The Avie Bennett Historica Chair soccer conference scores big

All eyes will be on South Africa this June as it hosts the 2010 FIFA World Cup of football, or soccer as it’s known to most North Americans. But last December, those eyes were on a panel of experts at York who kicked off the conference, Global Football: History, Gender, Nation, with a broad look at the game as well as its growth and place in Canadian culture and sports.

The panel, titled Football North of 49: Canada and the Global Game, attracted more than 125 attendees from across Canada and around the world, including journalists and faculty members from France, Spain, Cameroon, the United States and Austria, as well as graduate and undergraduate students and dedicated football fans. Jérôme Cauchard, the French consul in Toronto, was also in attendance.

Left: Marcel Martel

History Professors Marcel Martel, current holder of the Avie Bennett Historica Chair in Canadian History, and Kathryn McPherson, chair of the football conference, hosted the panel event as part of York’s annual Avie Bennett Historica Chair in Canadian History public lecture. Martin Singer, dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, welcomed everyone and gave kudos to York’s Department of History and its graduate students for making it, as he said, “one of the best history departments in North America.”

Jonathan Edmondson, chair of the Department of History, offered his reflections on the innovative nature of the conference. “We have a tradition in this department of every so often coming together for conferences slightly outside the box, not traditional, not the sort of conferences one would find in many history departments in North America.”

Left: Martin Singer

The panellists explored everything from the sport’s growing popularity and increased participation rates to its role in shaping and reshaping national identity and its struggle to become part of the cultural mainstream.

Soccer emerged after the Second World War as a “sport of immigrants,” noted Jason Zorbas, the first panellist. Zorbas, a sessional lecturer from the University of Saskatchewan, traced the history of soccer in Canada and attributed much of its growth in the 1980s and 1990s to developments such as the creation of major league soccer in North America, the explosion of the Internet and the proliferation of satellite and cable television. He was optimistic about soccer’s presence in Canada, pointing to increasing attendance rates at games – including the Toronto FC.

Right: Jason Zorbas

Similarly, Professor Jay Scherer of the University of Alberta outlined the development of the sport, exploring it from a political-economic angle. Scherer made connections between globalization and soccer, emphasizing how soccer became – as did every other sport – a new cultural commodity.

He was less optimistic than Zorbas, however, about the growth and prominence of soccer in Canada. His presentation concentrated largely on its minimal role in Canadian popular culture. One of the challenges, said Scherer, was the inability of soccer, compared to other major sports, to dominate in the global marketplace in terms of sports products, merchandise, sponsorship and branding. He also discussed the challenges the sport faces in trying to attract more media coverage. Typically, coverage is dominated by sports such as hockey or football. Scherer noted, “While Toronto FC continues to attract world crowds to the BMO Field, as a television product, audience numbers are marginal at best.”

Left: Jay Scherer

The focus of the panel was later shifted by York Professor Pablo Idahosa, coordinator of the African Studies Program and graduate program director of the Development Studies Program, who discussed his fascination with soccer as a “spectacle”. The sport can be viewed as a spectacle in a number of ways, including as a place for contestation and resistance, as a space for negotiation or fluid identity, and as a space for challenging stereotypes or promoting cosmopolitanism, said Idahosa.

“From the space that is Canada and from the space of places like Toronto, where over 50 per cent of the population was not born here, it is a site for discussion, it is a site for negotiation and it can be a site for…shifting allegiances,” said Idahosa.

So, is soccer a sport with a glass half full or half empty? This is the question that final panellist Paul James, York Lions master soccer coach and women's head coach, explored. Some of the positives James mentioned included the strength of Canada’s women's teams and increased participation rates – with statistics of up to 560,000 soccer registrations in local leagues.

Left: Paul James

Like Scherer, James noted the minimal media coverage the sport receives. He also discussed other roadblocks the sport faces, such as the lack of a professional infrastructure, poor leadership and revenue stream, and perceptions of soccer as more of a leisurely sport than a professional one in which Canada could play an important role.

James is no stranger to the game. He is a former Canadian national team player and in 2003 was inducted into the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame. He completed the prestigious Football Industries MBA at the University of Liverpool in England, and, outside of his role at York, he is a soccer analyst who writes for The Globe and Mail.

A question-and-answer period followed the panel presentations in which audience members chimed in with their own interpretations of soccer in Canada. Some of the discussion centred on why the game is rising in popularity, even if it isn’t as popular as enthusiasts would hope. Reasons included its accessibility financially, its simplicity as a game and its ability to be an equal opportunity sport – meaning that people of all sizes, races and abilities can participate and do well.

The Avie Bennett Historica Chair was made possible by York Chancellor Emeritus Avie Bennett and established in 2004. Its purpose is to promote the study of Canada’s heritage and to ensure the academic vitality of the discipline.