July 29, 2014
In Ontario, it was hard for us to get excited about the Canadiens. They spoke English, used dollars, and lacked any qualities that would separate themselves from the Americans we experience everyday, save for the woman who giggled as she crossed against the light, “maybe I’ll jaywalk,” like she was getting away with a real crime. But Montréal is a different story, everyone speaks French and rides a bike. An old colonial settlement with an ingrained festive, and at times debaucherous streak, it feels a bit like the result of a wild night between Philadelphia and New Orleans.
With our own days of debauchery a bit behind us, we leaned heavily toward the historical side of things. We abandoned our car in an underground lot for the course of our stay, in order to experience the city through a series of walks. Our walks took us through city parks crowded and spectacular (Mont-Royal with its panoramic sunset cityscape views), or subdued and eerie (La Fontaine in the mist after a full day rainstorm at dusk). They took us through the Old Port where French colonial history, working factories, and schlocky tour boats exist in reflection of each other. They took us to famous bagel bakeries, sidewalk poutine shops, and the world’s most laid-back French restaurant, Cafe Tot ou Tard. Mostly they took us past houses with balconies and metal outdoor staircases leading to the upper floors.
We took in, as we always do, a local soccer game. Our trip to Stade Saputo, home of MLS’s Impact, took us past the bizarre Stade Olympique. Without intention, we have found ourselves in 4 Olympic cities (Beijing, Seoul, Mexico City and Montréal) and Stade Olympique is by far the strangest lasting manifestation of the games. It’s as if a mid-70s flying saucer landed in middle of a skateboard park and reacted by growing a giant misshapen tilted tower from its hull.
In all its strangeness, Stade Olympique was part of what first drew me to Montréal. In 1983, as an 8-year-old, I knew the Phillies were wrong to release the best player in baseball, 42-year-old Pete Rose. When he emerged the next year in the tri-color hat of the Expos, I got one of my own. The Phils had and will always be my one true love, but the Expos were the first in a series of sporting mistresses, providing entertainment when the home team offered none. Initially there was Tim “Rock” Raines and bearded Jeff Reardon, later Delino DeSheilds and Marquis Grissom, and finally Vladimir Guerrero, my favorite player never to play in Philadelphia.
30 years later, Rose and the Expos have both been removed from baseball. Rose, banned for life for gambling and the team relocated to Washington 10 years ago after the ineptitude of bad owners and baseball’s leaders conspired to turn the league’s most attended franchise into a laughingstock. And now soccer has drawn my interest more strongly than any previous passing fancy.
Our tradition of soccer games, goes back to our first trip together in China. On a whim, we sought out the local club during our stay in Dalian, not knowing we were seeing the last days of the team in the most famous soccer city in the country. What the global game provides is a way to contrast each country through the same prism. The game is the only constant, we’ve found that fans, chants, stadiums, security measures, merchandise, refreshments reflect the culture or at least part of it.
The French Canadian version differs only slightly from the American soccer stadium experience. The last place Impact, although only MLS participants for a couple of years date back to the early 90s when the current version of North American soccer came together following the 1994 World Cup in the US. As such, they have a section designated for the most vocal and involved supporters of the club. They stand throughout the match, chanting, drumming, waving flags, leading the rest of the stadium. Tonight, with the Impact trailing the visiting Portland Timbers 2-1, rain flooded the field and the stands. As most everyone took cover, the supporters section sang on and the team responded with a goal shortly before halftime. The rain did not stop until the very end of the game simultaneously with a wonder goal from Portland’s Argentine star Diego Valeri. The supporters responded with the French version of Yankee Go Home.
For our final day in Montreal we joined with the thousands of locals who use bicycles to navigate the city. We chose a route that took us past an outdoor market to pick up picnic supplies on the way to very edge of the city and a sculpture park that provides views of Lake St. Louis in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. The way back took us along the river, its rapids, and out to a car free island across from the Old Port. At the end there were mini pies.
We leave Montréal with an impression that certain cities leave. Why does a place like Montréal develop an energy of interest and marvel that is lacking in others like our stopover destination, Kingston, Ontario? The cities share much of the same history and a similar waterfront location, but only one will stay with us as we travel on.
June 9, 2015
There were 10,000 people in the Stade Olympique, dwarfed by 40,000 empty seats, in a stadium built for athletics in 1976, to watch a competition despised by its organizers and all but ignored in the host city.
But Linda and I sat in the center, or rather stood at the front, of 500 or so people producing a relentless constant melodious volume of drums, chants, gasps and shouts in support of the Republic of Korea’s national women’s football team. Here, regardless of FIFA and the patriarchy’s best attempts, was the spirit that provides the meaning for the World Cup.
For as the game’s key historian, David Goldblatt has vocally advocated, football belongs to us, much more so than sneaky officials in Zurich, billionaire investors in Doha, London and New York, and the multinationals that provide the dollars to make all the gross perversions of everything outside of the game itself, unpalatable.
We are fortunate in that, those who have come to cheer Korea and the three other sides on display (Brazil, Spain, and Costa Rica) are undaunted by the swaths of empties and buoyed by the fact that the indoor stadium and its awful artificial turf serve as an echo chamber to amplify their sounds. We also fortunate, in that the four teams are among the more graceful and technical in the tournament. Costa Rica, may not want much of the ball, in the opening game against the Spaniards, but they are stylish on the counter, while their opponents have little idea of how to break down their compact defense. The game ends 1-1, as the saying goes, a fair result.
For the second game, we are fortunate as well. Korea is our team and Brazil may be the class of the tournament. We had seen the Koreans outplay and out-think the Americans a week earlier in New Jersey in a warm-up match that ended 0-0. The program has grown exponentially in the last decade, even winning the youth World Cup, with little support from the national federation. We know they will try to make the most of their possession, the question is how much they will have, as the Brazilians, as always, will want to keep the ball and swivel through the defense.
The answer is not very much. The South Americans take advantage of the only two mistakes of the night, one by the Korean center-back and the second, possibly, by the referee on a penalty call. Marta, the greatest female player of this generation, scores from the spot, and unbeknownst to us, sets the all-time World Cup scoring record by a woman. Brazil wins 2-0.
For our part, we keep pace with the din of the drums and waves of the songs. We overcome the drunken shouts of the older man behind us who offers an unwavering assault of Korean insults and complaints to the players. Only he knows exactly where every player should be at all times and in no uncertain terms, both he and his young grandson are superior players to the professional athletes on the pitch. Linda’s spoken annoyances with his ignorance are met with laughter from the teens around us.
With the game complete, we wait alongside everyone else, including our drunken friend as the teams exchange jerseys at the final whistle. Then our team of 23 stands shoulder to shoulder along the endline and bows to us. For the Brazilians, Marta looks up into the stands, after conducting the requisite post-game interview and raises her arms and claps for a few moments. A gesture seen at the close of every football match, an acknowledgement of the dialog and solidarity between players and fans that remains among my most cherished joys for the game.