Imagine if Toronto was as soccer-mad as Manchester or Madrid, a city that produced some of the world's best players. Imagine if Toronto FC was a hundred-year-old club playing in a successful all-Canadian soccer league, and Torontonians considered footie as Canadian as Tim Hortons, Mounties and maple syrup.
Farfetched? Incredibly, as Toronto's neglected sports history shows, the city and surrounding region was once on the cusp of soccer greatness. By the early 20th century, players from the Greater Toronto Area had won one of the earliest recorded international matches organized outside Great Britain, earned an Olympic gold medal in soccer, and beat some of the best football clubs in the world - all before anyone had ever heard of FIFA or the World Cup.
Soccer's rise in this city began at the University of Toronto in the mid-1870s. It was there that students such as player-coach David Forsyth, who later helped form the Western Football Association in 1880 (one of the first soccer associations formed outside Great Britain) first fell in love with the Beautiful Game. After graduating, Mr. Forsyth and others helped bring soccer from Toronto west to Berlin and Galt (now Kitchener and Cambridge), producing a generation of elite players.
This wasn't a handful of ex-pats playing a niche sport for fun. Prior to the First World War, the vast majority of Southern Ontario's soccer players were born and educated in Canada. Among them were professors, dentists, journalists and surgeons. Many were skilled at a variety of sports, such as baseball and cricket. Some would later become active in government. Throughout the late 19th century and early 20th, newspapers like The Globe and the Toronto Daily Mail recorded their achievements with news of local "football" match-ups organized throughout the province.
And they were good. So good, in fact, that in 1888, Mr. Forsyth felt confident enough to take a select team of players mainly from Berlin, Galt, and Toronto to Great Britain to play what were then some of the best soccer clubs in the world. Canada's skill would take some British onlookers by surprise, including the English paper London Sporting Life, which remarked, "[the Canadians']success against some of the best Irish, Scottish and English clubs had been greater than most of the followers of the association game at least expected … they have made themselves a deservedly high name as all-round exponents of football."
Canada finished the tour with a record of nine wins, five draws and nine losses, defeating what were then footballing giants such as Sunderland and Scotland's Queen's Park, in addition to a little club called Newton Heath, better known today as Manchester United. The result of the tour remains unmatched in Canadian soccer, and provided one of the only instances in Toronto's sports history when a team with players born and raised in the GTA took on the world's best and won.
Yet it was only one of several remarkable feats. In 1885, a team representing Ontario's Western Football Association played one of the first international matches played outside the U.K. against the a team of U.S. selects, earning a 1-0 win in Newark, N.J. And - amazingly - Canada earned an Olympic gold medal in soccer at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics (it was a three-team competition, mind you) after a team from Galt beat two U.S. teams by a combined score of 11-0. By the early 20th century, writes Canadian soccer historian Colin Jose, soccer "…ranked with hockey as Canada's national game that era…"
So why aren't we a contender in world soccer today? When did the sport fall from favour in Canada? While the First World War did much to ignite Canadian nationalism, it radically altered Canada's perception of soccer. Many of Ontario's best players went to fight on the fields of France, and some never returned. Others who did never laced up their boots again. As an influx of much-needed British labourers arrived here in the 1920s and '30s, soccer teams such as Toronto Ulster United and Toronto Scottish formed. British-born players soon filled the ranks of Ontario's soccer teams.
Over time, soccer became regarded as an "Old Country" sport, with hockey, Canadian football, and baseball deemed more suitably "Canadian." Later, it was perceived "outsiders" such as British and, later, Italian, Ukrainian and Portuguese immigrants who provided this city with some of its greatest soccer moments, like the Toronto Metros-Croatia NASL Soccer Bowl win in 1976. The fact that Toronto's newcomers were helping to preserve a city pastime stretching back past the late 19th century was ignored, and later forgotten.
Today, it's only because of dedicated researchers like Colin Jose and museums like the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame in Vaughan that we know anything about Toronto's incredible soccer story. Yet even as love of the sport here spreads, historians like Mr. Jose don't hold out much hope for increased interest in local footie history. Which means the army of soccer-lovers gathered across this city in front of TV screens for the World Cup will continue to watch the Beautiful Game, unaware they're enjoying one of Toronto's oldest sports.
Special to The Globe and Mail