Qu’est-ce que Vous Chantez? Song and Support at Toronto FC

My love of football developed not coincidentally alongside my love of singing. When as a twelve year old boy I was first sat with my uncle to watch the 1994 World Cup, what moved me most was not the movement on the pitch but the boisterous singing heard from the stands. Later I as grew up, my love of singing would refine itself into a professional career in classical music, just as my love of football diverted away from the stands and back to the action on the field. But the close relationship between music and football, both in the element of dance on the pitch and the (mostly) impromptu chants from die-hard supporters, is still a vital part of what draws me to the game.

This was one of the reasons I awaited the inaugural season of Toronto FC back in April 2007 with trepidation. Having watched a few games at the Air Canada Centre, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs ice hockey franchise, I was disappointed that the best the crowd could come up with was a droning ‘go, Leafs, go’ every ten minutes or so. The ‘silent’ phenomenon at Leafs games is well-known in Toronto and most commentators associate it with economic class. There’s some truth in this: during home games the most quiet area in the ACC can be found directly rink-side in the ‘Gold’ section, where single tickets are priced in the hundreds of dollars. Men in suits consult blackberries while women clad for the night clubs gossip with friends. Goals often go completely unnoticed while the ‘real’ fans supposedly whoop it up in the nose-bleeds.

Maple Leafs Crowd

However, the sombre atmosphere at Leafs games can be attributed to more than socio-economic status alone; it’s also emblematic of the sort of low English protestantism on which Toronto was founded. While England in the late 1950s and early 1960s saw a society liberated from her dark, Victorian roots by a post-war generation dancing to new tunes from the North-East and inspired by the optimism of Harold Wilson’s Labour Party, Toronto was still covering pub windows in black curtains and listening to the Gospel-inspired ‘Four Lads’.

As David Goldblatt points out in The Ball is Round, the liberating Liverpudlian rock and roll of the late Fifties and early Sixties inspired the terrace chanting at the Kop, chanting which spread throughout Great Britain and is now an integral part of the English game. Before then, “the sound of the British football crowd remained a collage of collective roars and one-liners” (p. 450), which could also describe the sound of the crowd at Leaf’s games. Despite huge social change brought about by an increase in immigration in the 1960s which included many liberal-minded Americans, Toronto’s sport culture would remain inherently WASPish and conservative, and therefore without song, for some time.

Toronto FC vs Salt Lake Apr 19/08 #22

Enter Toronto FC. Any fears that the silence of the ACC would envelop BMO Field were calmed on April 19 2007, although it’s interesting to note that the first audible chant from the supporters’ section was a John Lennon song. Although it is now without question there is a sophisticated, football-following base in Toronto, there is a sense that Toronto FC’s fans are creating a ‘simulacra’ of support, borrowing songs from the European grounds they grew up watching instead of forming their own spontaneous, organic sound. Most of the songs heard from the supporters’ section are Euro-British rehashes, including some Kop favourites (but mercifully not YNWA) and one or two verses in French borrowed from Le Championat to promote our bilingual heritage. The impromptu chants of the type that give flavour to the Premiership are missing and most of the songs heard this season are exactly the same as the last, and are even officially sanctioned by the Toronto FC website.

There could be a number of reasons for this, including a lack of away supporters to sing to, but my guess is that Toronto FC’s fans, many of whom also support the Maple Leafs, are in the tricky process of figuring out how to support a club with no history or founding mythology (Dichio’s 24th minute chant aside) in a hockey town without an indigenous soccer culture. While the atmosphere at BMO Field is unlike any in Major League Soccer, there is a growing backlash among some city-dwellers who question the authenticity of supporters singing ‘Toronto ’til I die!’ for a two-year old franchise owned by Maple Leafs Sports Entertainment.

Goal celebration after Dichio's 24th minute goal

What is not known to proponents of ‘authentic’ support is that just as clubs sprang up across England at the turn of the twentieth century often backed by speculating tycoons, fervent working-class supporters would arrive in the tens of thousands as soon the grounds were constructed and provided instant loyalty, no questions asked. The difference in Toronto FC’s case is that supporters are not only warming to a new club, but to an entirely new sporting culture. It will be a slow process, but over time we may begin to hear the home-grown, spontaneous singing that characterizes the best grounds from around the world. And Toronto FC might even help move Toronto away from the self-conscious, navel-gazing Puritanical hangover that has haunted the city since the Victorian 1960s, simply by singing our own songs and singing them loudly.

Photo credit: behindthenet, krazykanadian and Martin Groove on Flickr

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