Londoners cheer on as Canada plays first World Cup match in decades

Dozens gathered Wednesday at London's BMO Field to watch Canada take on Belgium in the World Cup. It's the first time Canada has appeared in the tournament in more than 30 years. Scott Monich/980 CFPL

Scores of Canadians were glued to their televisions on Wednesday as the nation’s men’s soccer team went head-to-head against Belgium in their first FIFA World Cup outing in more than 30 years.

In London, Ont., dozens of fans dressed in red and white gathered at BMO Centre to take in the match, including members of FC London and London TFC.

Although the team put in a solid effort, fans across the country watched in agony as Canada, ranked 41st in FIFA standings, took a 1-0 loss to second-ranked Belgium.

With Canada’s last World Cup match having taken place 36 years ago, Wednesday’s game was the first time many in attendance had ever seen Canada take part in the tournament.

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“I’m really surprised to see the young people that showed up today. I didn’t expect them. This is a school day,” said Tom Partalis, president and CEO of London Optimist Sports Centre, which owns and operates BMO Centre.

“This is the historic time. They’re going to remember when Canada was in the World Cup in 2022. ‘I was at the BMO, and I was watching the game with my parents, with my uncle, with my friends!’ It’s like 1972 hockey, the game against Russia, when everybody says, ‘Oh, I was here, I was there.'”

For 18-year-old soccer player Luka Stevendic, a member of the FC London U21 Reserve team, being able to witness the historic event with other members of FC London was special.

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“At this club, at FC London, London TFC, we’re trying to create a unity, a small family here. So to have everyone out here, people are leaving school, leaving work to come support Canada, and we’re all doing it together as a club, that makes it a lot more special,” he said.

“You’ve seen other countries have a lot of success … but nothing for Canada. Now we have that chance, so hopefully the boys can produce something special.”

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Saying that Wednesday’s match was a long time coming for Canada’s men’s team would be an understatement. The team’s last World Cup outing was 13,316 days ago, according to Canada Soccer — a 2-0 loss to the Soviet Union on June 9, 1986, in Leon, Mexico.

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“It’s been a long drought in terms of being a Canadian soccer fan, in terms of cheering for a team and witnessing disappointments through the years and World Cup qualifying failures,” said Ben Prabhakar, who came to the viewing party dressed head to toe in Canada gear, including flag-tinted glasses and a large Canada flag hat, topped with a stuffed animal Mountie and a red and white soccer ball.

“I think this is a momentous occasion for all the fans to witness and to be part of and celebrate, because it’s an achievement, right? It’ll inspire the next generation of players (who) are going to be on the roster in years to come.”

Canada faces Croatia at 11 a.m. on Sunday and Morocco on Dec. 1 after which they may, or may not, move on to the next round.

Partalis says BMO Centre will be hosting another viewing party for this weekend’s match, and will have to open up more room to accommodate what’s anticipated to be a larger turnout.

“Sunday, we have the competitive youth soccer that plays here, and we have over 2,000 kids all day long. But yeah, we’re going to need more space.”

Photos from Wednesday’s viewing party can be found on FC London’s Facebook page.

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— with files from The Canadian Press

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