Soccer fans in Canada are doing back flips with the announcement this week that North America has won the bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup soccer tournament – and rightfully so. The decision means a tremendous amount more than just the opportunity to generate a passel of money may be gained here in Canada. In addition to worldwide attention, tourism, and dollars – FIFA’s choice gives the game of ‘kick ball’ a tremendous bolster to flourish in the land of ‘skatey-punchy’.
There is no question the news will catapult soccer into the Canadian spotlight like never before, providing stimulus to help take the national interest and marketing of the game to a level never considered before.
As a co host to the prestigious tournament (United States and Mexico are also part of the ‘North American’ bid) Canada will have an automatic berth in the tournament. That constitutes a blessing of sorts since our current national skill level in the game would not likely warrant entry. When it comes to competitiveness in world class level soccer (at least at the men’s level) we suck.
The successful bid instigates huge incentive to enhance and hone our skills in the sport. Canada now has eight years to ramp up its competitiveness prior to the tourney. Over the next few years Canadians should anticipate seeing a tremendous focus on promoting and teaching the game including coaching clinics, soccer camps for kids, and perhaps even a national training program.
For many folks my age (old) soccer was a game first discovered in P.E. class at school – but ranked nowhere near as popular as hockey, football or even baseball. High school teachers generally knew zilch about the game and simply tossed the ball out onto the field sending students out to kick it around for half an hour. However the game, known throughout most of the world as ‘football’ has slowly and quietly increased in popularity in Canada, particularly due to its relatively low cost in equipment and the time of year it is played. In addition, its demand on fitness minus the potential for violent or aggressive physical contact has attracted the attention of both players and parents.
My interest in the game was tweaked due to two friends involved in the game. Ralph Krehbiel was a superb goaltender back in his younger years and I would often watch his games, and Jim Krahn who coached his daughters in the game. Jim remains a huge fan of the game and has assured me that the FIFA decision will have huge positive impacts on the game in Canada and inject a huge learning curve at all levels.
Hopefully by the time we get to play co-host, our men’s national team will be ready to do us proud.
As a teenager my focus on sports was split between hockey and martial arts. My knowledge of soccer was strictly as spectator and even then only to watch Ralph try and not let the ball into the net. My need for knowledge of the game was hardly challenged as it was pretty clear when someone had successfully drilled the ball past Ralph. However a few years later, as a youthful sports reporter, I was forced to learn about the game whether I wanted to or not. It was a tad difficult to fill the summer sports pages with only baseball coverage and tennis pictures.
I remember the day editor Pat Denton poked his mug in my office door and barked, “There is a soccer tournament this weekend in town. Perhaps you could go grab some pics and give it some coverage as your lead sports stories next week.”
I was too embarrassed to admit I had no clue how to dissect or critique the game and scrambled to find a solution. I needed a quick crash course in comprehending the game.
In abject terror I contacted an acquaintance I had met in the Colony pub during an after-work round of darts and frothy beers. Mike Condon not only was a connoisseur of the sport but had the British accent to boot. Naturally we had to meet for a frothy in order for my lesson.
I never forgot his retort when I asked him to explain the game to me.
“No problem mate, simple stuff. With soccer all you need to know is this. If it moves – kick it. If it doesn’t move, kick it until it moves, then kick it.”
Seemed simple enough, but I insisted on a bit more info.
The next day we met at City Park and Mikey pointed out rules and highlights of the game as two kids’ clubs shin kicked each other for an hour or two. By the time the day was done I had a bundle of pictures for the paper and a better grasp of the game.
Denton was thrilled, I was relieved, and soccer had a new fan.
Ironically a few years later Condon took on the job of sports editor when I moved on to Kamloops to work there for another paper. While his hockey coverage may have lacked, his coverage of soccer was a vast improvement over my efforts.
However, thanks to Jim, Ralph and Mike I will now be able to yell and scream at the TV screen with a bit of knowledge when the 2026 World Cup comes to North America.
And after all – isn’t that what sports is all about?