Soccer has always existed on the periphery of athletic life in Canada, perhaps a little more noticeable here than in the United States because of our closer relationship with Britain. We had varsity soccer teams in primary and secondary schools more often then we would have baseball teams.
Of course hockey was the sport that almost everyone played as a kid, but we all played enough soccer to learn some of the more arcane rules, like offsides and what was supposed to merit a penalty or not. But not even the arrival of the first wave of European immigrants did little too change the priorities of Canadians when it came to sport.
I remember during the seventies there was an attempt made to start a professional soccer league in Canada, but I don't think it survived for very long. International matches were few and far between, and when the Canadian team did play any games in Toronto, immigrants from their opposition's country usually outnumbered their fans and the players would complain about never having home field advantage.
Even initial success of the North American Soccer League, which featured Pele as a star attraction, faded after his retirement in 1977. Soccer still had not captured the public's imagination in North America unlike the rest of the world where it reigned supreme.
Even the World Cup failed to make that much of an impression on Canadians for the longest time. Most Canadians used to the fast pace of hockey just couldn't find anything exciting about watching two teams of eleven men wander around a field seemingly kicking a ball about at random. The occasional burst of action would be followed by fifteen minutes of what appeared to be unsurpassed tedium.
Not having been nurtured on it as we had been on hockey, or even baseball and football, the whole thing seemed meaningless. If you don't play a sport on a regular basis, or have continual exposure to it, it is much harder to understand and appreciate it without any outside motivation. I'm sure that if Canada had been more competitive internationally, more Canadians would have made the effort to learn about the game.
Like a lot of major metropolitan centres across North America, Toronto, Ontario experienced a boom of European immigration in the post-World War Two period. As the city was going through a massive building boom, and the subway system was being constructed and expanded, there was a great demand for skilled masons and other labourers who we just didn't have.
This demand was met by thousands of Italian immigrants looking to put their skills to work and the Canadian government's active search for skilled labour to help with our postwar boom. By the time 1982 rolled around, Toronto had the second largest Italian speaking population of any city in the world outside of Rome.
1982 was the year that soccer came to Toronto and never left again. It was the year that Italy won the World Cup and it might as well have been played in Toronto considering the way the fever that gripped the Italian fans gradually seeped out into the lives of the rest of the city. In the confusion of the first round, the World Cup still managed to stay below the radar of most Torontonians who did not have a connection to a team involved in play.
But once the second round commenced there was no way to avoid getting wrapped up in the excitement. You need to understand a little about how Toronto is laid out to see how it was possible for this to happen easily. Toronto has three Little Italies strategically placed throughout the city: the original downtown location, one slightly to the North where people moved when they had earned enough money to move out of the "old neighbourhood", and another one in the suburbs.
Each neighbourhood has its own block of cafés, bars, and restaurants to cater to the community. Whenever the Azzurri (the Italian national football team) were scheduled to play, these streets were deserted as the bars and cafés were filled to the bursting point. At the game's successful conclusion, patrons would sweep out into the streets and into their vehicles and begin impromptu parades through Toronto.
Flags were waved and horns were honked as the caravans snaked through all three neighbourhoods spreading the excitement. Formally staid Torontonians were faced with the choice of trying to pretend they didn't exist, or give in and join the party. They camped in front of their television sets in the middle of the afternoon, something none of them had probably done for a sporting event since a decade earlier when Canada had struggled to beat the Soviet Union in the first match up between pro hockey players and the Communist team.
But now instead of cheering for their heroes to race up the ice, they were desperately trying to figure out what was happening on the screen in front of them. All a lot of them knew was the folk in the sky blue uniforms – hence Azzurri – were the ones they had to hope scored.
The dyed-in-the-wool fans had suffered through a preliminary round that almost saw the elimination of their stalwarts, and their chances didn't look much better for the round robin leading up to the final. Their first opponent was the previous cup-winning Argentina, and hope was pretty thin on the ground.
At every World Cup one player will indelibly mark himself in the memories of the observers. Either through indomitable courage or goal scoring he will rise above the rest of the field and make the cup irrevocably linked to his name. 1982 was the year of Italian striker Paolo Rossi. Having just barely qualified for the team after serving a two-year suspension for his participation in a betting scandal, his lacklustre performance in the opening round had Italians calling for his replacement.
