World Cup fever


For Aidan Closs, it was a matter of honor. Last week, after Norway beat football powerhouse Brazil 2-1 in first-round play of the World Cup in France, the Toronto graphic artist and ardent supporter of Norway’s soccer team hopped onto his bicycle for a display of bravado. Waving his hand-colored, red, blue and white Norwegian flag, Closs cycled repeatedly past some Brazilian fans moving to the samba beat of drums on a Toronto sidewalk after the game. “I thought I’d rub it in their faces,” says the 28-year-old Closs. The Brazilian supporters, whose team had already earned a place in the round of 16 thanks to two earlier victories, barely noticed Closs. What did get their attention—and elicited some jeers—were several carloads of Italian flag-wavers. Earlier the same day, Italy’s 2-1 victory over Austria had ensured it, too, would move on to the next round. The win also sparked a giant street party in Toronto’s Italian district that closed a major thoroughfare to traffic and diverted vehicles into other neighborhoods, including those of archrivals.

All in all, a typical day in Toronto, a city gripped by World Cup fever. The championship is one of the world’s premier sporting events. Some 193 member nations—12 more than belong to the United Nations— began vying for a place in this year’s competition not long after the 1994 World Cup in the United States. Thirty-two countries, including host France, qualified for the tournament, which began on June 10 in the Stade de France in a northern suburb of Paris, where it also winds up on July 12. Canada is not among them, but the nation’s multicultural makeup ensures that many Canadians still have a team to cheer for, whether it is one representing their own birthplace or that of their parents, grandparents or friends.

Nowhere in Canada is the whooping louder and the flag-waving more frenzied than in Toronto. According to figures from the 1996 census released by Statistics Canada last February, 11.2 per cent of Canadians iden-

The two teams met in the 1994 final, with Brazil winning in a shootout. And although Brazilians in Toronto number just in the thousands, their ranks are swelled by one of the

tified themselves as a visible minority. The report noted that 94 per cent live in metropolitan areas, mostly in and around Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. Of the three cities, Toronto is home to the widest array of visible minorities and immigrant groups. But what really kicks football fever into the stratosphere in Toronto is that the city is home to two large, ardent groups of fans of the World Cup’s most dominant teams: Brazil, which has won four of the 16 quadrennial events, and Italy, which has three victories. city’s largest immigrant groups, the Portuguese, with whom they share the language. Supporters of Brazil and Italy have staked out large neighborhoods just west and northwest of the downtown core—with a butcher shop on College Street indicating the demarcation point. On one side of the store a sign reads, “La casa del prosciutto,” and on the other, “La caso do presunto”—Italian and Portuguese for, roughly, “house of ham.” Businesses large and small are cashing in. Many sports bars and restaurants have set up large-screen TVs, and some are showing direct satellite feeds, either from Globo in Brazil or RAI in Italy. Global shoemanufacturer Nike, trying to dent the soccer-gear dominance of rivals Adidas and Umbro, is taking advantage of the area’s football fever. It has blanketed 75 bus shelters and billboards with ads that, depending

on location, cater to either group of fans. Among the pro-Italy ads, for instance, is one that states: “Brazil will get to kiss the trophy. Goodbye.” A pro-Brazil version reads: “Italia will not go home empty-handed. We’ll exchange shirts first.”

For the most part, the rivalries have been good-natured. But in France, about 60 British fans were arrested after going on a rampage when England played Tunisia on June 15. At week’s end, a French policeman continued to be in a coma after being severely beaten by German soccer hooligans on June 21. In Toronto, where the police have been a highly visible but low-key presence during the games, there have been few arrests, and those for only minor infractions. On Toronto’s all-sports radio station, The

Fan 590, some callers—and some talk-show hosts as well—have questioned the loyalty of Canadians and even recent immigrants to Canada who root vociferously for the old country. Still, program director Nelson Millman claims

That, it seems, is exactly what is happening. According to the Canadian Soccer Association, soccer is now the biggest participation sport in Canada, with 585,785 registered players in 1997,50,000 more than hockey. Association spokesman Ehsan Hosseini hopes that increased participation translates into a Canadian team playing in the World Cup in 2002, which will be held in Japan and South Korea—and which will, no doubt, result in another bout of soccer fever.

the talk is not as virulent as in 1994. “They’ve toned it down a little,” he said, “as we’ve all gotten more used to soccer.”


Soccer fans take over the city’s streets