It is a truth universally acknowledged that a football fan in possession of 40 bucks must be in want of a game. Or at least the sight of a stadium.
One of our first walks* in Toronto was to BMO Field, the home of Toronto FC. (This is a common occurrence on holidays as somehow, Ged’s routes always seem to take us to a football stadium. We even snuck into Estadio Teresa Rivero, as it was then, a good four years before we moved to Madrid.) Ever since, we’ve been determined to take in a game so discovering that TFC were to play Montréal Impact – the nearest thing to a derby game as we could get – we marched off to the stadium to buy tickets.
Plans changed quickly, however, upon getting to the stadium and being surrounded by thousands of TFC fans – there was a game on that day. As we walked along to the ticket booth, I realised how much I’d missed the atmosphere of a live game: the anticipation, the excitement, the camaraderie, the beer – BEER? They sell beer in the stadium? Fantastic.
So instead of seeing the league leaders, we handed over our $82 and settled down to watch TFC take on Real Salt Lake.
Now as views go, I’d always loved the vista from Easter Road with the seagulls sweeping over the Firth of Forth. It made an interesting distraction for when the Hibs weren’t playing too well. (Which at the time was more often than not.) But BMO Field has to have one of the best in Canada. Spreading out before us was the whole of Downtown Toronto, with the CN Tower shining in the sun. (Naw, it was grey skies, but give me some romantic leeway please.)
The stadium itself is nice-looking, holding a little more than 21,000 spectators (which made a mockery of the announcement that 21,841 people were at the game. Most of the stands were about two-thirds full, such is the appeal of “soccer”) but we were amazed to see free-standing seats, tables and even a set of comfy armchairs by the side of the pitch. Added to that was the wide range of concession food stores with everything from pizza to nachos to chips (the TFC website gives guidance on what a chip butty is) to popcorn. No pies nor Bovril.
The game started, like all games in North America, with the singing of the national anthems – the Star-Spangled Banner for RSL and O Canada for TFC. A fine young chap with a healthy set of lungs gave a great rendition of the US’s theme tune but it was O Canada which truly touched me. The game was two days before Canada Day and the crowd were in a truly patriotic mood. They quickly joined in with the pro and the stadium was filled with voices as I scrambled to take a video. I have to admit to getting really emotional about it all (and consequently my video went skew-whiff) as the anthem ended in cheers and fireworks.
And that was about all the fireworks there were. The next 90 minutes were filled with some of the most turgid, lacklustre and quite frankly comical football I’ve ever seen. And I’ve watched Escape to Victory. The players played like girls. No, not like women. Like girls. Like girls who had just had their hair blown dry and painted their nails and would rather push over their opposition than muddy their Manolos on a football.
Pushing is rugby, lads, not “soccer”.
It was no surprise when the lack of discipline resulted in a handbags-at-dawn and two red cards – one for each side. Also, both sides should make their next away trip to Specsavers because they couldn’t differentiate between red and white shirts. Throw-ins, passes, anything and everything was sent directly to a member of the opposition, to sighs of sorrow from the fans and “FFS” from Ged.
Worse was a manager who couldn’t see beyond 4-4-2 and kept to that formation even though it wasn’t working. In the UK and Spain, such a decision would have been met with boos of derision from the crowd but one of the problems is that the majority of the spectators didn’t really know much about football and cheered anything that moved near the goalmouth.
RSL won 1-0, with a nice goal right on the 45th minute. Scotland’s Steven Caldwell (brother of Hibs’ Gary) missed a sitter in extra time but it didn’t really matter because he was named man of the match two minutes later.
And that’s the trouble with Canadian football – there’s no danger. The crowd will cheer and applaud blindly as they’re there to enjoy a day out. They had started their fun two hours before the game, meeting for that “tailgaiting” where they have picnics on the back of their cars. The game seemed like a nice little sideline. The managers sat in front of the dugout and watched; none of Sir Alex Ferguson’s legendary pacing and screaming and boot-kicking. And there’s no relegation so once you know you’re not going to win the league, there’s nothing to play for. Everything was sanitised and clean – the TFC website even gives guidance on when to wave your scarf. It’s football, Jim, but not as we know it.
But it wasn’t all bad. Some of the spectators have formed their own little ultra section, with a drum and crowd singing (although not much, it has to be said), the game was thankfully pretty free of the diving which blights the Spanish game at the moment, and then there was the half-time.
A group of tiny children, led determinedly out by a star of a wee man about 2ft tall, played their own little game in the centre circle to the accompaniment of the Benny Hill theme tune. They were fantastic and should be signed up straight away. And sent out to play on Wednesday.
On the tram back home, I listened to a couple of youngsters chatting about the game. “That was cool,” said one. “Two good chances at goal and a fight.” He grinned.
*marathon-distance, getting-lost treks