Wednesday, October 10, 2001

Things are looking Grimsby

(posted Oct. 10, 5:05PM EDT)
From: Ben Knight, 10

Believe it or not, Grimsby Town's astonishing upset of Liverpool in the Worthington Cup raises some interesting points for the future of pro soccer in Canada.

The final from Anfield, home of the exalted holders of the FA, UEFA and Worthington Cups: Liverpool 1, Grimsby Town 2. Phil Jevons, who once poached goals for Liverpool's eternal arch-rivals Everton, thuds home a 25-yard hit-and-hope in the dying seconds of extra time, and the unfashionable First Divisioners from Cleethorpes eliminate one of the finest sides in all the land.

Something like this happens every year, and I always love it. Supporting obscure little clubs like Port Vale and Venezia will do that to you. But this particular upset lit me up for reasons that have very little to do with the current state of footy over 'ome. This game has some intriguing implications right here in Canada.
It's been almost three months since any coherent press releases have trickled out of the shadowy, back-room world of the proposed Canadian United Soccer League. Last we heard, Liverpool was one of a short list of European soccer powers interested in aligning with teams here. Apparently, these teams would agree to supply some players -- most likely a couple of prospects and a semi-name veteran, and CUSL teams would be allowed to use the name, colours and uniforms of their famous benefactors.
As always with the CUSL, exact details are hard to come by. But late last year, while these secretive negotiations were or weren't going on, an obscure but well-meaning professional soccer club from the English First Division made a deal with a soccer school in London, Ontario. Young players in the southwestern Ontario city, two hours west of Toronto, would benefit from special coaching sessions from English experts, and the best emerging prospects would have a development-minded team in Europe standing by to give them a look.
If you haven't already guessed, that team is Grimsby Town.
My biggest criticism of the CUSL proposal is how blatantly artificial it seems. Are the Toronto Lynx doomed to don the blue and white of Glasgow Rangers for the sake of cash flow and roster depth? Will the unburied remains of the Montreal Impact be reborn as Montreal St. Germain after an life-saving money infusion from Paris?
As far as I know, Grimsby Town is not inflicting its black-and-white stripes on its Ontario partners. Grimsby's nickname, "Mariners," would be highly incongruous in a land-locked place like London. This is a simple case of an ambitious smaller club spreading its net wide in hopes of harnessing the talents of the next Owen Hargreaves, Craig Forrest or Paul Peschisolido. This relatively limited commitment benefits both sides, without disrupting either.
Are you listening, CUSL?
'Cause, if not, let me uncork some cautionary scenarios.
* Minor league baseball: Hidebound traditionalists won't admit it, but the entire vast pyramid of pro baseball below the Major Leagues is a competitive horror story. The big teams own all the players and can shuffle them from club to club on a whim. Minor league teams often have to put the parent club's developmental needs ahead of their own desire to win. Though a few gallant independent leagues have emerged in recent years, for the vast majority of cities and towns in the United States, pro baseball is a corporate agenda, rather than an honest game.
* Reckless expansion: The CUSL plans to add between two and four more teams to Canada's existing quartet of A-League clubs. I seriously question whether the demand or appetite is there for teams that would be conjured out of thin air, and sent out in foreign colours with no tradition to try to win over skeptical fans who have already been burned by badly run teams over and over again.
* The 1968 Cleveland Stokers: In the first year of the old North American Soccer League, entire European teams spent their summer masquerading as local sides in the new loop. Stoke City of England dourly plied their trade on the rustbelt shore of Lake Erie, averaging less than 5,000 fans a game in the vast, appalling emptiness of Cleveland's crumbling 90,000-seat Municipal Stadium.
I'm not saying that a few foreign players and some serious Euro-dollars wouldn't be good for player development in Canada. But where, exactly, are the fans going to come from? I live in Toronto, which has a vast Italian population. Milan, Inter and Juventus shirts are everywhere. If the Toronto Lynx do a sponsorship deal with one of those teams, will fans of the others come to the games? Personally, I'd be amazed.
And where, exactly, will media interest come from? Over the years, we reporters have been lied to and betrayed every bit as much as Canadian soccer fans and players. When I look at huge recent developments in other sports I cover -- lacrosse's Toronto Rock and the World Curling Tour -- I see exciting new ways of getting things done. The Toronto Lynx in European uniforms ain't going to get that kind of respect from me any time soon.
Grimsby Town don't care about any of this. They saw an opportunity, they're doing something about it, and young Canadian soccer players are benefiting. Grimsby didn't come here to set up a league, create teams out of nothing or fundamentally change the course of soccer in Canada. Oh, yeah, and they just knocked Liverpool out of the Worthington Cup.


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