TORONTO – Canada has not sent a team to the World Cup in a generation. But that hasn't stopped Canadians from going a little Cup crazy.
The nation known more for shooting pucks than penalty kicks fields a national team that ranks 110th in the world, tied with Bahrain. But its fierce love for the beautiful game has been on display for all the world to see in Brazil. FIFA organizers say Canadians bought more than 29,000 tickets to World Cup matches, outranking all other nations that didn't qualify for the Cup and behind only 10 nations that did.
Canada was also the top non-competing nation in attendance at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, officials say. As a nation of immigrants, it should be no surprise that that Canadians are wild about the Cup. One in every five Canadians is born in another country.
That multi-ethnic society and the national team's struggles make it easy for fans of any nation to enjoy the World Cup.
"Where else in the world can you go to bars to watch every game and have people from the competing countries cheering on their team?" said British-born Scott Parr, 30, who delayed a vacation to Australia so he could watch the World Cup in Toronto. "Here, it's so fun because there are rabid fans for every game, not just for one team or game. If I watched it in Australia, after the Australian game was over, the excitement would have likely been over, too."
An estimated 2.9 million Canadians tuned in to CBC to watch Germany clobber Brazil 7-1 in Tuesday's dramatic semifinal, according to CBC spokesman Simon Bassett. He said that was just for the English-language broadcast. That doesn't include viewers of French-language broadcasts in Quebec and elsewhere.
By comparison, 3.3 million viewers watched Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final this year.
And now Canada wants to take its turn as World Cup host. In January, the Canadian Soccer Association announced that it will bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. Its chances of winning, given its lack of stadium infrastructure, are slim, analysts say.
Canada's chances could soon get a boost when it hosts the 2015 Women's World Cup.
"The day Canada makes it back to the World Cup, it'll be a beautiful day for the country on a whole," said Canadian-born and Trinidadian-bred Paul-Anthony Perez, 31. "We have a lot of talent, we have a lot of young players. We have Canadian-born players in the World Cup this year, one on Holland's team and one on Bosnia's. When the money is right and the focus is right, we'll start producing a World-Cup qualifying team. But until then, we'll still come out to watch the games and root for our 'home' teams."
Hosting the World Cup would mean an automatic bid for Canada, which has only qualified once — in 1986. Organizers hope it would spark a transformation similar to that in the U.S. after it hosted the tournament in 1994, giving Canada's diverse population a chance to become competitive at the world's most popular sport.
"This is one of the most multicultural countries in the world," said Globe and Mail journalist John Doyle, who just returned from Brazil after covering the first half of the World Cup.
"A quirk of Canadian culture is that hockey is our national game, but the multi-layers of the cultural makeup of Canada give breathing room for people to be interested in and to follow and play other sports that are anchored in their cultural background, their ethnicity, where they or their family comes from," said Doyle, who wrote the best-selling book "The World Is a Ball: The Joy, Madness, and Meaning of Soccer," about his travels covering the World Cup and European Championship.
Linda An, 36, whose parents were born in South Korea, booked multiple days off work to watch all of the games South Korea played.
"There's a level of pride in rooting for the country your parents call home, especially when the country you call home doesn't have a team to root for," said An, who's been watching with her Guatemalan boyfriend.
Canada also has a thriving youth soccer scene, and now has more kids playing soccer than hockey. But critics say a lack of professionally-run soccer academies leaves elite youth with limited opportunities to play against top competition in Canada.
The pro game, however, has exploded in Canada, which now has three Major League Soccer teams: the Toronto FC, the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact. All ranking among the top MLS teams in attendance.
And when it's time for the World Cup, Canadians are eager to travel.
"I had to be in Brazil for World Cup, no question," said Angela Barham, whose parents are Jamaican. She traveled to Brazil on July 1, Canada Day, to attend games. "I remember the exact moment hearing that Brazil won the bid and deciding at that moment that I was going, do or die."