Hockey Powehouse Canada Surprises Latin America in Historic Soccer Journey

In an unprecedented move, Canada’s soccer team has made it to the Copa América semifinals, defying expectations in a nation where hockey reigns supreme. This remarkable achievement signifies a turning point for soccer in Canada.

Semifinalists in their debut Copa América appearance and with only two World Cup participations in their history, the Canadian national soccer team is set to face Lionel Messi’s Argentina. This comes as soccer tries to gain ground in a country historically enamored with ice hockey.

When one speaks of a nation’s “national sport,” it is usually understood as the most followed or popular sport. However, in Canada, it is a legal matter. The National Sports of Canada Act of 1994 declared ice hockey the “national winter sport” and lacrosse as the “national summer sport.”

Without a trace of soccer in this law, it’s clear why reaching the Copa América semifinals, after defeating Venezuela on penalties in the quarterfinals, is a fabulous and utterly unexpected milestone for the team coached by Jesse Marsch and led on the field by Alphonso Davies.

“Semifinalists! Canada is making history,” wrote Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on social media. The best metaphor for soccer’s status in Canada is that even on such a memorable day as their victory over Venezuela, the shadow of hockey loomed large. One of the most celebrated moments was hockey legend Sidney Crosby’s visit to the locker room after the match, a gesture appreciated by the players.

Anecdotes aside, Canada has traditionally been a second-tier team on the global stage, at least in men’s soccer. The women’s team, however, is a powerhouse with an Olympic gold (Tokyo 2020) and two bronzes (London 2012 and Rio 2016). The men’s team can boast a different level of success. Apart from this Copa América, their significant achievements include a Gold Cup title in 2000, a Concacaf Championship in 1985, and their two World Cup appearances in 1986 and 2022.

The upcoming 2026 World Cup, which Canada will co-host with the United States and Mexico, is poised to be a pivotal moment for the growth and consolidation of soccer in Canada. The country will have two host cities: Toronto and Vancouver.

Building a Soccer Legacy

Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal are home to teams that compete in the Major League Soccer (MLS) of the United States. Toronto FC, the 2017 MLS Cup champion, Vancouver Whitecaps, and CF Montreal are the Canadian representatives in the league. Below MLS, the Canadian Premier League (CPL) consists of eight teams and began in 2019. The Canadian Championship, a cup competition, includes the three MLS teams and offers a pathway to the Concacaf Champions Cup.

While professional soccer in Canada still has a way to go, the overall participation and interest in the sport are promising. According to the Canadian Soccer Association’s annual report, in 2023, there were 739,642 registered players across all levels, ages, and aspirations, each paying a yearly membership fee of nine dollars.

“This is a severe competition for us,” said Canadian midfielder Richie Laryea after Sunday’s training session ahead of the semifinal against Argentina. “This tournament could attract many fans in Canada and maybe even gain new ones because we don’t get seen much outside of big tournaments. But make no mistake, we are a serious team and here to win. That might sound bold or crazy, but this team is here to do just that.”

In the broader context of Latin America, Canada’s unexpected rise in the Copa América is a significant narrative. Soccer powerhouses like Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay traditionally dominate the region. These countries have long histories and deep-rooted soccer cultures, making Canada’s success even more remarkable.

Canada’s advancement in the Copa América also shines a light on the growing global nature of soccer. The sport is no longer confined to traditional strongholds. Canada’s journey symbolizes the sport’s expansion and the increasing competitiveness of teams outside the conventional soccer bastions. This shift is crucial for the global growth of soccer, bringing new stories and heroes to the forefront.

Moreover, Canada’s participation in a tournament primarily dominated by Latin American teams brings a fresh perspective and increases the tournament’s appeal. It introduces Latin American audiences to a different style of play and a new set of talents, broadening the cultural and competitive scope of the competition.

The Road Ahead

The real challenge for Canada will be maintaining and building on this momentum. The 2026 World Cup, which Canada will co-host with the United States and Mexico, offers an unparalleled opportunity to showcase Canadian soccer. Hosting matches in Toronto and Vancouver will undoubtedly spark greater interest and investment in the sport domestically, potentially leading to a surge in participation and a boost in the quality of the game.

However, the infrastructure and development at the grassroots level will be critical. The Canadian Soccer Association must continue to nurture young talent, invest in coaching, and create pathways for players to reach the highest levels of the sport. The women’s team’s success provides a blueprint that the men’s team can follow.

Furthermore, Canada’s multicultural society is a potential game-changer for its soccer development. With diverse communities worldwide, Canada has the unique advantage of integrating different soccer philosophies and styles. This diversity can be a strength, fostering innovation and creativity, and paving the way for a bright future in international soccer.

Canada’s historic run in the Copa América semifinals is a testament to the country’s soccer potential. It highlights the sport’s growing popularity and the hard work of players, coaches, and administrators. As the journey continues, it’s crucial to remember that with continued investment, strategic planning, and a bit of luck, Canada can establish itself as a significant player in international soccer.

Also read: Copa América 2024 Faces Pitch Challenges Amid High Stakes

Canada’s unexpected success in the Copa América inspires and challenges the nation to continue pushing the boundaries. As the nation gears up for the 2026 World Cup, the world will be watching to see if Canada can transform this moment of triumph into a lasting legacy.

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