It had been the talk of the Canadian capital for the last few weeks. The eager throng of journalists, politicians and football enthusiasts gathered in a suite in Ottawa’s TD Place Stadium were there to see the official launch of their new football team. But this was no ordinary launch.
Ottawa was making global news as Atlético Ottawa was unveiled to the world, the newest international branch of the Spanish giants Atlético Madrid. They will compete in the second season of the first professional football league in Canada for almost three decades as its newest and by far most prominent and significant franchise.
“This for me is a momentous day, one that I’ll never forget,” the Canadian Premier League commissioner David Clanachan told the crowd. “We wouldn’t be a truly Canadian league unless we had a team here in Ottawa. I can’t think of anything else to say but thank you to Atlético Madrid. Ottawa has won the lottery today.”
It had caused quite a stir in the city. Earlier that day, Mayor Jim Watson had declared it Atlético Ottawa Day. Gil Marín, the Atlético Madrid chairman, was there ensuring cordial diplomatic relations by answering the query as to why Atlético Madrid had decided to invest in a club in Canada with the effusive response: “Because your country is amazing.”
So just why is this giant of Spanish football making a move into a new market in a country where football is growing but clearly lags behind other sports in terms of popularity?
It is all a part of a wider strategy to build the brand of Atlético across the world, much akin to the City Football Group’s teams in New York and Melbourne. Atlético have previously had a franchise in Kolkata in the Indian Super League, which has since broken up. They now also hold a majority stake in Atlético San Luis in Mexico’s Liga MX. In a story similar to that in Ottawa, Atlético’s intervention helped bring football back to San Luis after the team had moved away. They also have partnerships with several other clubs around the world, for example with Chicago Fire in Major League Soccer. And now it’s Ottawa’s turn to become a part of the empire.
Whether this will prove worthwhile for either party remains to be seen. For Atlético it is, as ever, about brand identity, conquering new North American markets, garnering support for Atlético from a strong financial market, and, naturally, making more money. As a club, Atlético Madrid are used to aiming to upset the apple cart of Spain’s big two over the course of a lengthy and storied history. Conversely, in Canada, they will be the major player in the nascent league.
Since the old Canadian Soccer League disbanded in 1992, there had been no fully professional league in Canada. There has been a Canadian Championship during this century, where the best professional teams, who all play in US leagues, compete to find Canada’s champion. As well as award a national title, this was ostensibly a means of determining the Canadian entry into the CONCACAF Champions League.
Currently, there are three professional Canadian-based teams in MLS – Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact – with FC Edmonton in NASL. Ottawa’s now-disbanded club, Ottawa Fury, competed in the USL Championship in the United States.
Starting in April 2019, the new professional Canadian league launched with seven clubs, but in avoiding the markets occupied by the larger MLS clubs, it hasn’t yet taken a firm grip of Canadian football consciousness. The inaugural champions, Forge FC, are based in Hamilton, Ontario, and without being able to include the biggest markets of Toronto (although CPL side York9 FC are a much smaller entity in the Toronto metropolis), Montreal and Vancouver, there may be questions over the strength of the league.
Its winners qualify for the Champions League, and also compete against MLS clubs for another Champions League place. It could be argued that the profile of the new Canadian Premier League was in need of a helping hand towards credibility and recognition. And in Atlético Ottawa, it has just that.
“There is instant credibility,” said Jeff Hunt of the Ottawa Sports Entertainment Group who, in very modern football terminology, are a strategic partner of the club. They own and run the Ottawa Redblacks in Canadian gridiron, the 67s in junior hockey, and had been involved with Ottawa Fury. “To be catapulted immediately to the top of soccer brands in the world, it took them a hundred-and-something years to get to that point.”
Just what will Ottawa get from this arrangement? Aside from this initial global attention, if this is to become a success, there will need to be benefits to Ottawa and Canada, and not just for the global brand of Atlético. With the Fury having failed to secure a license to continue competing in 2019, this move will bring professional football back to the Canadian capital where it had been feared that the Fury’s demise may lead to a lengthy absence in what is, of course, a significant location in Canada.
There is the added boost of being a part of the “Atlético Family”, as the marketing minds like to call it. This should, in theory, give the Ottawans access to the extensive global scouting network of Atleti, or potentially even from the Madridistas second team or youth squads, as has been the case with the Mexican arm of the family. This could be a significant source of talent for Ottawa, particularly given Atlético Madrid’s strong history of producing players.
While this may be a positive for Ottawa in the short term and attract a strong following, there is the risk that being a part of this international entity reduces Ottawa’s role to that of subservient junior partner, being used to trial players that aren’t yet ready for the Spanish league.
At least the CPL is aiming to mitigate against the impact of this on the opportunities for young Canadians by regulating that 50 percent plus one of every team’s roster must be made up of Canadian players, with a limit of seven foreign nationals. Along with the rule that teams must also start with a minimum of six Canadians, with some of those being younger players, they are striving to put a heavy emphasis on allowing local talent to shine.
Therefore, the onus will be on Atlético Ottawa to develop and bring through Canadian players from the large football community in the surrounding areas of Ontario and Quebec. If Atlético’s involvement can help create a better standard of Canadian players, there is potentially a strong future for the CPL, for Ottawa and for Canadian football in general.
For a nation with its resources, to not even be one of CONCACAF’s stronger sides remains a failure on a large scale. With the upcoming 2026 World Cup in mind, where Canada will be one of the host nations, a stronger depth of talent is surely required. Whether Ottawa’s new setup will assist with this remains to be seen, but the increased exposure for both them and the CPL can only be positive from this respect.
Leading the team from the bench will be twice-capped former Spain international Mista, who played as a striker primarily for Valencia, but also for Atlético. Ottawa will be his first managerial post, but his appointment already shows the impact of the Spanish side.
The hope is that the burgeoning football community in Ottawa will back this new franchise more than may have otherwise been the case, thanks to Atlético Madrid’s involvement. For the CPL, the exposure that this move has given them is priceless. A new league featuring not even the best professional sides in the country, who play in the leagues of a neighbouring nation, is going to be facing a tough task from the off. Entering its second season, to have added a new team in the capital city, to have the involvement of one of the big hitters of European football, has added a dose of glamour that was otherwise conspicuous by its absence.
For Ottawa and Canadian football in general, it is hoped that it leads to real benefits on a local level, rather than merely serving as an offshoot of the mother club. Regardless of the future, though, for those in Ottawa, this is an unprecedented and exciting step into the global football consciousness, which will serve to ensure a greater focus not only on them, but on the Canadian league.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams