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Uncovering the early years of organized soccer in Newfoundland

By: | October 28, 2017

MUN professor appeals for help from the public.

St. George’s Field, St. John’s, near the intersection of Merrymeeting Road and Newtown Road, in the early 20th century. Photo courtesy Osvaldo Croci.

With so much time and energy consumed by the hard labour of fishing, logging, and mining, it is easy to assume that sport and games had a limited place in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador.

But sport is an important, if often overlooked, part of this province’s past; it was played by St. Lawrence fluorspar miners, by the doctors and patients of the Grenfell medical mission, by mill workers in Grand Falls and Corner Brook, by employees of the Imperial Tobacco Company in St. John’s, and by sealers trapped in the ice with nothing else to do.

Sport in Newfoundland and Labrador was influenced and shaped by Scottish engineers, English masons, American soldiers and Canadian businessmen, as well as by the traditional games and physical pursuits of the country’s settler and Indigenous populations.

In a recent essay published in the journal Soccer and Society, Memorial University political scientist Osvaldo Croci has begun to unpack the history of organized soccer in Newfoundland, but to continue his work he needs the help of readers who may have materials to share or stories to tell.

Croci became interested in the history of Newfoundland soccer in 2002 while watching the St. Lawrence Laurentians compete in the final of the Canadian Challenge Cup.

With over 6,000 spectators packed into the King George V stadium in St. John’s, the Laurentians conceded in the 119th minute.

“As the ball crossed the line, they all went silent,” Croci wrote in an email to The Independent.

“The whole scene reminded me of what I had read about the most dramatic moment of the 1950 FIFA World Cup final” played between Brazil and Uruguay, he explained, in which a “deafening silence” had descended upon a stunned Brazilian home crowd as they witnessed Uruguay’s late winner.

The first result of that interest was published in the spring 2017 issue of Soccer and Society. In the article “(Association) Football and Newfoundland’s national identity: 1878-1915,” Croci explores the formation of an organized soccer league in St. John’s and its connection with an emergent sense of Newfoundland nationalism.

Formed in 1895, only eight years after the first league appeared in England and two years before another was organized in Italy, the St. John’s league was one of the first in the world. Moreover, its matches routinely drew 2,000 spectators, while the biggest matches attracted almost 4,000, “a very significant turnout,” Croci writes in his article, “considering that St. John’s had, at the time, less than 30,000 inhabitants.”

Soccer was vibrant in St. John’s long before the formation of a league, and teams included ‘Cathedral Works’, composed of skilled stone workers who moved from England to construct the Anglican Cathedral, and the ‘Victoria Rangers,’ made up of British engineers working for the Victoria Engine and Boiler Works on the city’s west end.

The creation of a league, however, produced more local or ‘native’ teams, including ‘Terra Nova F.C.’, a club that wore an all-black jersey with a crest of pink, white and green – by this time a national symbol. A city newspaper noted that members of Terra Nova “are of every denomination – the only qualification being that each member be born a Newfoundlander.”

The creation of these ‘native’ teams, Croci contends in his article, “reinforced and consolidated Newfoundland identity by showing that native Newfoundlanders could compete on a par with the expatriates from the old country in playing their own game,” while clubs like Terra Nova “went a step further” by overcoming ethnic and denominational cleavages.

The popularity of soccer in St. John’s did not survive long into the 20th century, when hockey and baseball began to capture the public’s imagination, but for a at least a few decades organized soccer was at the heart of the capital city’s sporting and political culture.

Croci says “(Association) Football and Newfoundland’s national identity” draws on material that will eventually compose the first three chapters of a book. Having worked on the early history of the sport in St. John’s the professor is now interested in expanding his focus to include soccer on the Burin Peninsula and Corner Brook.

Home to many of Newfoundland’s best soccer teams and Challenge Cup finalists, Croci believes that soccer in places like the Burin Peninsula “strengthened the (competitive) relationship not only among villages there but also between them and St. Pierre and Miquelon.”

A soccer game underway in Burin sometime c. 1930s. Note the large number of spectators watching the match from the surrounding rocks. Photo courtesy Wayne Hollett.

Unlike St. John’s, however, newspaper and other written accounts for these regions are rare, and Croci is appealing for help from anybody with information concerning the history of soccer on the south and west coasts of Newfoundland. That information can include photos, diaries, personal recollections, and, most importantly, league meeting minutes (so far Croci has been unable to located any minutes but suspects they existed at one time), he says.

Croci says he will travel to the homes of anybody who is interested in assisting, but that it’s important to note he is largely confining his research to soccer at an organized level while his period of study is limited to the early decades of the 20th century.

The history of sport in Newfoundland and Labrador remains poorly understood and largely limited to compilations of statistics and commemorative publications. Croci hopes his work will help fill part of this historical gap.

He can be reached at (709) 864-8185, or by email at olcroci@gmail.com.

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