Canadian Football: Understanding the Past

The history of Canadian football is permeated with geographical complexities, infrastructural failings, and a collective exasperation amongst native fans—but has a newly-established league put an end to decades of disillusionment? In this five-part series, Ryan Murray attempts to understand whether the Canadian Premier League is the vehicle that will help to awake a sleeping giant from its slumber, and re-address the balance of power across the North American footballing landscape. Legitimate hope or another false dawn? Let’s find out.
Canadian football, Canada, Canadian Premier League, North America, domestic football, league football, international football
Artwork by Onkar Shirsekar

The rise in popularity and prominence of football outside the major European and South American theatres has been a hallmark of the sport in recent decades. Previous footballing outposts have constructed extremely competitive leagues, which, through partnerships with international broadcasters and sponsors, have generated colossal stakeholder revenues. Perhaps the most-recognizable examples of this phenomenon are in Japan (J1 League), Australia (A-League), and the United States (MLS), whose respective top-tier leagues all command considerable viewing audiences.

Nevertheless, there are multiple other countries who can now profess to having a very watchable, and indeed marketable, domestic league product. Although the recent introduction of salary caps has significantly impacted the spending power of its participant clubs, the Chinese Super League has experienced unprecedented growth, with a number of top players re-settling in the Far East after negotiating handsome compensation packages. Whilst in 2014, the launch of the Indian Super League would preempt a material change in the way football was perceived in the Asian subcontinent, with the likes of David Trezeguet, Alessandro Del Piero, and Robert Pires helping to engage a completely new demographic of fans.

Indeed, when landed successfully, a new league can be leveraged to completely recalibrate the local landscape: raising the profile of the domestic game, improving playing standards, and aiding the development of internal talent for the benefit of the national team.

China and India, the planet’s two most populous countries, have managed to build a credible, popular, and sustainable top-flight league. So why hasn’t Canada, the second largest nation in the world, been able to replicate this feat until (possibly) now?

A new dawn amidst a history of false hope?  

Various nations of similar size and stature to Canada have established successful domestic leagues in recent decades through the vehicles of glossy marketing campaigns, marquee player signings, and well-negotiated broadcasting contracts. However, for whatever reason, these tried and trusted methodologies previously evaded Canadian conspirators, who were seemingly unable to take advantage of these universally agreed routes to the loot.  

Despite having access to a population harbouring a tangible appetite for the sport, Canada, or more accurately the Canadian Soccer Association (the national body empowered to govern the country’s footballing operations, also referred to as ‘Canada Soccer’), has never previously delivered a globally marketable, financially profitable, and genuinely competitive league structure. Six years ago, in a bid to address this vacuum, the Canadian Premier League was founded; a fresh, forward-thinking project which would embrace the structural blueprint of its successful foreign cousins. Amongst its more pressing objectives, the CPL would seek to produce a hotbed of local talent, compel sponsors and corporate entities to invest, and, perhaps most importantly, galvanise Canadian football fans in a renewed spirit, passion, and energy for the native game. As a consequence, Canada would enhance its reputation within the global footballing arena, and provide a platform in which to improve the fortunes of its historically weak national side.

However, for one to appreciate how the Canadian game arrived at this defining juncture, and to make an informed judgement on the potential future prosperity of the Canadian Premier League, we must first attempt to unpick the country’s complex footballing history, and equally attempt to understand why its myriad of previous domestic league frameworks appear to have been built on a foundation of hastily evaporating quicksand.

For, although the CPL could well serve to deliver future success, a catalogue of failed projects characterises Canada’s footballing past. The process of evaluating these ultimately misguided efforts is an exercise in untangling a complicated web of flawed ideas, poor execution, geographical factors, and wider continental influences.    

The Canadian context

Canada’s relationship with the beautiful game is a long-held and deep-seated union. Like so many who encountered the effects of aggressive colonial expansion, Canada’s cultures, pastimes, and sporting endeavours were initially shaped by the habitual practices of an alien invader. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, football matches were common practice, as British influences continued to permeate through society. The ‘Dominion of Canada Football Association’—the first institution of its kind outside Great Britain—began to organise and regulate local matches and competitions from July 1912. Less than six months later, the DCFA became a  FIFA member, before a fledgling national team was mobilised to participate in the qualification process for the 1958 World Cup (fourteen years later, they would sever ties with football’s international governing body, before successfully re-applying for membership in 1948). Despite registering impressive victories over the U.S.A in both home and away fixtures—a thumping 5-1 win at the Varsity Stadium in Toronto was followed up by a 3-2 triumph in Missouri—two defeats to Mexico ensured that Canada’s bid to secure a place in Sweden ultimately came up short. It would take another 28 years for Les Rouges to make their first appearance at a World Cup finals.

