Sports fans in Canada tend to be a tad bit on the provincial side. As with any generality, there are exceptions—and many readers here would fit that bill—but across the board, most Canadians follow sports that very few people outside of Canada follow.
If you were to walk into a café in Saskatoon and ask a fellow patron whether he saw “the double in-off take out last night at the Scotties” you’d get an animated response that likely would involve the term “the hammer.”
That same conversation (it’s about curling, by the way) would be met with blank stares in most of the rest of the world.
If a person turned to the passenger next to them on the subway in Toronto and said, “There can only ever be one Dougie, eh?”, there’s a good chance they’d respond with high-fives and talk about a 20-year-old overtime winner against the St. Louis Blues. In Mexico City, impromptu hockey talk would result in an empty seat beside you as the passenger moved slowly away from the unhinged tourist.
On the other hand, in Canada conversations about the how great Messi is are as likely to be met with the response “I prefer to keep things tidy” than “Barcelona is a special team, aren’t they?”
The world’s most popular game is, although growing in popularity, still a blip on the radar in most Canadian’s mind.
One could not help but be reminded on the true place of the sport in Canada yesterday during the press conference announcing Paul Stalteri’s retirement.
Canada’s all-time cap leader is an athlete that should be a household name in this country, but is not. He’s hardly alone in that regard. Among Canadian athletes that mostly play in Europe (footballers, skiers, speedskaters, etc) it’s rare to find one that does breakthrough into widespread popularity. Only through long-term Olympic success (recently retired speedskater/cyclist/national treasure Clara Hughes might be the only current example) do you ever see it.
Even Christine Sinclair fits this description. Sinclair has a chance to gain greater traction, but she could just as easily be forgotten over the next few months as a breakout star. Bluntly, Sinclair could score 50 goals for the Portland Thorns this year and not get a single vote for the same Lou Marsh Trophy she won this past year from the efforts of a single game at the Olympics.
If an average Canadians know a single player on the men’s side it’s probably Dwayne DeRosario. DeRo isn’t the most accomplished Canadian male player (One example: Stalteri being a key piece to Werder Bremen’s historic double winning season), but he did play in Canada so people have vaguely heard of him.
If you are a Canadian sports fan that does try and look outside our borders for talent the lack of recognition at home can be frustrating. You want other Canadians to give these athletes the respect they deserve. You might angrily tell a friend at a bar how “Atiba Hutcheson can’t walk down the street in Holland, but he’s invisible in his own country,” and you will probably blame that friend for being a small-minded sports fan.
Your anger is misguided. You can’t force people to care and they can’t care if they aren’t provided the opportunity to do so. For years, the Canadian sports system has failed to promote its stars. Restricting it to football, how often was the CSA talking about Stalteri in 2004 when he was a hero in Bremen? Before London, how much was the CSA doing to make Christine Sinclair a household name?
It was great that the CSA gave Stalteri his day yesterday, but ultimately it was the same seven writers writing for the same audience that are at every press conference. No one new was exposed to Stalteri’s accomplishments. No new fans were drawn in.
There is a perception among average Canadians that Canada cannot play this sport, that we’ve never produced any players worth watching. Although as a country we have not produced nearly enough elite players, that is simply not true.
The Canadian soccer community needs to promote its stars more. And not, like Stalteri, only when they retire, years after their peak performance. Nor, like Sinclair, only when they’ve done something truly remarkable. Rather, the day-to-day accomplishments of players need to be promoted and celebrated.
It’s only through the continued and consistent hard work of doing so that the sport will finally, fully breakthrough to the mainstream.