The greatest goal scorer in the history of international soccer emerged, hooded and shoulders hunched, into the Halifax rain on Monday afternoon. Christine Sinclair, scorer of 190 goals in 328 matches for Canada—more than Lionel Messi for Argentina; more than Cristiano Ronaldo for Portugal—will make her Wanderers Grounds debut on Tuesday, Oct. 31 in a friendly match against Brazil with more than just the scoreline riding on the outcome. The game is one between two giants of the sport—Canada won gold at the Tokyo Olympics just two years ago, while Brazil is… well, Brazil. It will be one of Sinclair’s last wearing a maple leaf—a mere 10 days ago, after 23 years representing her country, the 40-year-old sporting legend announced she’ll retire from Canada’s national team at the end of the year.
Then, there’s the matter of the venue: In Halifax, the Canadian national team has brought the world’s game to a city starved for international competitions. (Per CTV, tickets sold out 20 minutes after they were made available to the public.) It also comes at the exact time that debate about a permanent outdoor stadium in Halifax’s downtown has attracted more interest, perhaps, than ever before.
There will be many celebrating Sinclair’s arrival in Nova Scotia, but few will be happier than Derek Martin. For the past six years, the Halifax Wanderers president and founder has been working to bring a Canadian national soccer team game to the Wanderers Grounds. It was part of the vision when he first pitched the idea of a pop-up stadium at the Grounds to HRM council in 2017. It was just over a month ago, too, that Martin pitched Halifax’s community planning and economic development standing committee on the prospect of a $40-million upgrade to the municipally-owned Grounds. His pro soccer club has been playing in a pop-up stadium at the Grounds—and leading the eight-team Canadian Premier League in attendance—since 2019. The time has come, he argues, for a bigger stadium that could not only grow in step with the Wanderers’ booming fan base, but serve neighbourhood sports teams like those at Citadel High School, double as a concert venue and attract the kinds of international events that Halifax hadn’t seen before.
“We said [that] by building this pop-up stadium, we would prove that it would be a great site to host professional soccer,” Martin tells The Coast. “We wanted to prove it would make us part of the international and national circuit, if you will, of being able to host events like this—and here we are.”
Tuesday’s match marks the first time either of Canada’s national soccer teams have played a competitive game in the Maritimes since 2012, when Sinclair scored the lone goal against China in Moncton. It’s also the first time either the men or women have played a game in Nova Scotia.
Martin says he found out about the possibility of the women coming to Halifax back in August. Canada Soccer’s interim general secretary, Jason de Vos, had sent him a text message: Were the Wanderers interested in getting involved in a fall series of friendly matches?
“I wrote back and said, ‘Absolutely.’ Didn’t know any details. Didn’t know when; didn’t know who.”
Martin has dreams of more moments like Tuesday’s clash between Canada and Brazil. Canada is co-hosting the 2026 World Cup. A bigger stadium, he believes, could put Halifax in the running for international squads to make the city their base during training for the competition. It wasn’t that far off, he told HRM council in 2017, that Halifax could have been in the running to co-host the 2015 Women’s World Cup—but at the time, the Grounds’ poor field quality nixed that possibility.
“Unfortunately, the artificial turf surfaces that we have at Saint Mary's and Dalhousie just aren’t of the quality that are needed to host that level of events,” Martin said in 2017.
Of course, he’s an interested party in the Wanderers Grounds’ future: His club, HFX Wanderers FC, had signed a three-year lease to play their home games at the Grounds, starting in 2019. As part of the deal, the Wanderers pledged to cover the cost of grandstand rentals and temporary infrastructure. The HRM agreed to a two-year extension of that lease in 2021. The catch: It ends after the 2024 CPL season. Martin’s hope is that Halifax would upgrade the Wanderers Grounds—with a permanent covered grandstand, washroom facilities and artificial turf, among other suggested improvements—in time for the 2025 season. He’s offered to sign a 30-year lease as a gesture of his soccer club’s commitment.
Martin isn’t without his opponents. On Sept. 14, the HRM’s community planning and economic development standing committee heard from several neighbours opposed to the idea of a permanent stadium at the Grounds—either because it was too close to the Public Gardens, or it would cost too much money, or it risked turning publicly-owned land into a de-facto private entity. The Friends of the Halifax Common local advocacy group have threatened to sue the HRM for allowing a stadium “inconsistent with the HRM Charter.”
“The Halifax Common is sacred land,” Vince Calderhead told the committee on Sept. 14. “It’s for everyone’s use.”
Martin agrees it’s for everyone. He has proposed that Halifax could convert the Wanderers Grounds pitch into artificial turf—a move that would allow more community groups to use it, and more often, without affecting the quality of the field. A dome could even be added in winters, he says, allowing for year-round use by sports associations. As for the money part, he stresses the Wanderers would be a “very significant contributor” to any permanent stadium plans.
“This debate has been going on for a heck of a lot longer than I’ve been around,” Martin told the committee on Sept. 14. “And I’m tired of it, to be honest. I just don’t know why we keep worrying about what might be down the road when we’ve got something right in front of us that we can support; that we can be proud of.
“We’ve proven we can fill [the stadium],” he told The Coast on Monday. “There’s no other argument I can make. If we’re at the point where people [still] don’t agree, then I don’t think it’ll ever happen in this city.”
Count Canadian women’s soccer team head coach Bev Priestman as a fan of the Wanderers Grounds—and of Halifax, too.
“I absolutely love it,” she told reporters after Monday’s training session. “I went for a wander yesterday afternoon, and I really like the place. I’ve been here before, but not downtown—it seems like a lovely place to live.
“I think it’s going to be an incredible atmosphere. The pitch is in great condition… and we’re just really happy to get to see different parts of the country,” she added. “Because if [you imagine a] women’s professional league [one day], you’d like to think places like this are gonna have a team—and a big part of that is bringing in some of the best players in this country and getting people excited.”
The Wanderers have expressed interest in launching a women’s semi-pro club as soon as a yet-to-form League1 Atlantic can get off the ground. Martin has hopes that it could come as early as 2024, but that hinges on whether enough other teams from around the Maritimes join in as well.
“It’s just a matter of making sure the other clubs that have shown interest are able to ensure that they can put together a sustainable operation, which is really the key… but I think it’s the right time, I think it’s a great opportunity and I think it’s needed in our region.”
Halifax council have not yet decided on a permanent outdoor stadium at the Wanderers Grounds. On Sept. 14, council resolved that it would return to the committee to direct staff on any subsequent reports. Maggie MacDonald, the HRM’s executive director of parks and recreation, called Martin’s goal of a completed stadium by 2025 “an aggressive timeline” and “something I would want to talk to my team about,” but the Wanderers president remains optimistic.
“We’re feeling very confident and very positive that what we propose has been received really well,” Martin tells The Coast.
For now, there’s a soccer match to prepare for, and a sold-out crowd of some 6,500 Haligonians ready to witness one of Christine Sinclair’s last moments in a Canada jersey. Ninety minutes await. The moment is nearly here.