Soccer, according to FIFA World Cup lore, can unify the planet. But that's not how things look from Flemingdon Park Field, a stretch of green in the heart of one of the most multicultural neighbourhoods in Toronto.
On a recent night, a caravan of cars winds five kilometres from affluent Leaside to the coveted swath of grass that is Flemingdon, located on Don Mills Road. Out of Range Rovers and BMW sports utility vehicles hop the Leaside Tigers. The children pour onto the field - divided into six soccer pitches - trailed by parents carrying fold-out chairs, BlackBerrys strapped to their hips.
Only 50 metres away, on a piece of artificial turf too small to qualify as an official field, teenage boys in Muslim skullcaps run drills, while seven-year-olds in hijabs chase after soccer balls. Unlike the mostly-white Tigers, there isn't a single fair-skinned child in sight in this community league, which is run by the Flemingdon Park Parent Association.
To an outsider, the sight of these parallel worlds - separated only by a shopping plaza - seems bizarre. Since the Tigers practice in an area densely populated with children raised in soccer-loving regions such as South Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe, it makes sense that their league would be swarming with kids from the half-dozen apartment buildings towering above the pitch. Why not one league for everyone?
The sport, it turns out, has exposed the thorny issues that arise when groups from wildly different backgrounds are forced to share a small piece of land.
In part, cost explains the divide. The price of playing for the Tigers, which ranges $160 to $475, is prohibitive for the denizens of Flemingdon Park, where the average family lives on less than $45,000 per year. "It's about the bucks," says Uvais Seiyad, an immigrant from Sri Lanka who has three children in the FPPA League, which costs only $10 per season.
John Morgan, the Tigers' executive director, insists no child is turned away because of money. Though he acknowledges the offer isn't advertised, he says he has waived fees on numerous occasions.
He thinks part of the reason immigrant parents shy away from his league is because they feel intimidated or unwelcome. More than that, he says, they want to stick to their own community. "They're building a fence around themselves," he said.
That's not how Sahar Badawy sees things. Eight years ago, the mother of four from Egypt decided her community needed an affordable alternative.
With support from other parents belonging to the FPPA, as well as officials at Grenoble Public School, where she volunteered, she started a soccer program for 50 children, one day a week. Demand was so high that now the league has 500 children from Grades 1 to 8, and kids are turned away every summer due to lack of resources. The $10 fee, plus donations from organizations such as the United Way, pays for a t-shirt and year-end trophy for everyone, plus about two hours per week of instruction and scrimmage.
Children in the program must be from the neighbourhood, but that's not being exclusionary, she says. "I came to Canada to be Canadian. I'm against dividing people," she said on a recent evening, as she bounded up and down the sidelines dressed in loose denim clothing, her clear skin and large eyes highlighted by the hijab circling her face.
"Look," she says, waving to the children. "They are from tons of countries."
Her goal isn't to groom soccer stars. She wants kids to be able to play without having to ask for a free ride. More important, she wants to foster a sense of community in a place where there is little union.
"This is the difference," she says, referring to the parents chatting on the sidelines, including a woman cloaked in a niqab. "They don't know each other, but they start to talk, bit by bit."
Ms. Badawy's drive has endeared her to others in her community, but it hasn't made her a favourite of Mr. Morgan and some of the other Leaside officials.
Several years ago, she began lobbying the city to regain access to some of the space on Flemingdon Field, where the Tigers were permitted to practice two hours per day, five days a week. It bothered her that her group was relegated to the back of an elementary school. Now, every day except Wednesday, she has a permit to use one of the six soccer fields at Flemingdon.
"Soon she'll be going after Wednesdays," Mr. Morgan said wearily, as he spray-painted out-of-bounds lines on a recent afternoon. (Ironically, the field allocated to Ms. Badawy remains unused. Due to cutbacks in donations, she says she doesn't have the manpower to organize the children on two sites).
Slowly, some people are working to create bridges between these polarized worlds. One of them is Patrick (Laza) Lowe. When he moved to Regent Park from Jamaica in the mid-1970s, teams in Toronto were almost all divided by ethnicity, he says - from the Irish to the Greeks to the Caribbean leagues. Today, as director of development for the Toronto Soccer Association, he's convinced those walls must come down in order for the sport to grow and earn corporate support.
Each time he's seen a child on the sidelines looking like her or she would like to join in, he gives the kid the phone number for the Tigers' director. "Tell John, Laza sent you," he'll say. The league estimates about 150 of its 2,000 players hail from the Flemingdon Park area.
On this night, as part of his regular gig coaching various Leaside teams, Mr. Lowe is helping the under-14 rep boys soccer team through some defensive drills. Of the 18 players, about five live in Flemingdon Park, including three boys from Afghanistan, and one each from Romania and Jamaica. In past seasons, there have been boys from Colombia, Brazil and Africa.
This is not by accident: The team's three official coaches have been recruiting boys from the neighbourhood, in some cases personally donating hundreds of dollars to the boys' season. "No matter where they come from, the common denominator is the game of soccer," says David Shergold, an emergency physician who's coached the team for six years.
It's been a rewarding experience for boys on both sides. "It's fine with me. I don't really care if they're from different countries or not," said Aiden Robertson, 14, of Leaside.
"I want to stay with them forever," said Bahram Hidari, 13, an Afghan immigrant who joined the team last season.
At the end of the practice, before Bahram and his friends walk home and their teammates hop into their parents' cars, the team moves in for a huddle. Dr. Shergold asks them to shout out who they are cheering for in the World Cup tournament. Spain and England are named. One boy says South Africa.
The countries where they were born and raised didn't seem to matter.