For the vast majority of the twentieth century, four regional leagues, incorporating the vast expanse of Canadian tundra and its various urbanised centres of commerce and industry, afforded a provincial competitive structure. The fragile durability, limited longevity, and evolving nature of these leagues give an early indication of the enduring characteristics that have come to define Canada’s domestic footballing theatre. In fairness, the country’s unique topographical environment doesn’t exactly help in this respect; its rugged terrain and unspoiled forestry may make for an adventurer’s paradise, but previously provided a logistical headache for travelling teams heading to venues in distant regions.

The Pacific Coast Soccer League, the Eastern Canada Professional League, the Western Canada League, and the National League (although more expansive in its territorial reach than the other regional leagues, the vast majority of its participant teams were in fact based in either Ontario or Quebec) were the first real apparatuses for official competition. However, for varying reasons, each practically vanished within a couple of decades.

The Pacific Coast Soccer League was rebranded on multiple occasions during its 65-year tenure, before merging with several other local leagues to form the all-encompassing British Columbia Senior Soccer League, a competition still active under the guise of the Vancouver Metro Soccer League.

Given the varied geographical location of its participating outfits, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the National League was later recalibrated to serve as the main nationwide competition for native sides; it assumed this role, by that point referred to as the Canadian National Soccer League (CNSL), until its collapse in 1997.Nevertheless, the current Canadian Soccer League (CSL), which was initially founded as the Canadian Professional Soccer League (CPSL) a year after the CNSL’s demise, claims to be the successor of the original National League, and therefore insists the CNSL and CPSL are both part of its complex infrastructural history. Crucially however, the Canadian Soccer League is no longer affiliated to the Canadian Soccer Association (instead now under the jurisdiction of the Soccer Federation of Canada), and therefore sits outside the country’s official league system. Confused? Welcome to the administrative chaos.

The short-lived Eastern Canada Professional League and the Western Canada League competitions also disappeared post-haste, albeit with far less fuss than equivalent competitions elsewhere. In 1966, the ECPL was dissolved following the conclusion of its sixth season, whilst the Western Canada League, operational for eight years from 1963, disbanded soon after.

These interwoven, impractical, and ultimately misguided endeavours are symbolistic of a domestic game that has failed to provide an appropriate platform to harness the nation’s footballing talent. A cursory glance at Canada’s historic international performance tells us all we need to know about the country’s ability to develop homegrown players; although, for reasons we’ll come to discuss, there has admittedly been some significant recent improvement on this front.

Despite Canada’s shortcomings, a key catalyst for its struggles in establishing a suitable internal infrastructure derives from a location outside the parameters of its extensive geographical borders. Indeed, through the inception of successive globally marketable, financially powerful, and ultimately successful domestic leagues, Canada’s rather intimidating southern neighbour has done much to indirectly undermine progress in this regard.

So, how did the introduction of the short-lived NASL and the ongoing MLS—two marquee competitions in the United States’ modest footballing history—impact Canada’s own outputs? An answer to this question, and a brief analysis of the current power dynamics in the relationship between these two actors, will be offered in the next instalment of this five-part anthology.

Ryan Murray

With a lifelong association to football, Ryan Murray has embraced the beautiful game in all guises; as a player, spectator, and now writer. Specializing in the daily soap dramas & cultural nuances that perfectly characterize the chaos of the Scottish game, you can often find him scrolling through endless reams of information about his beloved football club (which will remain unnamed), or alternatively researching a particular bizarre or intriguing (well, at least he finds it so) episode from some distant corner of the footballing world. He resides in Leeds, but appears more often at seventh tier grounds around the urban sprawls of West Yorkshire than at Elland Road - it just feels more like football. He lives with his fiancée and sausage dog, both of whom now support the right club.