When Canada plays its first match in the 2022 World Cup on Wednesday, it will be a crowing achievement for a country that long has been an afterthought in international soccer. The last, and only, time Canada played in the world’s most popular sporting event was in 1986. It arrived in Mexico that summer as a continental champion but promptly lost all three of its games and went straight home.
In the nearly four decades since, much has changed for the national team and the country. The 1986 squad was largely white and of European ancestry. But the modern national team, much like modern Canada, is far less homogeneous. And a chunk of that influx comes from one place: Brampton, a city of about 700,000 people that is 30 minutes west of downtown Toronto and, according to its mayor, is the country’s most diverse big city.
Of the 26 players on the roster for the World Cup, seven were born, raised or developed in Brampton. They include some of the team’s best players and are a big part of the reason Canada leapfrogged the United States and Mexico in the qualifying region of North and Central America and the Caribbean.
The team captain, Atiba Hutchinson, 39, is from Brampton just like midfielder Jonathan Osorio and forwards Tajon Buchanan and Cyle Larin, among others.
“Wow, what’s in the water in Brampton?” Patrick Brown, the city’s mayor, joked. He added later, “It is extraordinary because we’re a city of 750,000 out of a country of over 30 million. We’re small in comparison to the national size. So we don’t warrant that much representation on the national soccer team. But it speaks to something very special that has come out of our city.”
On the national team, Osorio, 30, said the players from Brampton wore their hometown pride very openly and “let everybody know that Brampton is the most represented in the country.”
In other ways, the group of players is emblematic of their city and country. Hutchinson’s parents, for example, are from Trinidad, Osorio’s parents emigrated from Colombia and Larin is of Jamaican descent. According to Canada’s census, nearly 80% of Brampton’s population in 2021 was non-white.
“For me, what sets Brampton apart,” Osorio said, “is the fact that there are a lot of middle- to lower-class families of very diverse backgrounds, and most of those backgrounds and in those countries the main sport is football, soccer, and those parents breathed that influence into their kids.”
The city is dotted with, among others, Indian, Pakistani, Nigerian, Jamaican and Trinidadian restaurants and stores. Across the street from a popular youth soccer facility is a strip mall that exemplifies the city: A restaurant specializing in food from the Indian state of Gujarat sits beside African Queen Caribbean Grocery, which is adjacent to Tandoori Boys.
Osorio said the cultural melting pot that is Brampton was a reason it had produced so many top-level soccer players. His family moved from Toronto to Brampton when he was 6 because his family was growing – he is one of three children – and the suburb was more affordable, which he said was a similar motivation for other families.
“Everyone always asks, ‘Why Brampton?’” said Greg Spagnoli, the head soccer coach at St. Edmund Campion Secondary School in Brampton, where Buchanan, Larin and Osorio all starred and won provincial championships. His explanation echoed Osorio’s: Immigrant families that moved to the country and its largest city soon realized that Brampton was affordable, and its open space allowed for more parks and fields for their children.
“It’s easy to see how the parents’ love of the game filtered all the way down to the children because you can walk around the city of Brampton at any point in time and quickly see how many kids are out there just kicking the ball,” Spagnoli said. “It doesn’t require much. Just a ball and some empty space.”
Osorio, who has long known Larin and Doneil Henry, another player from Brampton who did not make the World Cup roster after being injured in a tune-up match, said he and his friends all played soccer because it was more accessible than hockey, Canada’s most popular sport.
“There was a point where I wanted to try hockey and I wanted to try baseball, but my parents, honestly, were going to do everything they can to provide for me to give me the opportunity, but it would have been very, very tough,” he said. “Luckily for everybody, for them and for me, soccer was my passion anyway.”
While cricket is also popular in Brampton, soccer has a more formal development system. There are many public facilities in which to play soccer, including the multimillion-dollar Save Max Sports Centre, which has indoor and outdoor soccer fields. There is the Brampton Soccer Club, the largest local youth soccer league. There are other soccer academies, and the nearby club scene – where Osorio said he had developed – has exploded.
And there are also top high school programs, such as St. Edmund Campion, which has won what is essentially the state title for Ontario five times since 2009, with Larin winning it three times in a row during that span. Highlighting the strength of the area, Spagnoli said nine of the past 10 provincial championships played (the pandemic wiped out 2020 and 2021) came from schools in Brampton or Mississauga, a neighbouring city that is a little larger and also diverse.
“For me, it’s interesting because of those six, seven players, the oldest is 39 years old,” Osorio said, adding later, “It’s not something that just came coincidentally during this time. This is something that’s been breeding over time. There’s been so many talented players in Brampton for a time now.”
To become a professional, Osorio, like his fellow national team players from Brampton, had to leave home. He went to Uruguay at 17 to train with Club Nacional and eventually landed with Toronto FC in Major League Soccer, where he won a title in 2017.
When Osorio returns home, he sometimes stops by his favourite restaurant, Tonino’s Pizzeria and Panini, where his signed jersey hangs on a wall. He is close with its owner, Danny Caloiero, who sponsored one of Osorio’s youth teams and hosted him, his teammates and their families for pizza after practices or games. Osorio said going from Italian food one night to the many different cuisines of Brampton another night was what he enjoyed most.
“I had a lot of Jamaican friends, so I would have a lot of Jamaican patties after school,” he said. “And my best friend was Portuguese, so I would go over to his house and eat a Portuguese meal. You get to learn about all these cultures. Now, when we have the privilege to travel to all these places to play, there’s not much of a culture shock for us because we were already doing that in our own backyard.”
When Buchanan, 23, returns to Brampton during breaks from his professional team, Club Brugge in Belgium, he goes to the same place – Al’s Barber Shop – to get his hair cut by a childhood friend. Last year, he also swung by his old school with a gift of a jersey for his former coach. “The kids were nice and happy to see him, and he took pictures with them,” Spagnoli said.
When Hutchinson returned to Brampton earlier this year from Turkey, where he plays for Besiktas, he took Brown, the mayor, who is normally a hockey fan, on a tour of the soccer fields he played on, the schools he attended and the places he ate at growing up. And at one of those facilities, the Century Gardens Recreation Centre, Brown said the city had secured the funding and unveiled plans to build an outdoor boxed soccer court for children, an idea first raised by Hutchinson. It will be named after him.
“Everyone in Brampton knows about them and talks about them,” Caloiero said. “A lot of people know all the players, so it’s like a bond in Brampton. Like, ‘Oh, I know Hoilett.’ Or, ‘I know his brother,’” he said, referring to Junior Hoilett, 32, another of Brampton’s World Cup players. Caloiero added: “Everyone has a little connection, and it’s pretty cool.”
Over the years, Spagnoli said he had noticed more children in Brampton wearing Canadian jerseys, especially of the local players, a group that also includes Iké Ugbo, 24, and Liam Millar, 23.
Stephen Nesbitt, who coached Buchanan on a Brampton youth soccer team and now owns a store called Soccer World in nearby Oakville, said the success of the national team over the past year had helped show that Canada wasn’t just a hockey country and its players could not be ignored by top clubs. He also said that it would only further propel the development of soccer at the grassroots level in Brampton and the country at large.
The Brampton soccer pipeline, though, extends beyond the men’s team. After the women’s team won the soccer gold medal at the Tokyo Summer Olympics last year, the city of Brampton named two fields after local products Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence.
Asked if the other Brampton players would get the same honours after the World Cup, Brown laughed. “You never know,” he said. “If they go win a gold medal or do well in the World Cup, there will be even more reasons to celebrate their success.”