Ottawa: Planting Roots

Words by Carlos Verde, Photos by Magda Knyszynski

The beautiful game binds us.

Ottawa.

Huddled in the stands with a hardy group of supporters, we collectively buzz as Ottawa Fury FC winger Paulo Júnior speeds down the left flank. The Brazilian prances past a slide tackle, hurdling Paris-born FC Edmonton defender Allan Zebie’s challenge without breaking stride. Sections of the crowd rise out of their seats, anticipating an early opener for the home side. Paulo Júnior squares the ball—

Football happens.

The beautiful game has never been a natural phenomenon in Canada. Traditionally seen by most native Canadians as a place to deposit children for a few hours of babysitting, football has only truly taken off here in the last 15-20 years. With just five professional clubs spanning a country with a population of 35 million-plus, there is little doubt that the beautiful game has plenty of growth ahead of it in this polar nation.

Nowhere is this more loudly evidenced than on the pitch itself; crisscrossed by white American football lines, the pitch for today’s football match is marked out in faded yellow, an afterthought in a 24,000-seat cathedral built for the gladiators of the American football gridiron.

But, there is hope for football in this city, and in this country on a national level.

You can view the hope of something better for the beautiful game in Canada with a quick scan of the stands. More than 6,000 have turned out on this brisk afternoon to watch second-flight football. Some are clad in the black and red of Fury FC, while many others have opted for the familiarity of their Real Madrid or Manchester United shirts. Many of those in attendance have quickly identified with their local club, which took the pitch for the very first time just eighteen months ago.

 

At the national level, a modern fandom culture has sprung up around the Canadian national side. Buoyed by traveling fans known as The Voyageurs, Benito Floro’s squad has never been better supported. The sharp increase in interest has trickled down to the national youth setup, where Ottawa midfielder Mauro Eustaquio is currently away on international duty, helping his country’s Under-23 side in its bid to play at the Rio Olympics.

I salute those individuals brave enough to live and die with every nil-nil draw, 1-0 defeat to a Latin American country, and qualifying disappointment that Canada puts them through on the global stage. It must be tough.

“23’ - Goal to Ottawa Fury FC, scored by Sinisa Ubiparipovic! Paulo Júnior gave the assist.”

The simple line on the North American Soccer League’s website doesn’t do the hosts’ opening goal justice. Excellent work from the Brazilian down the wing before slotting the ball to the man they call ‘Ubi’. The Bosnian-American midfielder finished well to put the hosts ahead.

The two men on Fury’s opening goal are products of very different backgrounds. Ubiparipovic, a Cleveland native whose family fled Bosnia during the war in the 90’s, was once a member of the same XI graced by Thierry Henry at New York Red Bulls. Paulo Júnior, a stereotypically creative Brazilian mercenary, joined Ottawa this season with an eye on rejuvenating his career. It had been three calendar years since his last goal.

The two players exemplify all there is to love about the NASL. 

Away from the pomp, circumstance, and centralized nature of Major League Soccer — the continent’s top flight — lays a more grassroots, ‘authentic’ football experience in the leagues below. ‘Down here,’ teams often travel with a mere four substitutes, and contracts don’t always run through the end of the season. 

Borderline internationals from fringe CONCACAF countries — Belize, El Salvador, etc. — flock to the league in search of consistent paychecks and an outside shot at MLS. 

At converted track, baseball, and American football stadiums, a motley collection of dream-chasing imports, second-rate college graduates, MLS rejects, and admittedly over-the-hill stars — think Raul, Marcos Senna, and Nacho Novo — give it their best, living out their dreams in front of crowds ranging from 1,500 to 11,000. The end product is sometimes heated, much of the time sloppy, and occasionally, as is the case with Ottawa’s current run of form, tactically beautiful.

’72 - Goal to Ottawa Fury FC, scored by Sinisa Ubiparipovic!”

Ubiparipovic’s second of the brisk afternoon, a cracker from just inside Edmonton’s 18, sends the stands into an eruption. The real celebration takes place on the touchline, where Ottawa manager Marc Dos Santos high-fives his coaching staff. This is his celebration.

Just over two years after beginning his search for players with which he could start a club from scratch, Dos Santos is now eighteen minutes away from securing a playoff spot. Even sweeter: his side is about to clinch a playoff berth against the very FCE squad that knocked them out of the domestic cup two years running.

All this on a budget said to be in the bottom-third of the 11-team circuit.

To the surprise of nobody affiliated with the club, Dos Santos’s services have been snapped up by a Major League Soccer club for 2016. Such is life in the second division.

The full-time whistle blows. The supporters go mad. The rest of the spectators clap politely, in typical Canadian fashion. The players mill about, grins on their faces, shaking hands and sharing man-hugs.

As I sit in the stands, facing the pitch and the stadium’s imposing North stand, it hits me:

“This could be anywhere in the world.”

The players milling about, congratulating each other at the end of a match. The coaches, as animated as any across the globe on the touchline. The ‘ultra’ supporters, though relatively small in number, no less passionate about their club than any other fans around the world. 

It’s the same scene played out every day at the full-time whistle of matches in Japan, Portugal, South Africa,…

The beautiful game has come a long way in this country since 1985, when Canada beat Honduras in a public park on a freezing cold day to secure its first-ever ticket to a FIFA World Cup. Youth participation has skyrocketed, pro-style academies have sprung up in most provinces, and the country’s professional clubs are largely thriving. 

Though often stuck on turf due to climate constraints, or in venues where it is relegated to second-choice behind American football, the game is making visible progress here. Interest in football is at an all-time high, the country’s youth programs are spawning hope, and second-tier professional clubs like Ottawa Fury FC have added another dimension to Canadian football. 

The pitch markings may be an afterthought yellow for now, but the future of the beautiful game is certainly a white, potential-filled slate in Canada.

 

This article was written by Carlos Verde during the Ottawa Fury's 2015 campaign. They take on the New York Cosmos in this weekend's Soccer Bowl, the NASL's championship match. Photos courtesy of Magda Knyszynski.

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