Happy Sinclair Day!

Sun Media

Christine Sinclair

Christine Sinclair is Canada’s soccer heroine right now. With today being 12/12/12 and her just recently being named the winner of the Lou Marsh Athlete of the Year, a number of people have paid tribute to her by unofficially declaring today Sinclair Day (her jersey number is 12, if you were still wondering about the connection).

Although she was named to the Lou Marsh Award (becoming the first soccer player ever to win the award, and first woman since 2008), there was a lot of disappointment in Canada that she was left off the shortlist for the FIFA Ballon d’Or player of the year award. Some in Canada suspect a FIFA conspiracy for Sinclair’s outspoken criticism of the referee in Canada’s controversial 4-3 loss to the US in the Olympic semi-finals and her subsequent 4 game suspension. While that is a possibility, I’m more inclined to agree with her coach, John Herdman. I’ll say that it is a travesty, but likely more due to the fact that so few female players have major name recognition that it’s not surprising when asking a poll of coaches, captains and media from around the world that she was missed out when up against Marta, Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan. Of the three, Marta is certainly the weak link at the international level, but apparently had a great season with her club. As for the other two, both were important parts of the USWNT gold medal winning team, so good for them. Still, it would have been better to recognize Sinclair for her absolute stand out season and the amazing role she played in getting Canada to its bronze medal in London.

Within Canada though, she has received a level of recognition that is rare for soccer players in this country of hockey. Perhaps that is why she was such an easy choice for the Lou Marsh Award. Last month I noted how she ranked equal billing with Steve Stamkos in a Nike campaign and wondered what that meant for the sport of soccer in Canada. The level of attention she can attract between now and the Women’s World Cup in 2015 will do nothing but benefit her sport in Canada.

If women’s soccer can experience such a rise in this country, is it possible for men’s soccer to one day follow? It will be much tougher. Media focus is very set and slow to adapt to changes in sport interests – just turn on any of the Canadian sport channels now and count the seconds until there is a mention of the hockey strike. They have an interest in maintaining the status quo in sporting culture in this country. However, soccer is the largest youth sport in the country now so there is perhaps a generational shift coming in the future.  If so, perhaps one day the best male athletes may be encouraged to play soccer than hockey. Sinclair is a phenomenal player no doubt, now having won the CSA player of the year award 10 times in a row, but is it possible that there have been male athletes out there who could dominate Canadian soccer in a similar way, but as a child strapped on skates instead of cleats? We tend to play the sports we follow and follow the sports we play, so until a deeper soccer culture develops in Canada it will be difficult, especially for males, to see a future in soccer when all the reporting focuses on a league that has decided not to play.

Thanks Christine, you are an inspiration to many kids out there. I’m sure that my son is inspired by the CanWNT and their run in the Olympics, just as much as he was inspired by watching the CanMNT in their World Cup Qualifiers this year. Happy Sinclair Day! It’s a nice way to cap an amazing year for soccer in this country.

Sacred Spaces

Phil Noble/ ReutersIn thinking about my project I just realized I have completely forgotten one of the spaces in the stadium: the field.

While this space should seem pretty obvious to consider when framing my project, I can see how it got overlooked. This is a space that is generally excluded from direct fan activities. It becomes all the more obvious how forbidden this space is when someone steps over the line and violates the sacredness of the field. The Manchester derby of yesterday provides some highlights of the behaviour that crosses the line when someone steps over the painted lines.

In the build-up to Sunday’s derby, this became a much hyped battle of two giants. Both Manchester teams were at the top of the EPL and both were looking to establish themselves as the premier Manchester side. Much was talked about how the city was divided between red and blue and the talk of money teams and history, all in hopes of a great match. In truth, the match seemed to live up to much of its hype, with a lead, a dramatic comeback and a last gasp winner. Had that been the end, that is all that would be talked about today, but it was the fans reaction following the winner (and some of this went on before that too, but without the same result) that changed the story of the day.

Following Robin Van Persie’s 90th minute winner, and during their goal celebration, some City fans let loose their displeasure at the goal; a smoke bomb went off on the field, and coins were thrown at the United players. One coin hit United defender Rio Ferdinand just above the eye (lucky for him it wasn’t a bit lower), opening a cut. As he retrieved the coin off the field another fan jumped the barriers and rushed onto the pitch, only to be stopped by the City keeper, Joe Hart. In total, 13 fans were arrested at the game by Greater Manchester Police, one for aggravated racial abuse, and two for violating bans on attending games. Police are continuing to investigate  and said they may make more arrests. What could have been one of the most memorable games in Manchester history is now marred by a few of the fans.

It was this, and in part a few of the other recent fan incidents that got me thinking about the sacredness of the field as a space. Unlike the rest of the stadium, where fans are allowed and encouraged to interact with the space, the field itself is removed from the fans’ territory, which makes the exceptions all the more noticeable. In the case yesterday, the pitch invasion of a City fan to try to confront Ferdinand was stopped by Ferdinand’s erstwhile opponent Hart (okay they used to be teammates on England), but here is a instance that when the fan transgressed the rules of fan conduct, the players instantly joined in a rejection of the fan’s behaviour. So here is a case where fans are excluded from the territory of a space, not just by the authorities written code, but by a unwritten code of fan behaviour.

This is in stark contrast to the invasion of the fans at the same stadium last May. At that time, City won the EPL on a goal scored on the final kick of the game. It was considered the most dramatic finish to the English top flight since Arsenal’s last day victory in 1989. At the final whistle fans streamed onto the field to celebrate with the team. It was considered an acceptable moment of transgression. But again the sacredness of the space was evident through some of the acts of the fans on the pitch, as some of them began to dig up pieces of turf to memorialize the moment of victory by their team. Order was eventually restored so that the trophy could be presented to the team and again the fans could celebrate their team’s victory.

As a result of the game yesterday, there have been calls for netting to be put in place at games, this is a rather ominous turn for English football, should the nets be put in place. It was the removal of fences that was the first of the changes following the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. While there have been a few high profile incidents of pitch invaders this season, they stand out all the more for their being uncharacteristic of fan behaviour. The most unfortunate example of the season was the assault of Sheffield Wednesday’s Keeper, Chris Kirkland by a Leeds United fan back in October. England fans should consider themselves lucky right now as the fields remain free of netting. Many of the stadia around the world have fencing in an attempt to keep the fans, and their missiles off the pitch.

I wonder if the use of fences and nets helps with the security of the stadium. Or does the use of fencing and netting encourage violent behaviour by the fans as they are now reacting to the impression that they need the physical separation? In any case, nets and fences are not missile proof. Nor are they a complete solution to persistent fan attacks.

Back to the question of sacred spaces, the stadium is often considered the modern-day cathedral, and much like the cathedrals of old, there are sacred spaces beyond the reach of the common fan. Even for the players, the play of the game is inscribed with the use of the field space and the boundaries of that space. It has much in common with theatre and the proscenium arch and stage that separate actors from audience. It is the exceptions to the rules that draw so much attention, as they clearly do not fit with the tolerated rules of society.