Canada was primarily a British country in the years leading up to and during World War Two. However, immediately following the war, thousands of people from all over Europe emigrated to Canada, dramatically changing the demographics from Anglo-Saxon to multi-national. The change in the makeup of the population turned Canada soccer on its head.
Canada Men’s soccer began in 1876 when teams in Toronto started playing to Football Association rules. In the beginning, soccer was primarily played in the universities and colleges in southern Ontario. The men’s soccer team that toured Britain in 1888 was all Canadian-born, except one man, who was brought to Canada when he was two years old.
However, that all changed in the years that followed, particularly after World War One, which brought a large influx of immigrants from Britain. So from a game played by many Canadians, soccer (known here as football at the time) became a game played by British immigrants right up to 1940.
World War II
The Second World War destroyed much of the infrastructure that existed before 1940, and Canada men’s soccer more or less started anew when the war was over. But this time, while the administration remained British, the teams reflected the nationalities of the immigrants and brought many ethnic conflicts onto the playing fields.
In the period beginning around 1950 and continuing through into the 1980s, Canadian soccer was predominantly ethnic, both at the playing level and among those who watched. The one exception was in British Columbia, on the other side of the Rocky Mountains, where the majority of the players were native-born Canadians. Thus when Canada entered to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 1958. The first team to represent Canada was made up entirely of players native to British Columbia. Few of the immigrants being Canadian citizens. They failed to qualify for 1958 and eventually made the World Cup finals in 1986.
The Formation Of The New Canada Men’s Soccer League
Interest in Canada men’s soccer remained high amongst the immigrant population, and in 1961 a group in Toronto and Montreal felt that the time was right to start a top-class men’s professional league that would tap into this interest. Thus, early in 1961, the Eastern Canada Professional Soccer League (ECPSL) was born with four teams: Montreal Cantalia, Toronto Italia, Toronto City, and Hamilton Steelers.
To stock these teams and interest the immigrant groups, the ECPSL turned to Europe and South America. However, in Eastern Canada, Canadian players were not considered capable of playing at the level the league required. Consequently, the search overseas began, not only for players but also for coaches.
Toronto City was the team that attracted the most attention with its recruiting. City signed Stanley Matthews and Jackie Mudie from Blackpool, Danny Blanchflower from Tottenham Hotspurs, and Johnny Haynes from Fulham. In addition, Scottish international goalkeeper Tommy Younger was signed as the team’s player-coach. The rest of the squad was made up almost entirely of British players, some from the First Division like Roy Gratrix and others from the lower divisions.
Also, Hamilton went essentially for British players, but a lower budget restricted them to more minor well-known players. Finally, as might be imagined, Toronto Italia signed mostly Italian players primarily from Serie B clubs, while Montreal Cantalia had Italians and several Argentines.
When Was The First Games Played
The first Canada men’s soccer ECPSL game was played in May 1961 between Montreal and Hamilton in Montreal and drew a crowd of 5,000. The biggest game of the new league took place a week later in Toronto with City playing Italia before 16,509 fans at Varsity Stadium with Italia winning 3-2. As the season progressed, the stars of Toronto City returned to England on loan from their English clubs. Haynes only played in seven of the 24 regular-season games, Mudie only eight, Blanchflower 11, and Stanley Matthews 14.
Both Toronto teams played at Varsity Stadium, where the total attendance for 18 league games and six playoff games was 145,479 for an average of 6,061 per game. The average ticket price was just $1.50.
On 24 June, Toronto City defeated the French club Rheims 2-1 before 10,722 fans in an exhibition game. Later in 1961, after the stars had gone home, Toronto City traveled to Vancouver to play Real Madrid and were beaten 5-1 in front of 24,264 fans.
Toronto City was tied with Montreal Cantalia on points when the season ended but won the league championship on a .0294 better goal average. In the playoffs, City was beaten by Italia, who was beaten by Cantalia for the title.
Before the 1962 season rolled around, the champion Montreal Cantalia had dropped out of the league. There were now five teams, the new entrants being Toronto Roma and Buffalo White Eagles. The Toronto City stars didn’t return as the English Football Association banned them from playing in Canada. Tom Finney did show up to play one game. Toronto Roma won the league championship in 1962. They were beaten in the first round of the playoffs by Toronto Italia. Italia went on to win the championship by beating Toronto City.
In 1963 there were six teams in the league. Montreal Cantalia rejoined along with another Montreal team, the Ukrainians, while Buffalo dropped out. This time Toronto Italia won the league championship while Toronto City finished at the bottom, thus missing the playoffs, despite the presence of Ladislav Kubala in the starting lineup. Italia once again won the championship.
The musical chairs continued in 1964 as Montreal Cantalia dropped out again along with the Ukrainians, but Montreal Italia joined, so the league was again down to five teams. This time, Toronto City jumped from last to first and also won the playoff against Italia. Malcolm Allison was Toronto City’s coach and was replaced partway through the season by Charlie Fleming. Zoltan Czibor played for Hamilton Steelers.
In 1965, Hamilton Steelers changed its name to Hamilton Primos, having been bought out by the head of a local pasta company, while Montreal Italia became Italica. Toronto City finished last again, and Stanley Matthews returned to play five games. Toronto Italica won the championship.
Before the 1966 season rolled around Toronto City, the flagship franchise of the league dropped out. Owner Steve Stavro stated that the league could not survive if the three Toronto teams did not merge. So the league went ahead with four teams. By this time known as Italia-Falcons, Toronto Italia won the championship but lost in the playoff to Roma, by this time known as Inter-Roma.
The Eastern Canada Professional Soccer League folded at the end of the 1966 season with barely a whimper. The following year the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) and the United Soccer Association (now the MLS) were formed in North America. Toronto Falcons (having dropped the Italia part of the name) played in the NPSL, while Toronto City reappeared in the United Soccer Association. When the leagues merged at the end of 1967 to become the North American Soccer League, only the Falcons remained. That was the end of Canada having its own professional men’s soccer league.