Ten thousand kilometres. Thousands of dollars. Dozens of jerseys.
A legion of Canada’s soccer superfans have made the trek to Qatar to see the men’s national team end their 36-year World Cup drought, starting with their first game on Wednesday against Belgium.
The Globe and Mail spoke with some of these diehard fans about what they packed, how much they budgeted and what they’re most looking forward to at soccer’s biggest event.
Zainab Rizvi, Burlington, Ont.
Zainab Rizvi’s 16-year-old son, Jibran, has been playing soccer since he was 2, hopes to land a career in sports psychology or sports management, and has an uncanny knack for rattling off obscure soccer trivia. “He’ll say, ‘Mom, do you know who the Ballon d’Or winner was in 2008?’ And I’m just like, ‘How would I know that? I have no idea,’” Ms. Rizvi laughs. (Answer: Cristiano Ronaldo, his first of five.)
Jibran always dreamed of going to the World Cup. So when Canada qualified, Ms. Rizvi and her husband, Muslim, also a huge soccer fan, decided to plan a family vacation with Jibran and their 14-year-old daughter, Ridha. In Doha, Qatar’s capital and the centre of the action, they’ll be staying with Ms. Rizvi’s sister-in-law, which helped cut down expenses.
“I told my parents, I’m not wearing any T-shirts there. I’m just wearing jerseys,” Jibran says. They have tickets to four games, including Canada’s matches against Croatia and Morocco.
Along with Jibran’s jersey collection, the family is bringing Canada team shirts, a Canadian flag and, surprisingly, sweaters. “My sister-in-law told us to pack sweaters because although it’s going to be hot in the city, the stadiums are freezing with the air conditioning,” Ms. Rizvi says.
While Ms. Rizvi is hoping to see Canada win their first-ever World Cup game, she’s also excited just to have the opportunity to share the experience with her family.
“This is a big commitment. It’s far and expensive,” Ms. Rizvi says. “But this trip will be really meaningful because Jibran’s a teenager and this is probably the last few years that we’re really going to spend a lot of time together.”
As for Jibran, he’s slightly nervous about missing a week of school during Grade 12, including one big test. But watching a World Cup game in person? “It’s worth it.”
Neil Brunton, Toronto
Neil Brunton always knew Canada could be a soccer nation, even when his fellow countrymen didn’t realize it. “I remember going to multiple sports bars, even a few years ago, and you couldn’t get them to play Canadian soccer,” says Mr. Brunton, who has been following the men’s national team for more than two decades.
But that all changed in the past year, when the 73rd-ranked men’s team catapulted into the World Cup bracket and into Canada’s greater consciousness.
Mr. Brunton will be in Doha with three long-time friends, whom he knows from playing soccer. They also share a love for the Scottish club, Dundee United. During his two-week trip, he’s catching nine games, including Canada’s three group stage matches and two double-headers, which Mr. Brunton says is only possible because all of the stadiums are so close together.
For the first week, Mr. Brunton and his friends are staying in a docked, all-inclusive cruise ship, one of the lodging options that Qatar is using to accommodate fans. “Listen, I’m going with three Scottish guys, so drinking is a priority,” Mr. Brunton says. (Although officials have said alcohol will not be available in stadiums, it will be sold in specially designated fan zones.) The second week they’re staying in shipping container-style rooms in the fan village, which Mr. Brunton and his travel partners are decorating with Canadian flags and other cheesy souvenirs to create an unofficial “Canada House.”
In total, Mr. Brunton spent around $9,000 on flights, tickets and accommodations, but is budgeting another thousand for spending while there, including on FIFA merchandise.
In the fan village, Mr. Brunton hopes to meet other international spectators. “I’m bringing a couple extra Canada scarves to trade with some other fans,” Mr. Brunton says. “To hang out, cheer and have something in common with everybody from all these different countries, that’s something special.”
Nolan Wolf and Sean Diamond, Toronto
It all started with a bet.
