CBC Sports

Finding the inner warmth of “footie”

Posted: Monday, April 6, 2009 | 03:50 PM

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My producer on the Toronto FC telecasts paid me a compliment after the team’s home opener on Saturday. “Welcome back to ‘footie’ Scott,” Paul McDougall wrote in his post-match text message. “You showed once again you’ve got the beautiful game in ya!”

If you must know, McDougall is of Scottish extraction and only people of his particular ilk could have found comfort in the blustery season debut at the pitch perched on Toronto’s frigid lakeshore.

Then again - maybe that’s the key. Perhaps “footie”, or the sport we North Americans refer to as soccer, is imbued with warmth that defies anything Mother Nature can throw at it. Lord knows the game needed it on Saturday afternoon.

Hearty folks

It is, as I’ve discovered, a hearty pastime populated by folks who are every bit as hearty. They are ruddy-faced men who dash around the soggy pitch dressed in shorts. Some are sporting sleeveless jerseys. They never come in to sit by a giant portable heater, they just run around to keep warm. They endlessly trot or sprint up and down the field in a constant dance of activity. The ones on the sidelines wear toques but brave the elements just the same. The bench is out in the open, as opposed to a baseball dugout, which is protected by an overhang and has easy access to the lavatory.

“You’re not going to wear gloves are ya?” The challenging query came from Jason de Vos, our game analyst, who used to be a central defender with Dundee United of the Scottish Premier League.

“That wouldn’t be right,” he insisted, as I sheepishly tossed the gloves aside prior to our opening standup. “When I played in Scotland they’d have had me tossed for wearing mittens or long sleeves in a snowstorm. Gotta suck it up!”

OK - no gloves was no big deal - but how about the howling gale that came whipping from the northwest and directly through the broadcast position, which is misleadingly known as the patio?

Some patio!

But as I stood there shivering, I looked below to the open-air bleachers forming the belly of BMO Field - the boat was, of course, jammed to the gunwales. Fans were drinking beer, stamping their feet and alternatively singing or shouting unmentionables at the referees. It was a cacophony of sound and strangely none of that noise came in the form of a complaint about the climatic conditions.

Focused on action, not weather

There were no stoppages in the action. There were no TV timeouts with the “JUMBOTRON” featuring trivia contests or infomercials to keep the patrons amused. There was no ubiquitous or invasive stadium announcer trying to excite the crowd - they were already in a constant state of frenzy. No one seemed to be feeling the cold - not a single, solitary, soccer soul.

Then, we ran this little “look back” item on the broadcast recalling the Blue Jays home opener in their inaugural season, which took place in a snowstorm at Exhibition Stadium on April 7, 1977. There was manager Roy Hartsfield, he of the voluminous sideburns, and rookie Doug Ault hitting two homers as the Jays beat the Chicago White Sox in a freakish, baseball blizzard.

I thought of how much we loved the Blue Jays back then as well as that quirky, little, open-air ballpark which was, at one time, atop this very ground. My mind drifted to how sterile the baseball games seem today in that cavernous, domed stadium further inland. The same could be said of watching the CFL’s Argonauts at Rogers Centre.

Meanwhile, the wind continued to blow and the soccer ball did strange things and, because of it, made things difficult for the finesse players. Still, there were lots of chances, great headers and the accepted beauty of a wonderfully executed give and go. There was even a magical play that the Toronto FC skipper, Jim Brennan, came up with which led to his team hitting the crossbar of the Seattle net. In this play, Brennan stopped and started and turned the defender inside out, affording himself the chance to make a perfect pass.

“He nutmegged him,” Jason de Vos declared on the air. I have yet to figure out what he meant by that, but somehow it seemed exotic and full of intrigue.

Just like old times

By the end of the match I was warming to the idea of the next game against Dallas. Toronto had lost this one to Seattle and failed to score a goal but the whole experience had been a familiar one. It reminded me of going to see the Argos or Blue Jays when professional sport was more accessible in this city. It took me back to the times I had huddled in the stands at the old Varsity Stadium to watch university football’s Vanier Cup, which was once known as the College Bowl.

It strikes me there is something simple but true about this Canadian soccer revival. “Footie” may indeed be a part of me. I’m sure it has now been frozen in my bones.

More importantly, it’s a joy to watch a spectacle where the game itself can keep you warm.

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