seattle). In half a decade, our most important national team has been west of Ontario twice. It's true Canada gets relatively few home fixtures, but they've played four games in Montreal and three in Toronto since 2005.
Of course, the men's team is only one part of our program, but the disparity continues at other levels. The women's U-20s played an exhibition against the University of British Columbia in Vancouver on February 2, 2008. That and the aforementioned Edmonton game are the only two times any Canadian national team, men's or women's, senior or junior, has played in the western half of this country since we hosted the U-20 World Cup in 2007. Western Canada hasn't seen the senior women's national team since March 4, 2006 in Victoria - since then, the senior women have played four times in greater Toronto and twice in St. John's, Newfoundland.
Of course, Edmonton and Vancouver have it relatively good compared to the rest of Western Canada. Winnipeg hasn't hosted any international game in a decade. Three women's U-20 friendlies in Regina in May 2001 was the only time a Canadian national team has visited Saskatchewan in my lifetime. Poor Calgary (metro population one million) has only a 2002 women's U-20 game to warm up for the famous Women's U-20 World Cup in Edmonton and a 1996 friendly from our men's U-23 team; they have never seen a competitive match of any stripe.
Yet every time the subject is raised, we hear people saying the national teams should play out east more often! We're told that the extra three time zones between Toronto and Vancouver make traveling from Europe to the West Coast a brutal and intolerable experience for our athletes. That western Canada doesn't get out to support the national team, as evidenced by the Canadian support for a meaningless World Cup qualifier in a chilly Edmonton autumn being slightly worse than the Canadian support for an absolutely key World Cup qualifier in Montreal. That eastern Canada can guarantee the crowds even though our alleged national soccer stadium in Toronto drew just over 10,000 mostly Peruvian fans for our first home game in two years. Last time Edmonton had a senior men's friendly Commonwealth Stadium filled with over 50,000 fans, although to be fair that was against Brazil. Also, it was sixteen years ago.
I'm reluctant to play the western alienation card, to say that these proposals sound an awful lot like a desire to form an Ontario and Quebec National Team which the Eastern city-folk could enjoy watching regularly in person while those of us in distant parts of the country can content ourselves with choppy Jamaican Internet radio feeds. But, well, that kinda is what it sounds like. Not only is it disingenuous to say that the national teams can rely on better support Ontario and east than they can Manitoba and west, but it's entirely missing a major point of having our national teams play home games in the first place.
Ultimately, every home game the national teams play is a chance to promote those national teams. Every game has at least one guy in the stands who's never seen Canada play before, or who follows the Premier League a bit but has never gotten to a high-level game in person, and is getting his first real taste of this mad world we've all become so engrossed in. So the question becomes whether we want to focus that gradual community building on the same group of Torontonians and Montrealers year in, year out, or whether we want our national team to have the support of the nation instead of the Corridor.
We have to remember that die-hards make up only a very small proportion of Canada's potential supporter base. Sure, there are a few nuts like me who'll fly across the continent if he has the power to watch Canada whenever they're within range. But it's safe to say that I'm not normal in that respect. An ordinary guy with an ordinary nine to five job who watches the Premier League on Saturday isn't going to make that trip for his first national team game even if he can. Maybe someday, after he's seen the national team at close quarters a few times, for that vital playoff for the last World Cup spot, he'll make that trip. But how can we expect him to support a national team he's never seen? How can someone truly love their Nats when their only experience has been a handful of erratic, low-fi Sportsnet broadcasts?
Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing for Canada to qualify for the World Cup in 2014 and be able to count on the informed support of Canadians from coast to coast, who've seen those players a time or two in the nearest major city and have grown attached to those brave young men and women they saw flaunting their stuff on their parochial western pitch? To have a true fanbase instead of guys in the office who've never seen our national teams debating whether they'd cheer for Canada this time or Italy like usual? If the price for that national sporting unity and a national program that represents the country instead of Toronto and Montreal is our players having to sleep a few extra hours on the plane, I consider that a price well worth paying. In fact, I have grave doubts about anyone who'd disagree.