Keith Mason described the atmosphere at BMO Field on Sunday as like no other soccer game he had ever been to in Canada.
The associate coach of Guelph United FC found himself among 30,000 spectators on hand to watch Canada’s men’s team defeat Jamaica 4-0 and clinch a spot in the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
“I’ve experienced that in Europe and other areas of the world where soccer is the main sport,” Mason said in an interview on Wednesday. “But to see Canadians flying those flags, singing nonstop, cheering that team on and celebrating what has been a great qualification was just an amazing experience.
“You forgot it was -15 C outside because it was just so good.”
It’s Canada’s first trip to the men’s World Cup since 1986, which was around the time Mason moved here from England and as a soccer coach, he said he has watched the Canadian soccer culture grow in popularity and competitiveness in front of his own eyes.
Mason said the national men’s team’s trip to the tournament after 36 years is a direct result of that growth.
Ten years ago, Mason said, he had players on his team who wouldn’t even come close to making the team he coaches today.
“I struggled to get one good goalie,” he said. “I might have had an average goalie, but I never had a really outstanding goalie.”
Mason said Guelph United has four great goalkeepers and even now he is cutting talented players at every position. That’s because, compared with 10 to 15 years ago, there is a much larger pool of players to choose from, whether it’s in semi-pro League1 Ontario or on the national team.
Several factors have contributed to this progress, the two main ones being the media coverage, which has increased soccer’s popularity in Canada, and the development of youth programs.
“You have to have good development programs for your kids but you also have to have somewhere for them to aspire to get to if you really want them to buy into the sport. We’re finally getting that now in the last five years where the development programs have improved tremendously,” he said.
Mason added that Guelph United is an example of a stepping stone from a semi-professional league into a top-tier league such as MLS or even the newly created Canadian Premier League (CPL).
“With Guelph in League1 Ontario and being the champions, we’re offering a program to the youth of Guelph and it just shows the infrastructure of soccer in Canada has grown so much,” he said.
“In the old days, the only way was to go to Europe when you’re 12 years old. Now, you can get there through MLS, through university sports, through the CPL and many other local aways.”
Soccer Nova Scotia talks Canada World Cup qualification significance
Sara McConaghy, the executive director of Guelph Soccer, said watching Canada qualify for Qatar felt amazing. It made her feel incredibly enthusiastic about what is to come for the national program after having followed the team through this journey.
She said it’s too early to tell if the accomplishment will influence her soccer league’s registration numbers, but she echoes Mason’s sentiment that soccer has grown tremendously in Canada and in Guelph.
Guelph Soccer has recreational programs as well competitive programs for almost all ages.
McConaghy said her organization is also getting creative and adapting its programs to make sure everyone has access and is able to play to meet soccer’s growing popularity.
“The way we program soccer in our community is changing and evolving to make it more inclusive and accessible to everyone, which just creates a larger base of kids who want to play,” she said.
An example of that would be Guelph Soccer’s neighbourhood soccer program, which was created during the pandemic. The low-cost program allows families to walk to soccer games. She said this removes the barrier of transportation.
“And the cost is about half the cost of a traditional mainstream house league soccer program and it’s an opportunity for kids to be active and play and fall in love with the game,” McConaghy said.
Guelph Soccer’s summer 2022 registration is currently open for the several programs it offers, including for as young as two-year-olds and programs for adults.
More information about registering is on Guelph Soccer’s website.
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