Canadian Soccer 101 - The 401 Derby

In the history of North American sports, there is no rivalry quite like the one between Toronto and Montreal. It’s cultural. It’s political. It’s historical. It’s everything you want to see personified by 11 players a side and played out in the theater of Major League Soccer. Although the rivalry between Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact is relatively new to those non-Canadian lovers of the sport, rest assured, once it’s understood, it’s like nothing else on North American soil.

In Canada, there exist two very distinct and very separate solitudes – English Canada and French Canada. The former with its heart in Toronto extending west to British Columbia and into the Maritimes, and the latter with its heart in Montreal encompassing the provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick. Toronto is the economic center of the nation but it wasn’t always so. Montreal, the much older and historic center of present day Canada, through various reasons lost its prominence in the 20th century to its English speaking neighbour and has always envied them for it.

The historical and political rivalry is very much based on language and culture. Present day Canada is a bilingual nation, and although it is predominantly English that is spoken with French as a second language, Quebec is the polar opposite. Quebec language laws regulate the use of English in all capacities as a means of limiting its extension into French Canadian culture. With Britain’s victory over the French in bloody battles of the early 1700s, namely the Fall of Louisbourg, the British expulsion of the Acadian people to Louisiana, and the Battle of the Plains of Abraham resulting in total British control of the New World, the French speaking portion of the population has always been fearful and weary of English dominance.

It was largely based on this fear and for the protection of French culture and language that twice in Canada’s history, Quebec politicians have tried to secede their province from Confederation and thankfully twice they failed, the last of which in 1995 was decided by less than a 1% margin.

So how does all this relate to sports?

The rivalry’s most popular manifestation has been between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens. With over a century of competition between the two, including several Stanley Cup Finals, and being the financial and historic centers of the NHL, it’s fairly easy to see how tensions can rise.

But while hockey promotes all that is stereotypically Canadian: confidence without arrogance, sportsmanship, and modesty, soccer is the total opposite. Soccer rouses passion and promotes a civic pride, it is inherently political and cannot hide it, and its crowning achievement is the dominance of one nation over another. In simple terms, soccer is the outlet for Canadian’s to not be so Canadian. Factor into that cocktail the fierce distaste for one another embedded and developed over centuries of history, and you’ve got yourself something very unique taking place in a league that is just 20 years old.

Geography also plays a role. The Two Solitudes operate essentially as individual nations, exclusive of one another and separated by just over 500 kilometers (311 miles) of highway (Ontario’s Highway 401 - hence the name the 401 Derby). Rivalry and animosity between the two cities is literally the essence of their existence, one to spite the other.

Sunday’s matchup is the penultimate game of the MLS season for both clubs vying for a potential first round bye. With TFC just 2 points back of tops in the East and revenge on the mind after an embarrassing playoff loss to the Impact last season, you can bet that tensions will be at an all-time high for the players on the field, not to mention the supporters in the stands at what is expected to be a sold out Stade Saputo.

This is what soccer rivalry is all about, but this time, with a delicious maple flavour.