Italy failed to qualify for a second straight World Cup. But their fans in the GTA have a new team to cheer on
Published Sunday, November 20, 2022 6:00AM EST
Last Updated Sunday, November 20, 2022 7:04AM EST
The Italian men’s national team, the Azzurri (the blues), is one of the most successful and decorated programs in soccer history.
Shockingly, the team failed to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar for the second-straight tournament, leaving the thousands of die-hard Azzurri fans in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) disappointed.
But Canada has made the tournament this year for only the second time ever and many Italian-Canadians say they’re ready to throw their support behind the reds.
“There's no doubt in my mind, all of us in [the Italian] community are 100 per cent behind this Canadian team,” said Marco Antonucci, who grew up in the GTA and played professionally for Toronto Italia of the Canadian National Soccer League in the 1990s.
“[They’re] one of the most exciting teams right now. Back in the day, through the qualifying process, we were very disappointing, just because we just didn't have the infrastructure. We didn't have the programs in place to excel. I mean, 1986 was an anomaly, but now, looking forward for Canada, it's bright.”
Canada’s only other appearance in the World Cup was in Mexico in 1986. The Canadians failed to advance out of the group stage, losing all three of their games and not scoring a single goal.
“I always said as a kid, if Canada could just make a World Cup, I’m going to support Canada,” said Chandler Nicolucci, who grew up in Woodbridge and has been an Italy fan since he was a kid.
“Frankly, any [Italian-] Canadian, but particularly if you're second generation or third generation, you should be supporting Canada. You can support Italy, there's no problem with supporting two teams, but if they were playing each other in the World Cup, you should stick to Canada and support Canada. I will ultimately stick with Canada but I know it'll be a betrayal to a lot of friends.”
ITALY’S INTERNATIONAL SUCCESS
Italy have won the second-most FIFA World Cups ever, with four (tied with Germany), second only to Brazil who have won five.
And ever since the Azzurri won the second and third edition of the World Cup in 1934 and ’38, the country has been crazy about soccer.
That passion spread throughout the Italian diaspora across the globe, reaching major Canadian cities like Toronto.
“The Italians and soccer are kind of a mix in one. Soccer and the culture is one, really,” said Antonucci.
“There's disappointment in the Italian community. It's been eight years and [there’s] a lot of disappointment, especially knowing they have a really strong team. Not qualifying at this stage, it's heartbreaking and disappointing for sure, to say the least.”
Both Nicolucci and Antonucci say that one of the biggest reasons Italy has so many die-hard supporters is because they’ve had so many good teams.
“The reason I think that [Italian-Canadians] are so fixated on Italy is not only are we Italian, but we are notoriously good at the sport,” Nicolucci said.
Italy’s last two World Cup titles came in 1982 and 2006. Both saw massive celebrations across Toronto, the largest being in Little Italy on College Street and Corso Italia on St. Clair Avenue West.
Nicolucci was in high school when the Azzurri beat France on penalty kicks to win the World Cup in 2006. He watched the game at a jam-packed bar near St. Clair Avenue West and Dufferin Street.
“The joy of winning that 2006 World Cup in the penalties and watching that happen was just overwhelming,” he said.
“I remember just taking an [Italian] flag in the middle of St. Clair. I started waving it and I had to be one of the first 10 people out on the road. Then from every single angle, fans just flooded out like a mob or a zombie rush. It was just surreal. People were hanging off of lampposts and climbing all the way to the top. It was something I'd never seen before.”
Rocco Mastangelo Jr. is the owner of Café Diplomatico, a famous Little Italy restaurant and social hub, where fans have gathered to watch soccer for decades.
In 1982, his father owned an Italian cinema at St Clair and Dufferin, where hundreds had gathered to watch a broadcast of Italy versus West Germany in the World Cup final.
“The main cinema was about 900 seats and upstairs there was a second movie theater with 500 seats. I think I was about 10 or 11 years old and I was always working with my dad as a young kid. And I remember telling the ushers, ‘guys, open up all these exit doors,’ because the building was literally swaying,” Mastangelo Jr. said.
“We closed St. Clair and Dufferin within about 15 seconds after the game because there was 1,500 people that poured out of that one venue. And then there was three days of celebration.”
THE 2022 FIFA WORLD CUP
Café Diplomatico has branded itself as “soccer headquarters” for the World Cup, encouraging fans of any national team to come and watch the games.
But convincing fans to come out and support Canada in the November and December cold will be no small feat. The tournament is normally held in the summer, when people can watch the games outdoors on patios.
What’s more, the time difference between here and Qatar means many of the games will start in the mornings, sometimes as early as 5 a.m.
Still, Mastangelo Jr. says he expects fans to come out in full support of Canada, adding that he’s fully booked for all of Canada’s group stage games and is planning to keep his enclosed patio space open.
“We’ve got heaters, we’ve got the enclosure and we’ve got the roof. So, we're doing our best and we saw during covid that, especially Canadians, don't mind being out there when it's even minus one or minus two. So I expect the patio still to be very busy,” he said.
Mastangelo Jr. says Torontonians of all ethnic backgrounds come to Café Diplomatico to watch World Cup games and this year will be no different. But for the first time in almost 40 years, there will be a team they can all support together.
“I think there's going to be a lot of support for Canada and I do think that, let's say for example, if Portugal or England gets knocked out early and Canada is still in the tournament, they'll definitely cheer on Canada,” he said.
Pundits are divided on whether Canada will do well in the tournament this year and if they’ll get out of the group stage and into the knockout round.
They’re the worst-ranked team in their group, but many believe they have enough goal-scoring prowess to surprise opposing teams.
“I think that any 90 minute game can go either way. One mistake and it's game-over. So I think 100 per cent, we will get out of the group and in the next round,” Antonucci said.
“In any given game, we can knock off any team that's in this tournament. We've got the firepower up top. I think the backline we just need to secure a little stronger but I'm quietly excited about this team,”
While Italy has missed out on two straight World Cups, Canada is guaranteed a spot in the next tournament in 2026 as a co-hosting nation.
Assuming Italy can break the drought and is back in the World Cup in four years, the loyalty of Canadian Azzurri fans could face its first real test; if Canada and Italy were to face each other.
“My heart 100 per cent is with the Canadians as it is with the Italians but if they had to play each other – woah,” Antonucci said, laughing. “That would be a tough one, but I love both of those nations and both of those soccer communities for sure.”
Canada’s first game in the 2022 World Cup is set for 2 p.m. Wednesday against world number 2 ranked Belgium.