Queers in Toronto certainly know how to bend it like Beckham. Only a few years ago Toronto had just one organized queer soccer league — the women-only Pink Turf Soccer — and a casual group of people who met at Riverdale Park to play friendly pickup games, but no organized league for queers at large.
Today, however, Downtown Soccer Toronto is the largest queer soccer league in the world with 10 teams and more than 200 players. The four-year-old league is so successful that it is already hosting its second annual tournament.
The Toronto International Pride Cup tourney (TIPC, pronounced “tipsy”) will be held this weekend — Sat, Jun 21 and 22 — at three different facilities: St Michael’s College School near Bathurst and St Clair, Varsity Stadium at the University of Toronto and Lamport Stadium near King and Dufferin. The fact that the tournament is being held on three different, good quality fields around the city is a big deal, says Jason Sterne, TIPC communications coordinator.
“Fields are hard to get in Toronto,” says Sterne. “Last year we played at Riverdale, which frankly is a dust pit. But this year the fields are much more professional.”
Also adding some professionalism to the tournament is the addition this year of a presenting sponsor — BMO Bank of Montreal. “They are a big supporter of the Toronto Football Club and, with the plan for a BMO branch on Church St, it is a perfect fit.”
Also new this year is the fact that the finals and medals ceremony, to be held Sunday at Lamport Stadium, is an official Pride Toronto event, “So we help to kick off Pride Week,” says Sterne.
Participating teams will be coming to Toronto from all over Canada and the US and there’s a full list of social events surrounding the games, including parties at nightclubs Fly and Slack’s.
All this is a far cry from the time when the league didn’t even have referees or proper equipment.
“That’s why a pylon is part of our logo,” says Stearne. “We didn’t have nets, so we used pylons.”
Michael Kormendy, a lifelong soccer enthusiast, was one of the founders of the league as well as one of the original players who used to meet in Riverdale Park. A graphic designer and web developer by trade, he had the idea of setting up a website for the informal group in order to get the word out and recruit more players.
The site — along with other recruiting tools, including an ad in Xtra — was so successful that Kormendy soon realized he had a full-fledged league on his hands, which led to complications he never thought he’d have to worry about, such as obtaining field permits from the city, registering players, collecting money from members and fundraising.
Refereed games came in year two when the league finally had the money to hire one. Then in 2006 — when the local team the Toronto Titans went to the Gay Games in Chicago and brought home bronze — players came up with the idea of Toronto holding its own tournament.
If Toronto’s past relationship with soccer is any indication — the success of the Toronto Football Club and the local interest in Euro 2008 currently being played in Austria and Switzerland, for example — this tournament should be a winner.
“Toronto loves soccer because the people of this city have access to their own communities,” says Kephra Sennett, communications officer for Downtown Soccer Toronto. “Soccer has always been more popular in Europe and Latin America than North America. But so many different communities have come to Toronto, and they have brought their cultures — and their love of soccer — with them.”
Stearne is a good example. “I’m Italian, so I was born with a soccer ball in my mouth.”
“It’s a testament to the vegetable soup we have in Toronto,” adds Kormendy. “It’s one way that Toronto’s international flavour shows.”
Another unique aspect of Toronto’s Downtown Soccer is that the league is co-ed. Most queer leagues around the world are single sex.
Before the formation of Downtown Soccer, Kormendy says he approached the women-only Pink Turf Soccer League. “But they told me no. I felt shunned,” says Kormendy. “I didn’t want our new league to be exclusionary.”
While Sennett understands why some would want to play in a women-only space, she sees a definite upside to participating in a co-ed league. “We’ll never say you can’t play with us just because of who you are.”
The league won’t say no to you even if you are just a beginner. “I had never even played before,” Sennett admits. “My own experience is you will be welcomed. There will be others like you, but also others you’ll be able to learn from.”