Off the Record: Field of dreams

Over the years, I’ve said some unkind things about the sport of soccer — or “football” as 90 per cent of the world’s population correctly calls it given that it’s an actual ball you move primarily with your foot.

As one friend commented, after Uruguay brazenly stole a shot at the World Cup from Ghana, soccer is proof that six billion people can be wrong.

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My criticism starts at the very top. FIFA is a ridiculous and corrupt organization that likely took bribes from hosts going back to the early ‘90s. That’s how we wound up with a World Cup in Qatar in 2022 — and a huge inconvenience for pro leagues as organizers have been forced to move the tournament back four months so players and fans don’t drop dead of heat exhaustion.

I’m not a huge fan of World Cup games, either, at least on the men’s side. There’s a shameful amount of diving and rolling around with fake injuries, and unfortunately the tactic works too often.

While I’m on the topic of officiating, too many yellow cards are handed out, and probably too many reds as well. FIFA even had to tell officials to ease up for the Brazil World Cup because the refs were somehow slowing down a game where scores of 1-0 are already far too common.

A lot of sports that have come up with perfectly good ways to handle penalties, like the penalty box in hockey, sin bin in rugby, and five-fouls-and-out rule in basketball, but the fact that a player can miss almost two whole games for an arbitrary on-field, non-reviewed call by a ref is absurd. Red cards may actually be video reviewed in 2018, but that’s not confirmed yet and for some reason it’s controversial.

The time clock is frustrating, with the referee arbitrarily adding minutes to the clock to compensate for injuries. Nobody knows exactly how much time is left, and teams have won and tied countless games in those mystery minutes.

I also dislike the shootout. The ball is far too close, the net far too big, and the players far too good to give goalies a fighting chance. It’s a terrible way to end a 90-minute game, and has almost next to nothing to do with the way the sport is actually played.

Despite all my rantings, I am now a soccer coach with a daughter in the game, and I’ve starting to think about things a little bit differently. My feelings about FIFA haven’t changed, but over the years I’ve had the pleasure of watching a group of young girls learning the skills, gaining confidence and toughness, and developing camaraderie and team spirit — all the best things that come from team sports.

These girls will one day go on to play for local and regional rep teams and their high school, representing Whistler wherever they go. I’m proud to play a small part in that.

Yet when it comes to providing all these great kids with an artificial turf field to play on, extending their outdoor season while also getting rid of that ridiculous gravel pitch, I admit to being a bit conflicted. It is a lot of money — although the $2.7 million figure is significantly less than the original concept put forward that would have included washrooms and a fieldhouse.

The artificial turf will extend our outdoor season here by up to 12 weeks a year. Adding lights will allow for later practices and games for hundreds of local kids and adults in the sport.

This field will absolutely get used, and not just by soccer players. Other sports, like youth football, touch rugby and ultimate, will also be able to book field time. Thousands of high performance athletes also pass through the lodge and training centre across the road every year will no doubt find ways to use the pitch as well.

You can argue that the cost is still too high, that the field isn’t a priority right now with so many people looking for homes, that turf is a poor compromise for grass when it comes to playing surfaces, but I don’t think you can honestly argue that a turf field isn’t right for Whistler.

Whistler was built by recreation. We started with sport fishing, then moved on to skiing — cutting down thousands of hectares of trees to build runs on the mountains. We are also not defined by our once clear-cut forests as much as we are by the handmade trails that run through them. Whistler is golf courses and baseball fields, beach parks with volleyball courts, and other manufactured green spaces.

The idea that an artificial field is the wrong thing for environmental reasons also doesn’t alter the fact that it’s going to be located on a capped landfill, adjacent to BC Hydro lines and the town’s busy sewage treatment plant. I honestly can’t imagine a better use for that space.

It is expensive, but Whistler isn’t like other towns with a tax base that far exceeds our population. We really can afford this, and have a long history of making sports and recreation a priority. After all, we were initially created to host the Winter Olympics.

People come to Whistler to play and one of the things we play is soccer. About half the kids in town are part of the youth soccer association at some point. Having a better, more flexible venue will go a long way towards increasing participation in soccer and other sports.

In the end, councillors will have to stand by their decision and could underestimate opposition to the field. But I really don’t think that’s the case — my guess is that in a few years people will be wondering why we didn’t build it sooner.

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