1 of 2
2 of 2
The soccer faithful have counted down the days to the inaugural kick-off of World Cup Brazil 2014. From here on in, it's 32 days of the best against the best stroking the ball on impeccable lawns of shiny new stadia from Manaus in the heart of the Amazon rainforest to Rio, the samba capital, in the quadrennial fix of football magic.
In the T-dot, city of immigrants, national hopes will rise and fall with every match result. There will be spontaneous motorcades with outbursts of honking and proud flag-waving on the Danforth and Corso Italia. And, most importantly for armchair followers, sustenance will come over a brew and a daily diet of the media's merciless examinations of the stars, the strategies and the fallen.
Microscopic scrutiny of the world game is a tradition for most of the planet, but in the Great White North this wasn't always so. Take it from an ancient soccer immigrant who came to these shores during the time of the great Canadian soccer wasteland, long before soccer moms and house leagues. You couldn't find soccer and Canada in the same sentence, let alone on TV. Fuggedaboutit.
The beautiful game was definitely not a sporting option for a football-starved kid just off the boat from Germany. The military had shipped my Canadian stepfather to Petawawa, so my mother and I followed into our new life in, unbeknownst to me, a world without my all-consuming obsession.
In the sandlot behind our place it was baseball 24/7 with the neighbourhood army brats. The language of sport and play transcended whatever barriers were wedged between me, illiterate import soccer freak, and them, mischievous, teasing fast-talkers of gibberish. When I finally got through to somebody with my whining about no "fooossball," somebody produced what I thought was a joke, an egg-shaped pigskin atrocity with no sense of direction whether you threw it or kicked it.
After about three weeks in the soccer desert, I recognized familiar baseball voices playing beach volleyball without a net. Finally, a sporting implement that bounced. In the sandy quad framed by row housing and parking lots, I could persuade the unwashed that we could do other things with that spherical, off-white object.
I marked off two goals at opposite ends of the quad with shirts and jackets. The rest seemed self-explanatory. What more is there to say about the world game?
Immediately, a freakish ping-pong match broke out. The instinct on both sides was to punt the ball as high and far as possible and pin the other guys behind their own goal at least two cars deep in the parking lot.
Later in September, my gut fluttered when I found out there was intramural soccer after school. We played right until the permafrost set in. And I learned where the misguided got their schooling in the beautiful game. Teachers had the pack restart games the same way as in American football: after a goal everybody lined up at centre field and the biggest galoot toe-kicked the ball away to the other team. Then two excited mobs raced from one end of the tundra to the other trying desperately to keep the ball from touching the ground, ever.
I survived the Dark Ages. When the World Cup finally seeped into the sports pages, I flinched at the illustrated soccer-for-dummies layouts explaining offsides and the no-hands rule. I quietly endured skeptical sport editors' whining about the paucity of goals. "Like watching paint dry," they complained.
But all this cynical yammering became meaningless when soccer on Canadian TV went to a raging torrent in 1982 with CBC's first-ever World Cup broadcast, which breathed new life into parched soccer souls from the Rock to Lotus Land.
I was in a darkened TV room in Ottawa packed with sports bureaucrats on the afternoon Steve Armitage and Graham Leggat called the most exciting game of España 82: Germany's 4-3 nail-biting comeback win against France in the semi-final.
My associates were mostly from soccer-speaking nations, a rare breed at the time, who traded easily in old-country football gossip. Like the one about Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool manager who blustered this famous comeback to a reporter: "No, football is not a matter of life and death. It's much more important than that."
From wilderness to oasis. Today, soccer is the number-one participation sport in the land. The latest numbers show 850,000 registered players, from mini-kickers to fifth division take-no-prisoners beer leaguers. That's almost a quarter-million more than registered for hockey.
And who would've thought that one day you could stroll by almost any sports pub in the nation and that inside, in front of a gazillion TV screens, it's not just expatriates, but colonial soccer nuts of all stripes and vintages hoisting a cold one or two.