On the eve of the FIFA World Cup, I got to wondering: what drives the buzz around the tournament when Canada doesn't even have a
team in the mix?
A day before the kickoff of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, I walked out of my house carrying a replica of one of the match balls that will be used in the world's largest sporting tournament, which is about to unfold light years away in South America.
I had gotten to wondering what drives the buzz around the World Cup when Canada doesn't even have a team in the mix. What, I asked myself, was there to cheer about?
The most amazing thing happened.
Everybody wanted to talk to me.
It started with these two guys, a father and son, who were heading to the bakery at the corner for an early cup of coffee and maybe a croissant.
"That's a great looking soccer ball you've got there," shouted Marc Marlier as he introduced his son Arun Jolly Marlier and we all shook hands. Turns out they're neighbours of mine but I'd never actually spoken to them even though they've lived up the street for many years.
Marc was born in Belgium and was eager to talk about the "Red Devils," the national side of his home country, which will be returning to World Cup play for the first time in a dozen years. They are highly touted and even a seeded team but there are worries about their experience in big tournaments like the World Cup.
"One thing about soccer," Marc wagged his finger. "You never know what can happen. Since we don't have a team in Canada we might as well look at something we enjoy. There's a piece of you that remains with the land of your birth."
Indeed, a recent survey conducted by one of the major sponsors of the FIFA World Cup in Canada has revealed that a sizable number of Canadians are fervent fans of countries other than the one they live in. More than a quarter of those polled are attached to a team because of heritage. But almost 30 per cent of respondents are cheering for a national side just because they like that country.
"My wife was born in India but supports Brazil," Marlier chuckled. "She likes the colour of the uniform and also admires the Brazilian lifestyle, which is full of passion."
By coincidence we were all headed to the same place -- Zane's Bakery on Queen Street East in Toronto. Once inside we found the wafting smells of fresh bread and pastries oozing with butter to be intoxicating.
A smallish man wearing an Everton cap and a white baker's apron greeted us at the door.
Mojack Zane learned his English in Glasgow, Scotland, but came to Canada two decades ago and has owned this bake shop for a dozen years. He was born in Algeria and devoutly supports his team, which has qualified for a second straight World Cup.
They will, however, be heavy underdogs or the tiniest of minnows, whichever you prefer to call them.
"You have to have loyalty to the country of your birth," Mojack shrugged. "It's about nationalism more than skill, and people follow their hearts. But it's kind of like your duty to watch the games if your country is playing."
Marc and Arun nodded their heads and acknowledged that they'd known "Mo," as they called him, for quite some time. Indeed, by a strange quirk I suddenly realized that Belgium and Algeria would be facing each other when play gets underway in Group H.
"Arun said if Algeria wins he'll call me 'Mr. Mo' for the rest of his life," Zane grinned.
"Mo is a big friend of ours," said Marc, who referred to the bond that extended beyond rivalry. "The World Cup, it seems to me, is a way to have a discussion. It's a way to talk about something."
Zane comes to work every day at 2:30 a.m and doesn't leave until 6 p.m. He mans the ovens seven days a week and has two televisions in the kitchen so he won't miss a thing coming out of Brazil.
"I'm a fan of the game," he said.
32 teams to admire
He also got to talking about all the controversy surrounding this FIFA World Cup -- the alleged corruption of the organizers, the lavish spending habits of FIFA officials and the civil unrest which exists in the host country.
"Any big corporation or organization, be it FIFA, the Olympics, or even a political party in this country, always has a number of bad apples," he figured. "But the World Cup, when it comes down to it, is not about [FIFA president] Sepp Blatter or the economy of Brazil. This is about the game of football and we should all take this time to enjoy it."
Marc and Arun were in agreement.
"Soccer is the only sport that everyone in the world will watch," the elder Marlier concluded. And with that they said so long and headed for home with their bag full of delicious-smelling croissants.
"I'd give you one of the World Cup schedules I had printed up," Zane said as I walked out the door. "I had a whole big box of them but they've all been snapped up. People who know nothing about the game seem to show up at World Cup time."
Why, I wondered?
I guess it's as simple as this.
We may not have a Canadian team to cheer for at this World Cup. Instead, in a country as diverse as ours, we may arguably have 32 to admire and support.
And besides, when it comes time for "the beautiful game" to take to the field of play in Brazil, there will be so much to talk about as we gather together across the land.
Scott Russell will anchor CBC's Adidas Prime Time show daily during the FIFA World Cup, as well as coverage of the final match each day. Follow him on Twitter @SportsWkndScott.
Scott brings vast experience, passion and knowledge to his role as host of CBC's Sports Weekend on CBC. A 20-year CBC Sports veteran, Russell has covered nine Olympic Games and co-hosted Olympic Morning for Beijing 2008: The Olympic Games. The Gemini-Award winning broadcaster and acclaimed author has also worked as a host and rinkside reporter on Hockey Night in Canada and has covered triathlon, gymnastics, rugby, cross-country skiing and biathlon at several Olympic Games, Pan Am Games and Commonwealth Games.