While most Canadians are glued to their television sets to view the Stanley Cup final, even though a Canadian team isn’t involved, the rest of the world is focussed on the World Cup in Brazil. The annual NHL championship is hard pressured to even register as an afterthought in the minds of the legions of soccer — a North American word; the rest of the world knows it as football — fans across the globe. The World Cup is known in every country outside of North America as the world’s greatest single sporting event.
The accumulative total for the television and Internet audience for the 64 matches of what is termed the “beautiful game” will be about five-million people. In Brazil, where most fans can’t afford a ticket to a World Cup match, expect that most of that nation’s TVs, computers, iPhones, etc., to be tuned in when their national team plays its games. Something similar will occur in the other 31 countries with teams in the World Cup.
Following the Mexico City World Cup in 1986 and Canada’s strong performance against some of the world’s best teams, it was expected that soccer would gain a significant boost. But that simply didn’t happen, and our men’s side is now ranked an abysmal 110th in the world. Canada’s failure to again appear in the World Cup put soccer again on the backburner, despite the presence of pro clubs in cities other than Winnipeg. (The Winnipeg Fury of the Canadian Soccer League were a professional team that played from 1987 to 1992).
While soccer is popular among Canada’s youth — it’s the fastest growing sport for youngsters — it still hasn’t caught on among adults in a hockey-mad country. Yet, there was a time when soccer was extremely popular, especially in Manitoba. Immigrant Italians, Scots, Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Greeks, Germans, English, Irish, etc., all formed clubs in Winnipeg. By 1896, the Manitoba Football Association (later called the Manitoba Soccer Association) was formed to promote and govern soccer in the province. Manitoba was in the forefront of soccer organization in Canada and the first meeting of the Dominion Football Association (later Canadian Soccer Association) was held in Winnipeg in 1912.
The Norwood Wanderers won the first two national championships held in 1913 and 1914. The Winnipeg Scottish followed with a national championship a year later. United Weston won championships in 1924 and 1926.
In the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame and Museum from this period is Sam Davidson, who was born in 1886 in Northern Ireland. He came to live in Winnipeg in the early years of the 20th century and supported local soccer as a referee. John Easton, the president of the DFA, journeyed to Winnipeg seeking Davidson out as the secretary of the association. Davidson ran the association out of offices under the wooden stands of Carruthers Park. The park was the home of the Canadian championships for years to follow with only occasional appearances in Toronto or Vancouver.
The period between the wars was termed the “Golden Age” of Manitoba soccer by Frank Jankac, a local historian. He said that crowds of 8,000 to 12,000 people could be expected to attend games at Carruthers Park in the city’s North End.
“A lot of the players came from the United Kingdom,” Jankac said, “and this was a time when professional leagues were being formed in the U.K. So when they came over here, you were recreating the atmosphere in the U.K.” For much of this period, soccer was actually more important than hockey, especially among immigrant groups. Soccer was so popular that special trams were put into service to bring working-class fans to Carruthers Park, Jankac added. He said it was a tense period in the social dynamic of the city, but soccer seemed to be relatively immune from the clash between classes and ethnicity.
The soccer pitch wasn’t confined to immigrant talent. Jankac said “Buzz” Horn was probably the best homegrown player ever developed. He started out playing with the St. John’s Tech School, advanced to the senior ranks and then went on before the start of the Second World War to play and work with the Dome Mines team in Quebec. Whenever he could, Horn came back to Winnipeg to help out with local soccer.
When the Second World War erupted, Davidson joined the Canadian Army. Without its greatest promoter, Carruthers Park was abandoned and sold for taxes and demolished. Upon returning from the war, Davidson joined George Anderson in rejuvenating local soccer. Anderson, another inductee in the Soccer Hall of Fame and Museum, came to Canada in 1909 from Scotland. He first settled in Souris, Manitoba, but two years later, he was in Winnipeg playing for Britannia in the Winnipeg and District League and the Winnipeg Free Press in the Printers League. In 1919, he became involved with minor soccer administration and then with senior leagues, becoming a member of the executive of the Manitoba Soccer Association in 1939.
Anderson was instrumental in the re-organization of the Dominion of Canadian Soccer Association. While with the association, he organized tours featuring some of the world’s top teams, including bringing the Moscow Locomotive to Canada in 1956 and then sending a Canadian team to Russia. He was also involved in the soccer matches for the 1967 Pan Am Games held in Winnipeg.
Another Winnipeg inductee into the Soccer Hall of Fame and Museum in Vaughan, Ontario is Winnipeg-born Doug McMahon, a star with the United Weston team and later with the famous Wolverhampton Wanderers, nicknamed the Wolves, of the English First Division. McMahon received his early soccer instruction from his father, Sandy, a referee in Winnipeg.
The Wolves offered McMahon an extended trial in August 1938 and he was later signed by the team, which was considered one of the best in the game. His debut was on January 1, 1939 against Blackpool. He wasn’t a regular starter on the Wolves which won the FA Cup of that year, but that summer on a tour with the club, he scored twice against a Danish squad in Copenhagen. McMahon remained with the team for the 1939-40 season, but the war meant a suspension of regular competition and he went on to play with a Midlands team. He then enlisted and served as a telegrapher onboard HMCS Camrose on Atlantic convoy duty.
Following the war, his soccer career included a prolific stint with the Carsteel team in Montreal which he led to the Canadian championship in 1948. In the National Soccer League that year, he scored a record 70 goals. Later in his career, he coached Montreal Sparta of the National Soccer League.
Canada does have a long soccer tradition, but it needs to be reinvigorated if this nation is once again to play in the men’s World Cup. Meanwhile, cheer on our women’s side. Canada is hosting the 2015 Women’s World Cup, and our team led by Christine Sinclair, acknowledged as the best women’s soccer player in the world, has a chance to win it all.