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World Cup spirit alive and well in Whistler

Lively crowd comes out to Tapley’s to watch Canada’s first World Cup match in 36 years
Footy fans at Tapley's Neighbourhood Pub on Nov. 23 to catch Team Canada's first World Cup action in 36 years.

Wednesday, Nov. 23 is a date that Canadian soccer fans were sure to have circled on their calendars. It was, of course, the date that Team Canada returned to FIFA World Cup action for the first time in 36 years—or 13,316 days for those really keeping score. Watch parties were established across the country in every imaginable venue as 41st-ranked Canada outplayed and outchanced second-ranked Belgium in a razor-close 1-0 loss. 

As a newcomer to Whistler, I decided to check out the local World Cup scene for myself, not knowing what to expect. Soccer—or football, for the sticklers—is a global game, and as a town frequented by people from multiple nationalities, I knew there had to be some hardcore fans clearing their schedules for this historic match. On the other hand, Whistler is a resort municipality and said resort (at the time of this writing) had yet to open for the season, so the biggest crowds were likely yet to arrive. 

Plus, Team Canada would be taking the pitch at 11:00 a.m. local time on a weekday. Folks have jobs. 

Strolling into the village just before 10:00 a.m., I was not initially convinced that I would find a lively watch party. There was little to no signage advertising the World Cup or supporting Canadian athletes, and the boisterous wolfpacks of rabid superfans prowling the streets in other parts of the world were nowhere to be found. The first two pubs I found (The Brewhouse and Beacon Pub & Eatery) were closed when I swung by. 

Naturally, my attention turned to Tapley’s, a joint that I’d already experienced firsthand as one of the premier sports bars in town. They were open when I arrived at 10:25 a.m. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective) there was no line to get in and I sat at the bar to get a view of one of the bigger TVs. 

At that point, the place was just under half full by my estimation. I saw patrons of varying ages and nationalities, but no obvious signs of any soccer diehards in the house. One man wearing a Toronto FC jersey and a Canada-themed toque entered shortly after I did, and he was joined by a man wearing Belgium’s livery. I saw a few other Canada Soccer shirts, and that was it. No face paint, no Alphonso Davies or Kevin de Bruyne jerseys. 

A bartender came over to serve me and I asked him how the crowds had been since the World Cup kicked off. According to him (his name was Mark), I had showed up on a relatively slow morning. English fans were out in full force on Nov. 21 to see their club’s 6-2 drubbing of Iran to open the tournament. Mark advised me to walk in four hours in advance if I wanted a seat for England’s clash with Team USA on Nov. 25.

Unsurprisingly, the Commonwealth loves its soccer. Mark said that Tapley’s had hosted plenty of rowdy Aussies over the last few days, and even a healthy contingent of Welsh fans had stopped by on Monday to witness Gareth Bale and company battle the U.S. to a 1-1 draw.

I’ll forgive Canadians for not being quite so zealous. Hockey is our game, after all. 

Smart remarks aside, Tapley’s had doubled in attendance by the time Canada and Belgium were set to do battle, and that’s when I began to feel the energy. Pretty much all the tables were full, as was the bar I sat at. Hearty applause after the national anthem, as if we were at an NHL game, and then we were off.

The crowd popped when Canadian winger Tajon Buchanan’s seventh-minute volley tested Belgian keeper Thibaut Cortois for the first time. I looked down, but quickly looked up again. There was a handball from one of Belgium’s players! 

Alphonso Davies of Bayern Munich fame, the only Canadian man ever to win a UEFA Champions League title, proceeded to the penalty spot and captured the attention of every soul in the bar. I barely heard a sound outside of the TSN broadcast. Forgive me for using an old cliche, but the tension was genuinely palpable enough to cut with a knife. 

Davies seemed hesitant to get his shot off. Cortois guessed correctly, diving to his right and showing us all why he is considered one of the best keepers on Earth. Dozens including myself erupted in disbelief as one. The face of men’s soccer in Canada had just come up short.

Half an hour into the game, it was standing room only. Tens of latecomers had no choice but to stay on their feet, clutching glasses of beer as they gazed at one of dozens of screens in the bar. Most had shown up in street clothes instead of jerseys, but that didn’t mean they weren’t invested. Much the opposite: the crowd clapped and hollered at every positive play Canada made, from feathery passes to precise tackles to skilful dribbling displays. The Canadians gave us plenty to celebrate in that first half, keeping the second-ranked squad in the world on its heels. 

When Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi ruined everything in the 44th minute by one-touching a 60-yard pass through Canadian keeper Milan Borjan’s outstretched hands, the whole place deflated like a balloon. 

If you read my personal introduction to Whistler, you’ll know that soccer is not actually among the many sports I follow. Nonetheless, I could not stop myself from getting caught up in the atmosphere, oohing and aahing with a level of partisanship that no media press box would tolerate. The man sitting next to me was similar. His name was Connor, and he was the type of person who only “watches soccer when it’s on.” Yet he was just as invested in the game as anyone else present. 

Fans kept the faith until the bitter end. Every Canadian scoring chance elicited rowdy cheers, and every Canadian miss a wave of vocal disappointment. Tapley’s basically exploded in the 80th minute when Cortois denied a valiant header from Cyle Larin, Team Canada’s all-time leading scorer. A group of men sitting in the corner took up a brief but spirited “Go Canada, Go” chant with two minutes until stoppage time, rallying us to get behind one final push for an equalizer. 

Said equalizer never came, but there was a round of good-natured applause as the defeated Canadians walked off the pitch. Most people had seen what I did: the fact that our country possesses the talent and athleticism to compete with world-class opponents. We’ll have to wait another four years to get out of the group stage, after Canada’s 4-1 loss to Croatia on Sunday—but the foundation has been laid and the fan support is very much there. 

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