Even Italy's 2-1 win over Argentina didn't do too much to improve the outlook. Next up was perennial powerhouse Brazil, who was everyone's pre-tournament favourite to win. They had been playing up to their billing and looked like they should have had an easy time of it with Italy. But it was now time for Paolo Rossi to take centre stage. He scored all three goals in Italy's 3-2 triumph over Brazil which guaranteed the Azzurri a trip to the semifinal against Poland.
Thousands of beaming Italians jammed the streets and the first of the impromptu cavalcades that were to be the hallmark of all the ensuing celebrations took to the streets. Overnight people who had only ever memorized the exploits of hockey players had a new hero. Paolo Rossi had been completely unknown to most Canadians one day, and the next his name was on the lips of almost every citizen in Toronto.
Following the stunning upset of Brazil it seemed that Italy winning the World Cup was now a foregone conclusion. When Paolo Rossi scored both of their goals in their semi final victory over Poland he assured himself immortality. Italy's 3–1 victory over Germany, with Rossi scoring the opening goal, was almost anticlimactic, but still set off a celebration that made the two previous victory parties pale in comparison. Celebrations started before the final whistle and continued on well into the next day.
It was Toronto's, and Canada's, first real exposure to the excitement of what the World Cup of soccer is all about. For the period of a week we got to live the excitement and drama of one of sports true world championships. Our eyes were opened to the appeal of what we knew as soccer and the rest of the world called football.
Watching a team like Brazil build an attack in waves, always moving the ball forward, and players with it, exerting continual pressure until their opponent falters and the buildup ends with an attempt on goal was like watching the tide come in, ebbing back and than surging even further forward on each occasion until finally they swamp the other team's end and keeper.
Italy was more the cut and thrust of a rapier duel. Quick strikes; feints in one direction and moves to the other, until a man was freed for a shot through on the goal. While the Brazilians worked forward as a team, and required only good finishing around the goal in order to succeed, the Italians were dependent on the mercurial temperament and abilities of their strikers. As their fortunes went so did the Azzurri's.
Which is what made Paolo Rossi the centrepiece of the Italy's triumph. His first games in two years and his struggles to find his feet in the opening round exposed the weakness in the Italian game offensively. But with the return of his scoring touch in the second phase they became unbeatable.
There hasn't been a World Cup since 1982 that has captured the imagination of Torontonians or Canadians since than in the same manner, but that's not what's important. What's important is that football now means something more than three or four attempts to move a pointy ball up a field in ten-yard increments. Our newspapers now assign more than just one reporter to the games who would re-write wire service copy or watch the games on television. This year the Globe and Mail has sent a team of four of five reporters to Germany to cover all aspects of the game: the results, the stories behind the scenes, and the local colour.
But it's not just our attitude towards the World Cup that's changed; it's our whole attitude towards the game. Parents are discovering what other people around the world have known for ages — it costs very little to outfit your child to play soccer as compared to any other sport. There's also the fact that unlike hockey, football, baseball, and basketball, there are more opportunities for all children to play, as initially all that is required is an ability to run in the right direction. (Okay, that's a simplification but you know what I mean.)
In fact, horror of horrors, more young people are probably signing up to play soccer in Canada than hockey. To outfit a kid to play hockey these days could cost upwards of $1,000 and than that will all have to be replaced when they grow out of their first and second sets of equipment. As they grow older the equipment has to become more sophisticated to offer the necessary protection, and becomes more expensive.
The soccer parent has to maybe buy their child a new pair of cleats and shin pads every so often as they grow. Their kids are getting plenty of fresh air and exercise and none of the strange pressures to succeed that hockey brings out in people. Presently soccer may not have the popularity in Canada to sustain anything more than a few teams in a professional league, but it's getting there.
As more and more kids grow up learning how to play and the rules become second nature as hockey did with previous generations, they will want to be able to watch or even play soccer at a higher level. Canada needs to somehow take advantage of this development to encourage the growth of our national program so that we can compete on the world stage.
I don't know if soccer would have caught on at the same speed in Canada if not for the 1982 success of the Italian national soccer team. But I do know that since that time there has been a steady increase in the interest shown towards soccer by people in Canada who have no affiliations with any teams in Europe.
Canada may not have ever won a World Cup, but for a glorious ten days we felt the emotion and exhilaration that are the positives of European and World soccer. It didn't matter if you were Italian or not, the Azzurri were our team and Paolo Rossi our hero. It was truly our introduction to the glorious world of football.