Soccer: Just for Kids?

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Soccer, is it just for kids? As World Cup gets underway in Brazil, Rewind asks a question North Americans have been trying to answer for decades: with so many children playing soccer, why aren't they interested in the game when they grow up? From importing the big guns of soccer, to meeting a Canadian player who became a household name, to exploring its cultural roots in this country, Rewind tackles the beautiful game. Rewind with Michael Enright, who will never give you a red card for listening.

World Cup
World Cup games start in Brazil this week, and the numbers associated with it are staggering. Thirty-one countries, 64 games, 12 cities, up to a billion television viewers all combined with unswerving loyalty, long standing rivalries and loud and raucous games.
It is famously called the beautiful game and its fans wax rapturous.

soccer - brian budd.jpgCanadians won't be watching a team from our country competing in Brazil. But you can be sure that many of us will be watching our favourite team, sometimes from our country of origin. Still, why is it that it's only once every four years that soccer attracts our interest? I'm certainly not the first person to ask that question. In fact, it's a theme that threads through today's show.

In 1961, CBC's program Assignment told the story of  a professional soccer league that was trying to establish itself in Canada. It was introduced by Maria Barrett and Bill McNeil.

Stanley Matthews, who was mentioned in the clip, was the David Beckham of his day. As well as being a brilliant player himself, he traveled the world promoting the game.

That story sets the tone for soccer aspirations in Canada over the years, with fans wondering why their sport isn't as popular as hockey and football is. In 1967, another player from across the pond came to help boost soccer's profile.

Bill Brown did indeed move to Canada with his family and played and worked in this country until he died in 2004.

PHOTO: (above) Canadian professional soccer player Brian Budd who competed in the World Stars Championship - a made for tv athletic competition - in the late 1970s. (CP/HO)

Brian Budd: Superstar Athlete
But there were some homegrown soccer players who also wowed fans. In 1978 a Canadian professional soccer played called Brian Budd took part in the World Superstars championship. It was a televised athletic competition featuring ten events, such as rowing, tennis, bicycle racing, running and obstacle course. The winner was the athlete with the highest total score. CBC's Peter Gzowski talked to Brian Budd on his show 90 Minutes Live.

The Superstars competition was popular throughout the 1970s and early 80s. Budd won four years in a row, from 1977 to 1980. Budd's Superstar wins made him a bit of a Canadian celebrity. And the hope was that his fame would attract more fans to professional soccer.

soccer - Whitecaps 1979 Team - sized.jpg1979- Vancouver Whitecaps
For a while it seemed that might happen. In 1979, fans in Vancouver turned out in droves to celebrate their Vancouver Whitecaps.

The team had just returned from New Jersey, where it won the North American Soccer League's Soccer Bowl championship.

PHOTO: The Vancouver Whitecaps. 1979. TOP ROW (L to R) Dennis Loze (Ass. Coach), Bob McNab (Team Coach), Willie Johnston, John Craven, Trevor Whymark, Phil Parkes, Roger Kenyon, Bruce Gobbelaar, Dan lenarduzzi, Carl Shearer, Bob Lenarduzzi, Peter Daniel, Tony Waiters (Team Mgr/Head Coach) BOTTOM ROW (L to R) Bob Bolitho, Steve nesin, Derek Possee, Paul Neilson, Carl Valentine, Jon Sammels, Buzz Parsons, Ray Lewington, Drew Ferguson, Gerry Gray, Kevin Hector. INSET Alan Ball. (CBC Still Photo Collection) 

The 1979 season was by far the most successful ever for the Vancouver Whitecaps, and the team was never able to repeat it. That incarnation of the Whitecaps folded in 1984.

By 1984, things were looking desperate for all the professional soccer teams in North America. After an initial flurry, there was a rapid decline of fan interest. The league's overall average attendance never topped 15,000, with some clubs averaging fewer than 5,000 spectators a game.
 
Totem Tournament
One community in Canada where soccer is king is in the aboriginal leagues of the west coast. In 1992, CBC's Terry McLeod talked about one popular tournament with Johnny Rice and Laura Robinson. The Totem Tournament is just one of the many thriving aboriginal soccer events in Canada. 
 
soccer - james and samuels.jpg1985: Canada Qualifies for World Cup!
In 1985 Canada's chances of competing in the World Cup were the best they had ever been.

Canada had just beat Honduras to earn a spot at soccer's biggest tournament in Mexico.

Rewind had a report from CBC's As It Happens. Canada played three games that summer in the World Cup final, against France, Hungary and the Soviet Union. We lost all three games, failing to score a single goal.

PHOTO: 1985 Canadian National Soccer team players Paul James (left) and Randy Samuel celebrate the teams 2-1 win over Honduras in St. John's, Newfoundland. This win propelled the Canadian team to the 1986 World Cup finals. (CP/Michael Creagan) 

Coach Tony Waiters said he hoped the team had a solid base for the future. However, Canada has never again qualified for the World Cup and 30 years later is ranked 110th in the world.
 
Another Failed Attempt
It's hard for Canadian soccer enthusiasts to remain optimistic about their sport when, and it's a familiar story now, the league is failing. Our report was about the Canadian Soccer League and it first aired in 1992. The CSL did indeed fold later that year. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia of Soccer, it had been "the first attempt to form a truly national league in Canada."

Why Isn't it More Popular?
Many reasons are cited for pro soccer's lack of sustained popularity. One is that soccer's infrequent goals make it too slow for Canadians, who are used to the faster pace of hockey. The Toronto Star's Dave Perkins also pointed to ethnic loyalties: "Pro soccer has never worked here because soccer fans are loyal to their home countries. For whatever reasons it doesn't go here." Pro soccer has been somewhat more successful in the U.S., but it still has failed to take off in the way people expected it to, considering the high numbers of American children who grow up playing it. Soccer is a sport that is a passion for so many around the world, but to which Canadians and Americans seem to have an allergy. Unless of course you are under the age of 12. Or if your origins are from a soccer- mad country.

Soccer-Mad Canadians
To look at that question we found a report from 1983 and the CBC Radio program Identities. They wondered if soccer was most popular in communities where people had strong connections to their countries of origin.

Move forward to the summer of 1998 and the World Cup which was being held in France. Canadian bars and cafes were packed full of Brazilian and Italian supporters. France ended up winning that cup, on home turf no less.

Soccer Fans and Globalism
In its most exaggerated form, soccer fandom can devolve into hooliganism and a rabid display of national, ethnic and religious animosity. Author Franklin Foer explored this phenomenon with CBC's Mark Kelley who was hosting The Current in the summer of 2004.  Frank Foer`s book was called How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization.

The last clip was from a documentary called  Splendor in the Grass and it first aired on the program Sunday Morning in 1993.

We ended the program with  a song that is sure to bring you back four years ago to World Cup 2010 when the song that was everywhere was Wavin' Flag by K'Naan.