Peter Donnelly is a professor and director of the Centre for Sport Policy Studies at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on equity and human rights issues, especially the democratization of participation in sport and recreational physical activity.
Canada is reputed to be a country that “works in practice, but not in theory.” More than 20 percent of the population was born outside of Canada, and Canada maintains one of the highest rates of immigration in the world, adding about a million new Canadians every four years. Toronto is the main “Arrival City,” with half its population born outside of Canada. There are over 200 different ethnocultural populations in the Greater Toronto Area and, as a consequence, every team who plays in the World Cup has a cheering section.
Canada lacks a national soccer culture, but it does have a multiculture makeup, in part, of soccer cultures from other countries. To be in Toronto for the World Cup is an experience. Many vehicles carry flags to show the driver’s preferred team. Some carry two different flags of participating teams—often an indication of the growing number of mixed heritage marriages—or the flag of a preferred team and a Canadian flag (although Canada has only played once in a World Cup), most likely because Canada Day usually falls in the middle of a World Cup.
Victory celebrations often involve impromptu parades and street parties. Little Italy and Little Portugal are best known for their horn-honking drives through the streets, and Little Korea was famous for horn-honking and pot-banging parades during the 2002 World Cup (see Peter Lynch’s 2002 documentary Soccer Fever: A Passion Play). The absence of Italy and early departure of Portugal this year created space for fans of other teams such as Mexico, Russia, and Iran to make themselves heard.
World Cup festivities really took off in the 1990s with the growing availability of live international sports broadcasts. Screens are everywhere—set up in store windows, in some parks and plazas, and in bars and cafés throughout the city. Before a World Cup, local media list cafés and bars to visit for each participating team, but the action is also interesting at those without a distinct ethnocultural affiliation. The blending of cultures is memorable, and everyone has a story.
On June 23, Mexico beat South Korea and Germany had a last minute win over Sweden. At one bar in the city, the Mexican fans joined the German fans spilling out into the street to celebrate. When Belgium beat Japan 3-2 in injury time, people cheering for each team commiserated with each other, and one Belgium fan paid for the beer for Japanese fans at the bar. But who do soccer fans cheer for when their team is not one of the 32 in the World Cup, or when their own team is knocked out?
There are no rules of coalition formation. Portuguese fans may shift their allegiance to Brazil, a shared language culture. Fans of teams with large cohorts of players from immigrant families (e.g., Belgium, England, France) may choose to cheer for teams with players who share their ethnocultural heritage. Some may choose because ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend,’ or root for the underdog, or join with friends, family members, or co-workers for whichever team they are supporting. Others may remember crucial losses in earlier World Cups and root for any team playing against the team that inflicted that loss. It is rare to find anyone watching a game who has not constructed a vested interest in cheering for one team or the other.
Xenophobia is not entirely absent, but the heartening stories are more prevalent. In 2002, a nervous fan of the losing German team showed up, carrying his flag, at a street party celebrating Brazil’s victory. He was welcomed with open arms, offered drinks, and asked to pose for pictures. An Irish fan arrived at a Little Korea street party after Ireland’s departure, carrying an Irish flag and a sign that said “Irish for the Koreans.” Fans of Turkey arrived to celebrate with and were also welcomed by the Koreans.
This fluidity of identification is characteristic of Canada’s pluralistic society. As Maffesoli notes, identifications belong to the flux of sociality where emotion, solidarity, and the sensational and tactile prevail as people switch from one group to another. Television, long considered an alienating and isolating medium, becomes a medium of sociality and community by enabling the shared experience of spectacle in the form of the beautiful international game. As a celebration of multiculturalism it is a moment “that lumps your throat and makes you realize that things will probably work out in the end.”