Not-so-civil war

In hating—and occasionally hurting—each other, amateur soccer clubs St. Lawrence and Holy Cross fuel Newfoundlanders’ love for the Beautiful Game

An angry man in a red Holy Cross jersey has Rudy Norman in a headlock. Another drapes an arm across Norman’s face, obstructing his view. But the St. Lawrence midfielder has a good hold on the collar of Holy Cross captain Ryan Yetman, and he’s not letting go. What started as a shoving match between two other players during Newfoundland and Labrador’s 2009 Challenge Cup soccer final has escalated into a trash-talk-filled scuffle involving every guy on the field. The referee and linesmen are trying to break things up. Ten uniformed security guards line Upper Smallwood Field in Mount Pearl, here to make sure none of the 5,000 screaming fans rush the pitch to fight a player on the team they’re not cheering for. It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened. For their part, Norman and Yetman get red cards. The former watches the final minutes from the back of a pick-up truck parked atop a hill, the only place he can get a view over the fans. Holy Cross wins it 1–0 in overtime. Still wearing his royal-blue jersey, Norman drops his head. The Mount Pearl Senior High School phys. ed. teacher doesn’t want to watch hundreds of Holy Cross fans celebrate.

Nowhere in Canada will you encounter amateur soccer like this, imbued with such importance and history. A regular-season Newfoundland Challenge Cup tilt draws thousands more than a National Challenge Cup final anywhere else. The Labour Day match to decide the provincial representative is the biggest sporting draw of the summer, and the men who pay to play on these teams from as young as 16 to well into their 30s treat it like the pros. But none of this passion would be here and nobody on The Rock would grow up dreaming of playing amateur soccer were it not for an intense rivalry between St. Lawrence’s beloved Laurentians and St. John’s–based Holy Cross. It doesn’t matter that Newfoundland has won just one National Challenge Trophy, 38 fewer than B.C. The back-and-forth battle between the two teams stands as proof that the province is the lifeblood of The Beautiful Game in Canada.

Soccer is rooted in families here—defines some, even. Johnny Breen is one of seven Breens through three generations who’ve suited up for Holy Cross’s Div. I team since the 1970s. Now 56, he started “kickin’ the ball ’round the street soon as I could walk,” the kind of story you’ll hear from a lot of guys born and raised in St. John’s or St. Lawrence. Breen’s dad, Alf, starred for the red and gold in the ’70s, and coached for a few years after Johnny got called up for his first game at 16. He played on the team for two decades, many of those years with all four of his brothers—Billy, Bobby, Gary and A.J. “It was all we wanted,” says Johnny, who now plays for Holy Cross’s senior team and runs several businesses in the province, including gas stations and a bakery. “We didn’t think of anything else. Putting on that jersey the first time, it meant everything.” Johnny’s son Matt, 21, will tell you the same thing. The kid was “a bag of nerves” when he played his first game for Holy Cross’s top squad four years ago. Matt plays centre midfield, just like his dad, and grew up hearing about the heated rivalry with St. Lawrence. The tiny town of 1,200 draws bigger crowds than anywhere else, features a massive soccer monument at its centre (a giant black-and-white soccer ball), and more than three decades ago the Canadian Soccer Association called it “The Soccer Capital of Canada,” a label proudly displayed on the town’s website. At 16, Matt and his dad drove four hours west to take in a Laurentians–Holy Cross game. “The whole town was there, seriously,” Matt says. He doesn’t remember the score, but one highlight he’ll never forget. “Two guys squared off on the field, and one of them got dropped real bad,” Matt says. “This is what I was getting into.”

Johnny says the Holy Cross–St. Lawrence tilts were more heated in his day—“Similar situation, I’m sure, between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs”—but Matt swears it’s never been more testy than it is now. “We want to beat the crap out of them, literally and figuratively, and they’d say the same about us,” the younger Breen says of the Laurentians, on a break from his summer marketing job with Labatt. “But after the game, we’ll all go get a beer. One of my best buddies plays for St. Lawrence.”

The rivalry was born in the late 1960s and has been a see-saw battle ever since, with St. Lawrence dominating the ’70s, ’90s and early 2000s, and Holy Cross going on runs in the 1980s and in recent years. Only eight times since 1967 has one of the league’s other clubs won the provincial title. St. Lawrence has a 23–15 lead over Holy Cross in Challenge Cup wins, but it’s the latter that won the crown jewel: Newfoundland’s only national title. Johnny and his four brothers helped bring it home in 1988, cheered on by more than 100 local fans who made the trip to Saskatoon. Holy Cross went undefeated en route to a 2–0 win over the Edmonton Ital-Canadians in the final, and when the team returned home, the St. John’s airport was packed with fans. Johnny, who neglects to mention that he was Newfoundland’s Player of the Decade for the ’80s and holds a place in the St. John’s Soccer Hall of Fame, will admit that after that Challenge Trophy win, “We got recognized around town a little bit.”

But not everyone in Newfoundland and Labrador celebrated the victory. To this day, all former St. Lawrence captain Keith Farrell can think is, “It could’ve been us.” His Laurentians lost to Holy Cross by a single goal in the Labour Day matchup that year. Of course, the team has come far closer than that to claiming the coveted National Cup for themselves. In 1977, the town convinced the CSA to allow it to host the tournament, provided they build more bleachers to accompany the single set that ran one length of the field. Even the local parish priest helped hammer those new bleachers together (subsequent priests have been known to change the time of mass so locals can attend Sunday games). But the Saturday night before the highly anticipated final between St. Lawrence and Vancouver Columbus, it poured—hard. The next morning, the rain still falling, St. Lawrence Soccer Association director Gord Dunphy, along with “every man, woman and child in town,” he says, met at the field with mops, buckets, sponges, squeegees and sawdust. “It didn’t really help,” Dunphy says, chuckling, “but the game had to go on.”

Farrell remembers it well. The Laurentians’ sweeper wore glasses in the driving rain, and whenever a ball went out of bounds, he’d run over to the sidelines in his water-logged boots (one flew off during the game), where one of the more than 7,000 fans surrounding Centennial Soccer Field would give him a handkerchief so he could dab his glasses dry. Vancouver scored the game’s lone goal when two Laurentians slipped in the mud. Farrell won’t say who made the errors because “it’s a team game,” but he does point out that despite the loss, St. Lawrence fans cheered their team at the end of the game. In a town whose population has been shrinking since the local mine shut down in the late ’70s, the fan base hasn’t shrunk at all, and the Laurentians continue to churn out top-level teams because players forced to move elsewhere in the province—like Norman—choose to represent their team even if it means a 330-km drive for each home game. “It’s hard to visualize what it really means to the community, you know?” says Farrell, now 64. “They’ll do whatever it takes for their team.”

Since Norman was ejected from that Challenge Cup final in 2009, Holy Cross has won four straight provincial championships. To hear him talk about that game, you’d never know it was four years ago. “It felt like I got stabbed,” says Norman, whose Laurentians last won the province in 2008. “Death by a million punches.” The father of two says he hasn’t been involved in a fight since; he learned his lesson. Labour Day is months away, but the Laurentians have an early lead on Holy Cross in the standings. Norman thinks this could be the year the momentum shifts back St. Lawrence’s way. At least, he hopes so. “They’re still the team to beat in Newfoundland,” Norman admits of his rivals, quietly. “I had to bite my tongue when I said that.”

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.