After Canada failed to make the World Cup in 2006, Nolan Wolf wagered his childhood friend Sean Diamond $500 that his beloved squad would qualify in 2010, 2014 or 2018. Mr. Wolf lost that bet, but the same night he paid out Mr. Diamond, they upped the ante: If Canada qualified in 2022, 2026 or 2030, Mr. Diamond would pay for them both to go to the tournament. If Mr. Wolf lost, he’d take them on a vacation of his friend’s choosing.
Mr. Diamond remembers the moment he realized he’d probably be the one to lose: It was when Canada tied Mexico at the famed Azteca Stadium in October, 2021. “I actually made a reservation for a hotel in Doha, sent a screenshot to Nolan and said, ‘Don’t get cocky, I’m just making sure we have a place to stay,’” Mr. Diamond says. Then when Canada outscored Mexico at the legendary “Iceteca” game in Edmonton the following month, Mr. Diamond knew his fate was sealed.
He is quick to point out that like Mr. Wolf, he’s a big Canadian men’s soccer fan. So why bet against yourself? “No offense to Canada, but back when we first made this bet, they had never come close to qualifying,” Mr. Diamond says. “So despite the fact that I bet against them for so long, I am now a believer that we are on the cusp of unlocking the golden generation of Canadian soccer.”
But Mr. Wolf never lost faith in the team, and Mr. Diamond kept his word. He flew the pair out to Doha, and covered tickets for one Canada game and two nights of accommodations. Mr. Wolf knows that Canada is an underdog, but he’s still hopeful.
“This team is a special group with an incredible coach who has the team glued together,” Mr. Wolf says. “I’m looking forward to seeing the team prove that we’re an emerging soccer power, and we’re here to stay.”
Patrick Oxciano, Vancouver
Patrick Oxciano’s original plan was to go to the European Championship in 2020 with a big group of friends from medical school for their 10-year reunion. But the pandemic delayed the tournament to 2021, and Dr. Oxciano, an emergency-room physician in Vancouver, and his friends couldn’t take the time to travel at that point. “There’s a shortage of health care workers everywhere so we weren’t able to go, especially at a time when we were peak COVID,” Dr. Oxicano says.
When Canada qualified for the World Cup, Dr. Oxciano jumped on the opportunity to take a much-needed vacation. Before the pandemic, Dr. Oxciano, a diehard Manchester United fan, made a yearly pilgrimage to the Old Trafford stadium to see his team play and was also a season ticket holder for the Vancouver Whitecaps FC.
Dr. Oxicano, who is going to Qatar with a friend who’s also a doctor, has tickets for two Canada games plus the Group B matches, featuring the United States, Iran, England and Wales. “It’s a privilege and I feel very lucky,” Dr. Oxciano says. “But also, like a lot of health care workers, I do need to take care of myself. I’m very excited to watch the best football in the world in one place.”
Alain Siewe, Calgary
Alain Siewe first fell in love with soccer in 1990, when his home country, Cameroon, qualified for the World Cup for only the second time. He watched every game at his grandma’s house, with his cousins, aunts and uncles crowded around a small 20-inch TV. “When the national team was playing, you could walk through any village or city and there would not be a car or person on the street. Everyone was either at a bar or a house watching the game,” Mr. Siewe says.
When he moved to Canada in 2000, he started following the women’s national team, which he felt was by far the country’s better soccer team at the time. Mr. Siewe began to take notice of the men’s team at the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup, which was hosted in Canada, but really started to pay attention when women’s coach John Herdman moved over to the men’s team in 2018. Mr. Siewe thought that if Mr. Herdman, who led the women’s team to bronze medals at the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics, saw potential in the men’s team, it must be there.
In Qatar, Mr. Siewe is watching six games during eight days. He spent around $5,500 for flights, accommodations and tickets.
Although Mr. Siewe is no stranger to international tournaments – he attended the South Africa World Cup in 2010 and has volunteered at two European Championships – being able to cheer on both Canada and Cameroon makes this World Cup even more meaningful. “I’m looking forward to just watching the games and the sense of pride cheering for your team. You see people rally around something and for a moment, everybody forgets about everything else,” Mr. Siewe says.
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