Before I left to go to the Canada-Mexico men’s soccer game, a friend asked me, “Are you even allowed to go to Edmonton any more?”
He was the second person to ask me that.
Well, apparently I am. There was no mob waiting at the airport. Cab drivers did not have my mug shot tucked up under the visor.
A few years ago I wrote something about Edmonton vis-à-vis soccer that didn’t go over very well with the locals. Like, hundreds and hundreds of enraged e-mails not well. Like, walk by a bank of televisions and see your mugshot pop up a la 1984 not well.
Mainly, I was impressed with the combination of vigour and restraint in Edmonton’s response. Most of the notes of complaint ran along the lines of “I’m pretty disappointed in you” – a surprisingly effective rhetorical strategy at any age or stage of life.
I once did a similar number on a certain South American country that really knows how to work up a grudge. That was also vis-à-vis soccer (ed. note: write less soccer). Their hundreds and hundreds of enraged e-mails ran along the lines of “I will come up there and burn your house down with you in it.” So Edmonton was a nice change of pace.
Now that I’m within city limits again, let me say “Mea culpa” and “I come in peace.” We’ve had our moments. But now we’re in this together.
At this crucial moment, Edmonton is Canadian soccer’s shining light on the hill. Okay, you can’t see the light because it’s snowing pretty hard as I write this. But that’s the point.
On Tuesday, Canada plays Mexico in Commonwealth Stadium. Mexico’s the class of CONCACAF and it’s supposed to snow a foot between Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning.
Winning this game will not guarantee Canada qualifies for next year’s World Cup, but it will work as a global threat: Canada’s finally gotten serious (stop). Pack your long johns.
There are two great ways of making a World Cup – be better or be luckier. Canada hasn’t had much luck with either of those for a long time.
So it has finally figured out that you have to go the third way – use the terrain.
Plenty of under-talented, over-achieving soccer countries have been doing this for years. Whenever Bolivia wants to tilt things in the house’s favour, it drags its opponents to La Paz. The stadium there sits 12,000 feet above sea level – essentially the same elevation as low-flying planes. Bolivia never loses there (and rarely wins anywhere else).
Hot countries use the heat, swampy countries use the humidity and countries with a tenuous grasp on the rule of law use the goons in the stands. Because it’s called the World Cup, not the World Cup of Fairness.
Canada was supposed to run its final practice at Commonwealth on Monday afternoon, but switched venues because of the weather. The team was afraid someone might get hurt.
It seems a bit ironical that the same careful fellows will be running much harder in far worse conditions on the exact same field 24 hours later, but sports isn’t about making sense. It’s about winning.
Canada practised in a heated dome instead. The Prime Minister showed up and gave what appeared to be a pep talk. He was a ways away and had his back turned.
The players all had one of those “Is this a new coach and why is he wearing a tie at practice?” look, but they were nice enough to laugh when he told a joke.
“He just told us we’re all in this together as a country,” defender Steven Vitoria said.
As we were all cogitating our great national house united, one of the longer-serving members of the Canada Soccer setup wandered by and shouted, “They let you into Edmonton?”
As to the weather, Canadian head coach John Herdman said the word “suffering” a lot. Like he was really looking forward personally to doing some of that. I presume he’ll be on the sidelines in board shorts and a tank top on Tuesday night.
Vitoria shrugged away thermometer talk: “We feed off the heat from our fans.”
It’s a line so corny it should come buttered, but there’s something to it. It’s not like the Canadian players will be out there in mesh jerseys and short shorts. Everyone will be dressed up like a soccer snowman.
But what will Mexico make of the people in stands?
A great fuss is always made of how intimidating it is to play in front of 100,000 at the Azteca in Mexico City. What do those people bring to the party aside from a few off-colour chants? They throw on a T-shirt, have a couple of street pops on the way in and head out for a bite after it’s done. There is no “suffering.”
In Edmonton, it’ll be 50,000 people who had to get dressed like they work in a meat locker. Dress wrong, and they are not headed for a bite afterward, they’re headed to the ER. Once it’s over, they’re going straight home to have their clothes chipped off and stand in the shower for an hour.
The Canadian men’s soccer team finally has the players. What it still requires is the mythology. Great soccer teams have legends, whether they are manufactured or organic. You say the name of a certain player, stadium or opponent and people automatically know what iconic night you’re alluding to.
Canada has Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, but it has none of that. No Mexican fan could name any stadium in this country.
Now that Canada has the full attention of its top opponents, Tuesday night in Edmonton could be the start of one of those legends.
It would have to snow pretty hard to be a Snow Bowl to us. But all it takes a dusting and a thrashing, and it will be a Snow Bowl that Mexican soccer fans won’t forget.