The day before Canada played its final match in the soccer World Cup qualifiers, crowning a sensational campaign to secure its spot in the tournament in Qatar, my native Egypt failed to qualify. We lost a penalty shootout after an ill-tempered game in Senegal.
One of my earliest memories is holding my father’s hand as we walked through a celebratory procession on the streets of Alexandria after Egypt qualified to the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Soccer quickly became my gateway to the adult world. Even in my childhood and teenage years, I found I could easily blend into the gatherings of my father’s friends whenever they or we visited to watch a game. I could debate the adults over strategy, starting lineups or potential player deals for our club, Al Ahly. I could share in my father’s joy in victory, and commiserate after losses (of which there were many). On holidays, after matches, I would wake up in the early morning to go pick up all the sports magazines and newspapers and pore over the analysis for hours over tea with him.
After my father died, the sport lost much of its lustre. Victories in the African competitions and even qualifying to the last World Cup had a muted quality. I could still enjoy a good game every now and then, but I could feel the dampening of the enthusiasm in every laugh, scream and yell – none of them came from within, they were surface level emotions feigned to fit in with the crowd.
Canada was the last place where I expected a portion of this passion to be rekindled.
Canada qualified to the World Cup, which runs every four years, after topping the Oceanic and North American qualifying round, ahead of stalwarts like Mexico and the USA. The men’s national team has not reached the tournament since 1986, when it lost all three games in the group stage.
The achievement itself is quite profound, but the make-up of the team is what I found most intriguing. Many of them are too young to be this good, and have years of professional football ahead of them.
And many of them were not born here. Alphonso Davies, one of the greatest full backs in the world today, was born in a Liberian refugee camp. Milan Borjan, the team’s goalkeeper, is from Serbia, and his family fled when he was a child during Croatia’s war of independence. Nearly three quarters of the team hails originally from lands beyond Canada.
At a baptism I attended last weekend, talk after the ceremony turned to football and Canada’s impressive performance on the field. Most of the attendees were Syrians. One of them said that “we” had qualified.
He realized he had said “we” about Canada. He seemed surprised by it, surrounded as he was by his countrymen and women. Many Syrians and Lebanese in Montreal tend to live in neighborhoods where other immigrants from the same region also cluster, a little taste of home halfway around the world.
One of his friends smiled in sympathy. “Do you have your passport yet?” she asked. He had passed the test, but hadn’t been sworn in as a citizen yet.
“That still counts,” she replied.
The work of belonging is hard. You are reminded of how hard it is every time you pass by homes with laughter echoing from within during the holidays. You are reminded of how hard it is every time you break the fast during Ramadan in quiet solitude at home instead of the bustling feasts of family and friends back home. And you are reminded of it in the guilt you feel every time you yearn for that home but realize that you are one of the lucky ones, that all those you left behind are yearning to leave.
But the work is made easier by the realization that others like you are now “from” here. That they have found glory and success, belonging and adulation, by virtue of who they are and what they brought to the table, their own talents and lived experiences. That it is possible for the “we” to denote somewhere else than what your accidental birthplace dictated. That your chosen home can be yours, not just a rest stop on the way.
I know I’ll be there for it. Egypt might not have made it, but Canada did. It’s not the same yet, but it will be.