The last time the United States hosted the World Cup, Canada didn't qualify but it still helped improve soccer in Canada. Why wouldn't it happen again in 2018? Image by Ben Radford, from picapp.com, all rights reserved.
Canadians are, essentially, conditioned from birth to cheer against the United States. It's not usually in a mean-spirited way (I say usually), but it's there. When you are, as Pierre Trudeau once said, the mouse next to the sleeping elephant, you can't help but root for those rare chances for the elephant to get his comeuppance. What was the old joke? Americans define themselves by what they are, Canadians define themselves by not being Americans?
So we take the opportunities for schadenfreude where we get them. Hey, the Americans lost at basketball to some country with a three-digit GDP! Let the laughing commence! And that's to say nothing about when we beat them, even if it's a sport like hockey that we're actually the elephant at. Even now, months after the 2010 Winter Olympics, my workplace is littered with posters saying some variation of "Silly Americans, hockey is for Canadians". We like it when you guys lose, is what I'm saying.
So every time a Canadian gets on board with the Americans, it has to be prefaced by some very careful thinking. I'm going to stand up in front of my countrymen and proclaim "hey, just so you know, I'm taking a stand against a deeply ingrained part of our national psyche. I did it when I cheered for the Americans in the 2010 World Cup even though it turned out the majority of the Canadian soccer community agreed with me. Even in such a clear-cut case when the country's soccer minds are in your corner, there is the urge to beat about the bush and choose one's words very carefully.
So when I say what I'm about to say, I don't think I'm saying anything terribly contrarian. I'm calling upon us to abandon Mother England but, dammit, maybe if the Queen showed up for our bloody Olympics I'd care a little more. All of us Canadians, from coast to coast to coast, should rise up as one and throw our support in with the United States bid to host the 2018 World Cup.
And if by chance you disagree with me, I'm about to explain why.
The first reason for us Canadians to support the American World Cup bid is blatant soccer self-interest. Canada's one previous World Cup qualification came in Mexico 1986, when we exploited an upset loss by the Americans to take the remaining World Cup spot over Honduras and Costa Rica. In 1994, when the Americans hosted the world, we came bloody close, running second in the final group to Mexico and advancing to an inter-continental playoff where we lost a heartbreaker to Australia in Sydney on penalties (if that happened to us today, I think I'd spend an entire month sobbing constantly). CONCACAF hosting the World Cup means there's one less qualification spot but also one less giant for us to tangle with and to complicate factors. If we do our job against the smaller nations, we know we'll get through. Life is simpler and our chances of making the World Cup improved. There isn't a Canadian soccer fan alive who wouldn't love to see Canada in the World Cup, let alone in a World Cup near enough to their homeland that they might actually be able to go to a game.
But there's more to it than that. The 1994 World Cup brought Canada more than just a reason to hate the Australians. It brought us Major League Soccer, by which I mean that it brought the Americans Major League Soccer and its benefits have inevitably spilled across the border. It improved the profile of soccer in the United States, and while it's still mocked at least now it's noticed. Even the mockery has died down in recent years. You remember that Simpsons episode where the titular characters go to a soccer game and the centre half "holds it! holds it! hoooooolds it!"? That came out in 1997. The culture is changing south of the border. And, no matter how much I hate to admit it, Canadians watch American television shows, read American newspapers, argue on Twitter about American politics, write blogs on American blogging networks surrounded by fellow soccer bloggers who are also Americans. When the culture shifts south of the border, it also shifts up here. We've seen it time and time again, and is it any coincidence that soccer has become less and less marginalized in Canada over the last decade even before Toronto FC came into the picture?
So even in the worst-case scenario where Canada completely fails to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, losing to Antigua 15-0 on aggregate, our soccer culture could pick up a boost simply because there's a mature soccer market to the south of us that would be playing host to the sport's greatest spectacle. Even if Canada's not in the tournament, if North Korea and New Zealand are playing in Seattle more than a few Canadians are going to make that trip and a lot of the rest will be watching on television. The more soccer and discussion of soccer the average sports fan in Canada is exposed to, the better it is for us. Every new fan is a fan that might become a die-hard national supporter, or buy season tickets to his local club, or keep his son in soccer when he becomes a teenager and gets the chance to go to one of those elite academies we're finally starting to develop. And that's one step closer to becoming the soccer power we all know Canada can be.
Canada's problem in recent years has not been that our players have deteriorated. When we qualified in 1986 it was with a bunch of indoor soccer players and a very, very few stars who were worth noticing at the international level. The problem is that Canada has improved more slowly than the rest of CONCACAF. Elsewhere in the confederation, various Caribbean and Central American nations have harnessed the passion for soccer they've always had and built up their playing strength to the point where we can no longer count on a victory against the likes of Trinidad and Tobago. Our stadia are at least as good as and usually better than any stadia outside the United States and Mexico. But we don't have the emotional attachment to soccer. Our best athletes go into hockey, or maybe baseball, or basketball, and then maybe soccer if those possibilities don't pan out. The more Canada is exposed to world-class soccer in person (not in distant Premier League games broadcast at seven in the morning!), the more we realize this is a game Canada can actually play and play well, the more likely we are to eventually play at our level.
In short, if the Americans host the World Cup it'll be easier for Canada to qualify. And even if Canada doesn't qualify, the long-term impact on the game in this country cannot be anything but positive. If Canada does qualify... if Canada, dare to dream, wins a game, with a few hundred Canadian fans spotted by the television cameras singing and dancing and cheering in something approaching delirium, the affect might be transformatory. Don't oppose the USA 2018 bid because the Americans are our rivals. Support the bid because in this case what's good for the Americans might be even better for us.