The day started at 4:30 a.m. Stressed and under slept I desperately checked my e-mail one last time. The news wasn’t good. It had been 16-hours since I first started to look for a driver to assist me in shepherding 20 some diehard Canadian soccer fans from Toronto to Montreal to watch the men’s national team take on St. Vincent and the Grenadines in a World Cup qualifier. Yet, my problem had yet to be solved. Still unsure how I was going to pull things off, I had visions of being beat to death by 20 soccer geeks--left for dead in the Yorkdale Mall parking lot in what would later become known as Canada’s first genuine soccer riot.
Dead Patch Boys the next day’s Toronto Sun would scream. At least I’d go out memorably, I thought.
But, then things started to turn. As desperate to get to Montreal as I was to get them there offers of assistance gradually came. It was an hour after the estimated departure time, but we got away. It would be 27 ½ hours before the adventure would end. We all hope that it was the beginning of something that won’t end for two more years.
In many ways the details of the game are somewhat irrelevant. Canada won. Easily, actually. It was 4-1 on the night, 7-1 on aggregate. It could have been more. Some like to call Canada a soccer minnow. Maybe, but the truth is there are minnows and there are minnows. St. Vincent and the Grenadines are the latter. Canada played the game with the confidence of a side that knew that it was going to win. A critic could nit-pick flaws, but the truth is that the Canucks could have scored 10 if that was what was required of them. Really, they could have.
Regardless, as stated, Friday wasn’t about the scoreboard for the 30 or so Toronto supporters that made the trip on their own or with me. The same goes for the other 200ish that sat with us in the cheap seats behind the goal. No, what we all wanted to accomplish was to start to prove to people that there are Canadians that care about our national team--that live and die with it and believe in its capabilities. The Voyageurs, as our merry crew is known by, are a special kind of Canadian sports fan. It’s acknowledged that it would be easier on us if we just obsessed on the Leafs. But, we understand that it wouldn’t be as rewarding. One day, our team will fulfill its promise and the bandwagon will fill to capacity. And, although we will be pushed to the back of bus when that happens—we are the great unwashed, after all—we’ll know. We’ll sit back and smile knowing that it was us that sat in front of a computer scream to watch a choppy feed of a friendly against Iceland. That it was our e-mails that guilted Sportsnet into showing the Libya game on tape delay and it was our efforts that ensured that there was a cup for our pro teams to play for when no one inside the game seemed to care about it at all.
And, we’ll know that the players know. We see it when they give us a little wave as they step on the pitch. We’ve heard them express their thanks for the annual Voyageurs Christmas Card campaign. Our numbers are small, but we are loyal. And it’s likely because we lack the numbers that we are dedicated to getting to games, no matter the expense or inconvenience.
On Friday there were Voyageurs from every province. There was a guy who spent three days on a bus to get to Montreal from Whitehorse! When you consider that a six-hour road trip is nothing.
But, it is surreal to stand under the decaying (and depressing) Olympic Stadium at 2 p.m. when your day started with the CN Tower in view and you know that you will be back in Toronto before the sun comes up the next day.
It was a whirlwind. Getting 36 tickets from the box office. Walking to the Brasserie 99 to get the tickets into the hands of those that bought them. Hearing a group of people chant "We're red, we're white, we’re fu**ing dynamite…CA-NA-DAAAA" in East Montreal. Sprinting up a hill to see familiar faces from BMO Field’s section 113 "warming up" their vocal chords under a tree.
Finally I’m into Stade Saputo. Dwayne De Rosario is 10 feet away warming up. The crowd is filling in. FIFA flags are on display. It may be a long way from the glory of the Finals, but it’s the World Cup none-the-less. You instantly understand that it’s something special. You are honoured to be a small part of it.
As already indicated, the game is almost secondary. We come together as supporters—Whitecap fans standing beside Impact fans with TFC fans all around. We chant in English and French. We stand up for the boys in red.
After the match the talk turns to the next round—Jamaica, Honduras and Mexico. It will be tough, it’s understood, but on this night there is no time for pessimism.
At the pub, I sit beside an original Voyageur—surely a man that has seen his share of football heartbreak. I try to draw the conversation to a decade old game that saw Canada barely scrape through.
“Do you remember the …” I start to ask.
He interrupts: “I’m not looking back anymore,” he says. “Just forward. The past is the past.”
Indeed. There has been plenty for the Canadian soccer fan to ruminate on since the lone World Cup appearance in 1986. We’ve lost in truly spectacular ways. But, as I sit in that grungy Francophone bar I realize that it truly doesn’t matter. It’s a new cycle. Hope trumps reason. Canada will play at the World Cup.
And the Voyageurs will be there.