It’s always about bragging rights.
That is, in essence, the spirit driving rivalries in sport, according to Cavalry FC head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr.
It’s the Monday morning office cheers (or jeers) shared by opposing fans; the friends-turned-foes narrative that permeates in both locker rooms before kick-off; and, in the case of Calgary and Edmonton, the raw emotion, heightened due to the close proximity of both cities.
Bragging rights make a rivalry great.
Wheeldon Jr. knows the feeling of being on the wrong side of a result. He recalled to CanPL.ca the far-too-frequent Monday morning saunter-in where he and his fellow blue-clad Everton supporters endured the consequence of a loss at the hands of their Liverpool-loving peers, back in England.
But at home in Alberta, Wheeldon Jr. earned the first round of those precious bragging rights in a penalty shootout win over FC Edmonton in a prospects version of a rivalry dubbed the “Al Classico” by fans.
“It was a name born from both the Foot Soldiers and the Edmonton supporters’ group,” Wheeldon Jr. told CanPL.ca. “My previous club, the Foothills, and FC Edmonton, we got together for a preseason game. So the fans called it the ‘Alberta Classic’ which they shortened to ‘Al Classico’ as a homage to the ‘El Clasico’ between Real Madrid and Barcelona.
“What’s really cool about it was that it was driven by supporters, not the clubs.”
Indeed, it was conversations between supporters, Calgarians and Edmontonians alike, that set the stage for the naming convention now formally adopted by the Canadian Premier League.
Following an evening of shared drinks and soccer talk in 2016, Edmonton supporter Dallas Walker and Calgary supporter Sean Clarke took to social media to pose the question – what should a rivalry between Cavalry and FC Edmonton be called, anyway?
“The name itself, it came from Twitter,” Walker told CanPL.ca. “After Sean and I met up at the pub, we brought it up on Twitter and people were throwing out names and ideas, and one of the answers was was ‘Al Classico’ as a joke. It was never meant to be taken seriously, but eventually it took off and now it’s the official name.”
He added: “It was something that kind of just happened out of the blue. We weren’t expecting it to be this huge. We all thought it was really cool that the ideas we threw out just exploded and went viral. It’s like (the CPL) recognized our small history of how it all started, which is really cool.”
To that end, there’s even more history to be made in 2019, as both sets of managers have already outlined their intent to defeat the other in a mini-series of five fixtures set to play out over the course of the CPL’s inaugural campaign.
FC Edmonton’s Allan Zebie figures it’ll be the “most intense rivalry” in the CPL because, well, there’s history.
“The cities already (have a rivalry) from the other sports,” Zebie told CanPL.ca. “Then there are players like Nik (Ledgerwood), who played with us and now plays with them, and we have players that have played with them who are now with us. I think it’s a brand-new start for everybody, a new league and new teams. But there’s history there.”
Wheeldon Jr. explained: “There’s the Battle of Alberta between the Oilers and the Flames, and in the CFL with the Eskimos and the Stampeders, so now we get an opportunity to grow it in the professional soccer world. Friends who are up, up, up Highway 2 now become foes.”
Jeff Paulus, Wheeldon’s opposite at FC Edmonton, agreed with the sentiment, explaining that players from both cities have grown up disliking each other. He expects those feelings will “play out on the pitch,” too.
But more than that, Paulus explained, the CPL will offer both teams “an opportunity to highlight the qualities and characteristics of the players that come from each region.”
“Edmonton is more blue collar, and we take pride in that,” Paulus told CanPL.ca. “We take pride in our players putting in hard work. There’s always been that rivalry, about which city is better and whose players are stronger. It doesn’t matter if it’s soccer or lawn bowling.”
That fight transcends the field and permeates throughout the stands, which in turn, becomes the best kind of motivation for the players.
“I’ve had my fair share of dealing with away fans,” Cavalry goalkeeper Marco Carducci told CanPL.ca. “As for the support, it’s like having another player on the field at times. It gives us that energy to play for those fans. That little bit of support goes a long way for us.”
Wheeldon Jr. is careful that the lines don’t blur, though. He affirmed there will be “no bad blood” between the two organizations off the field, adding that he has a “healthy degree of respect” for his rival side.
But he also has a point to prove.
Cavalry FC comes into Al Classico as something of an underdog. FC Edmonton has been around, in some form, since 2010 and has drawn on its existing academy for players, which could provide Paulus’ club with an advantage.
Is it a full-on David vs. Goliath clash, though?
Paulus certainly wants to play into that narrative, stating any opportunity to “put doubt into the opposition is a good thing.”
He elaborated on that point, stating that “Edmontonian football players believe Edmonton is a stronger market,” adding: “Now it’s our job to validate that on the pitch.”
Zebie was more diplomatic in his response: “I feel like they’re not that far behind compared to us. They have great owners and facilities too, so I don’t think we’re that far ahead of them.”
But “that far ahead” isn’t equal footing, either.
Gauntlet, meet floor.
Cavalry FC goes into the season with the upper hand, having won the prospects edition of this clash earlier in 2018. Zebie figures the games will “actually matter” when the CPL kicks off since there are “points on the line” this time around.
“It’ll be a lot more intense this time,” he said.
Carducci isn’t buying it. A win is a win is a win.
“I want to beat Edmonton every single time we play them,” he said, bluntly.
It’s as simple as that.
FC Edmonton is a proud member of the Canadian Premier League. Our home opener is Sunday, May 12! Season tickets begin at just $240! For more information, head to our website – https://fcedmonton.canpl.ca/season-tickets/