Tuesday, May 20, 2008

TFC Notebook: the "hooligan" edition

Although people are starting to take it for granted, the success of TFC at the box office continues to marvel. History was not with the team when it launched a little more than two years ago. Pro soccer had already died a million deaths in Toronto and in Canada. It didn’t matter what the product on the pitch was, it always paled to the AC Milans and Manchester Uniteds of the soccer fans’ imagination.

But, somehow MLSE managed to find the perfect storm this time and somehow make it work. As Stephen Brunt said on Prime Time Sports last week it was as if all the soccer fans in Toronto said “what the hell, let’s just go out and have a good time.”

And, they are having a good time. If you had to describe what it’s like to watch a TFC game at BMO Field to someone that had never been you would start and finish with that simple concept—it’s fun. An absolute blast.

Inevitably, some observers of the game are beginning to suggest that the crowd is having too good of a time. Starting with the season opening game in Columbus, where 2,600 Toronto fans traveled to support TFC, and continuing through to the most recent outings, Chicken Littles have been busy finding problems that need to be fixed.

What’s especially troubling is the language that is starting to be used. Because the sport is soccer, critics are beginning to utter the H-word—hooligans--to describe TFC’s fans. It’s ludicrous. First off, hooliganism has very little to do with sports. It’s rooted in class politics and it emerged in a culture that simply doesn’t exist in Toronto today. Secondly, hooligans participate in organized violence, often great distances from the stadiums that the actual games are taking place in.

I addressed the concerns in my Soccer by Ives column this week. It’s a fine line that MLSE is trying to walk when it comes to the supporter’s sections at BMO Field. If you have been in Toronto recently you will know that the company is only too happy to market the team around the atmosphere that is created in the stadium—you don’t find players in TFC advertisements. You see images of flag waving, drum beating fans. You can’t try to benefit from something while at the same time trying to crack down on it.

Look, no one is going to justify stupid behaviour at sporting contests. If you run out onto the field you deserve to have your ass arrested. If you vandalize a Go Train I have little time for you. But, what’s happening at BMO has nothing to do with hooliganism, nor is it anything that MLS or MLSE should be afraid of. There are children that sit in the south end of BMO Field and, although they may come home with a more colourful vocabulary, their safety is never going to be a concern. Not even remotely.

In the business of professional sport, teams don’t like things that they can’t control. There is a reason that every second of every NBA, NHL or MLB game is scripted. Nothing is left to chance, the product is made to be as corporate friendly as possible. To their credit, those given the responsibility of launching TFC realized that the corporate model would not work. Bay Street doesn’t watch soccer. They needed to find a way to attract fans of the sport and they quickly realized that those fans were turned off by the fake, vanilla in-stadium atmosphere that dominates pro sport in North America. So, they listened and they delivered something that sorta, kinda resembled what was left behind in the Old World. From that the organic experience that you see in-stadium today—and which has become the talk of the town—emerged.

But, some of the suits are getting nervous now. The supporter’s groups are starting to be more closely monitored and targeted on game day. And, by doing so they are running the risk of alienating the very people that have helped to make TFC such a surprise success.


  • Oh yeah, TFC played a game this week. The most interesting thing about the 0-0 draw was the post match comments by TFC coach John Carver. Not only did he accuse the league of targeting him, but he also called the Crew’s Guillermo Barros Schelotto a diving Prima Donna, or something to that effect anyway.
  • The Montreal Impact opened their new stadium, drawing the Vancouver Whitecaps 0-0 Sunday. The real news here, however, is how the new stadium could pave the way for a second MLS team in Canada in the near future. Montreal will be in tough against expansion rivals from Portland, Atlanta and Miami, but the building of a soccer specific stadium will greatly help the bid.
  • Speaking of Saputo Stadium, Canada will open its 2010 World Cup Qualifying campaign a month today at the new ground. Someone—ok, me—is running a bus trip from Toronto to Montreal for the game, which will be the second in a home and away match against Caribbean side St. Vincent and the Grenadines. More information can be seen here.
  • I talk about TFC's lack of scoring punch in the last segment of CSRN's Around the League in 90 Minutes today.


Dennis Prouse said...

You guys who are closer to the soccer scene can correct me if I'm wrong, but my read of Toronto FC's success is that they finally found a way to tap into the ethnic community in Toronto, particularly those of European heritage. Instead of presenting the game in a North Americanized manner, as the NASL tried to do, they seem to be getting it back to the grassroots, as it were. This let those of, say, Italian, Portuguese, and Greek heritage, to name just some, know that they would get an authentic soccer experience by attending the games. That's my read on it anyway.

Duane Rollins said...

The crowd is probably about 66 per cent "Canadian," mostly under 35. People that grew up playing soccer and hanging out on College Street watching it during the World Cup.

But, there is also a solid 1/3 of the crowd that are new Canadians that are very much attracted to the authentic atmosphere that's found at BMO. In the supporter's section, the split is closer to 50/50.