Sunday, September 16, 2007

Fair Play

Way down deep, beneath all the money and corporate stuff that has grown up around our sport, there is a simple game: a ball, a net, some lines and some feet. Watching young boys play the sport reminds you of that.

My boy, "Benito" Gramsci, is keeper for the Toronto Eagles' U-10 team (above, at a recent tourney at BMO field). It's a team with the ethnic diversity of a G-14 squad: despite Eagles' being nominally a Portuguese club, it also has kids with Trinidadian, Jamaican, Argentinian, Ukranian, Greek, Colombian, Croatian, and Chinese and plain old Anglo heritage as well. Welcome to Toronto. The coach has taught them in the best traditions of Portuguese football: short passing, compact lines and hard tackling (one or two lads in particular are capable of maiming with deftly-placed hip checks and as keeper, Benito's Lehmann-esque sprints to meet oncoming through balls have resulted in more than one opponent being knocked silly).

The football at this level is pretty good in Canada - probably on a par with anything you'll see anywhere in the world. The top Toronto teams, up to about age 13 or 14, do reasonably well at international tournaments (I know kids that age here who've been offered contracts at places like Cruzeiro). Crapness only sets in later, when the so-called "professional" coaches of the CSA and OSA bring their northern-English values into the rigid structures of top-level youth football, and speed and skill are largely discarded in favour of power and size. Good players - really good players who want to make a living from football - more or less have to travel overseas to continue their training, as Owen Hargreaves and the De Guzman brothers did.

And so to yesterday's TSA Cup Final, played at the God-awful Flemingdon park in unseasonably frigid weather against League winners-elect Leaside. I'll spare you the details. 4-2 to the Eagles, our top striker opening the scoring with an acute-angled toe-punt that was prettier than any goal scored at BMO this season, and Gramsci Junior making a spectacular save late in the game.

Happy as our boys were, what struck me most about this game was the losing team. This was the most high-stakes game of the season, but they were gracious in defeat, and laughing and joking with each other and in some cases even chatting to the winners within just a few minutes of the end of the game. It was highly competitive, but fundamentally friendly.

I could put that down to there being two good sets of "supporters' clubs" present - not insignificant since the Toronto league has its share of nightmare parents (one team got hit with a $200 fine this year because their parents were so obnoxious - and we've had opposing parents escorted from our indoor facility for such things as threatening to "disappear" our coach and - I shit you not - charging onto the field to attack one of our then-eight-year-old players).

But I don't think that was it. This was just two groups of kids who respected each other and who didn't confuse competitiveness and rivalry with actual antagonism. And who love the playing the game as they love to win it.

In an age where kids get too many messages about gamesmanship from watching pro sports and popular culture, that doesn't always happen (I, for instance, let Gramsci Junior watch Victory at far too young an age, and he still voices lurid fantasies about bent refs every time his team loses). But it did yesterday, and that was at least as nice to see as our boys' hands on the Cup.


Anonymous ursus arctos said...

Forza Aquila!

Tanti complimenti to Gramsci piccolo.

And kudos to his opponents for showing that they understand what the game is really all about.

As an aside, you don't see very many Benitos of his vintage here. Something to do with that unpleasantness at Piazza Loreto (and the 20 years that preceded it).

2:55 AM  
Blogger Antonio G said...


But his real name is too Heeb to have an Italian equivalent. Benito was as close as I could get.

10:01 AM  
Anonymous ursus arctos said...

Hmmm. I know a guy named Shlomo who has never left Italy, but . . .

I'm intrigued by your description of the Eagles. The name and badge clearly indicate a very strong Benfica influence at the time they were founded, but they have just as clearly moved away from any such obvious associations.

Do you know anything about how that happened? Was it a conscious decision to become more inclusive, or more of an organic development? Were the colours always gold, navy and white, or were they once the Lisboa Eagles red and white?

I find it particularly interesting that this success story is being acted out in the city that still bears the legacy of Toronto Metros-Croatia.

3:02 AM  
Blogger Antonio G said...

Yeah, but “Shlomo” ends in a vowel so it might as well be Italian.

Ethnic football in Toronto is an intriguing question, worthy of at least a Master’s Thesis. Most football clubs in Toronto began as ethnic associations. Some remain so. Toronto Falcons are exclusively Serbian, Sporting are Portuguese, etc. A lot of Latin clubs choose not even to play in the TSA leagues and have formed their own league, which still attracts a lot of younger players. A few, like Leaside and Islington, are primarily geographic but these, being in largely WASP-y neighbourhoods, tend to attract mainly anglo players.

The Eagles are in many respects still a Portuguese club (and as far as I know yellow-blue-gold were always their colours). Most of the senior positions are filled by guys either names Silva or Da Silva. And as recently as eight years ago it was still controversial to select non-Portuguese-speaking (they’d let in Brazilians) players on to the rep teams. But their position as the largest club in downtown Toronto meant that – eventually - they had to become open to people from a lot of different nationalities. And this opening has been very successful for our club, as it has been for some other clubs (like the bizarrely-named “Hearts-Azzurri”) that have gone multi-ethnic.

Then there are hybrid teams. Ethnic groups that don’t have their own club infrastructure sometimes play under someone else’s colours (sort of like using a flag of convenience); the Eagles’ third team, for instance, is actually entirely Eritrean.

Toronto Croatia still exists and plays in the Canadian Soccer League (a level below the USL) but to my knowledge it does not field youth teams.

5:46 PM  

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