This week, Italian native Fabio Capello resigned as coach of England’s national soccer team. Already, there has been a push for an English speaker to replace him. While the world of English soccer is an ocean away, it may surprise some that the issue of language in sports is a source of constant controversy much closer to home, about 500 miles north of Georgetown.
It is difficult to express the importance of language in Canada to those who have never lived in a country with two official languages and who haven’t witnessed the near secession of a significant portion of their homeland. The province of Quebec, with a culture more reminiscent of Europe than of anywhere in North America, seems out of place in the friendly, subdued, beaver-loving wilderness that is the rest of Canada.
In order to understand the issue, the best place to start is with sports, a powerful cultural link that all countries share. Throughout the early history of the National Hockey League, Francophones were discriminated against by the English-speaking owners and executives who ran the league.
In 1955, the controversial suspension of French-Canadian hockey star Maurice “The Rocket” Richard by the Anglophone president of the NHL ignited a costly riot that snowballed into Canada’s first large-scale nationalist movement, the Quiet Revolution. The crisis eventually led to terrorist attacks, kidnappings and the death of a British official. The Redskins may hate their owner, and Cubs fans may have a shameful past, but this goes beyond anything that has ever been seen in America.
On Dec. 17, 2011, the Montreal Canadiens fired Head Coach Jacques Martin and replaced him on an interim basis with unilingual Anglophone assistant Randy Cunneyworth. The backlash to this decision was immediate and intense.
Prominent Francophone sportswriter Philippe Cantin wrote, “In Quebec, the Canadiens aren’t just a hockey team … they are also an institution. And like all institutions, they have a responsibility to the community.”
Some politicians went even further. Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois suggested the team force all its players to learn French. Before a game on Jan. 7, hundreds of protesters lined up in front of the Bell Centre in opposition to owner Geoff Molson’s decision. Some even threatened to boycott his prized beer, an unthinkable threat under normal circumstances.
There is a common misconception — in Montreal and beyond — that the history of the Canadiens is inextricably tied to the French culture of Montreal. While it’s true that the majority of the Canadiens’ fan base is French-Canadian, the club was founded by an Anglophone, and of the team’s record 24 Stanley Cups, only two have been won under Francophone head coaches. The Canadiens don’t have a history of being French; they have a history of winning.
It is this culture of winning that has made the organization a success and a staple of Quebec culture. Many point to the resentment aimed at decade-long captain Saku Koivu over his inability to speak French as an example of where fans’ loyalties lie, but they don’t consider the fact that Koivu never won a Stanley Cup. Ken Dryden, Anglophone goaltender for the team in the 1970s and winner of six Stanley Cups, is given a hero’s worship in the province.
There is a cliche that winning is everything, but that is a simplistic look at what determines fans’ happiness. Fans do prefer to root for local heroes over foreign ones, so nationality — and in this case language — does matter. However, for a market that loves winning but has not earned a Cup since 1993, the view that the coach needs to speak French can only be characterized as misplaced frustration.
The only times the coach actually speaks publicly are for the six to eight minutes following a game and occasionally at practice. Considering that half of that interaction is generally in English, it makes little sense that Montreal is in such an uproar over this issue.
Montreal may be unlike any other city in North America in many ways. But in sports, just like everywhere else, winning is the only language.
Everybody loves a winner, and it is understandable that Québécois would hope for local heroes. But despite the constant flow of Francophone coaches, Montreal has not been happy since the Canadiens won that championship 18 years ago. So it’s clear that the language of the coach is not what draws people to the team.
The old cliche may be simplistic, but it’s not entirely off base: winning isn’t everything, but it is the most important thing. It’s time the province of Quebec and the English soccer fans realized it.
Arik Parnass is a freshman in the College. CANDID CANADIAN appears every Tuesday.