Italy failed to qualify for a second consecutive World Cup. But his fans in GTA have a new team to cheer on.

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The Italian men’s 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 tournament in a row, leaving the thousands of die-hard Azzurri fans in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) disappointed.

But Canada has reached the tournament this year for the second time and many Italian-Canadians say they are ready to throw their support behind the Reds.

“There is no doubt in my mind, all of us in [the Italian] The community supports this Canadian team 100 percent,” 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. In the past, during the qualification process, we have been very disappointed, simply because we did not have the infrastructure. We didn’t have the programs set to excel. I mean, 1986 was an anomaly, but now, looking at Canada, it’s brilliant.”

Canada’s only other World Cup appearance 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 do a World Cup, I’m going to support Canada,” said Chandler Nicolucci, who grew up in Woodbridge and has been a fan of Italy since he was a child.

“Frankly, any [Italian-] Canadian, but particularly if you are second or third generation, you should support Canada. You can support Italy, there is no problem supporting two teams, but if they were playing each other in the World Cup, you should stay with Canada and support Canada. Ultimately I will stay with Canada, but I know it will be a betrayal for many friends.”

THE INTERNATIONAL SUCCESS OF ITALY

Italy have won the second most FIFA World Cups, with four (tied with Germany), second only to Brazil who have won five.

And ever since the Azzurri won the second and third editions of the World Cup in 1934 and ’38, the country has gone football mad.

That passion spread through the Italian diaspora around the world, reaching major Canadian cities like Toronto.

“Italians and football are a kind of mixture in one. Football and culture are one, really,” Antonucci said.

“There is disappointment in the Italian community. Eight years have passed and [there’s] much disappointment, especially knowing that they have a really strong team. Not qualifying at this stage is heartbreaking and disappointing to say the least.”

Both Nicolucci and Antonucci say that one of the main reasons Italy has such a die-hard supporter is because it has had so many good teams.

“The reason why I think that [Italian-Canadians] they are so obsessed with Italy that we are not only 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 in Toronto, the biggest 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 penalties to win the World Cup in 2006. He watched the game in a packed bar near St. Clair Avenue West and Dufferin Street.

“The joy of winning the 2006 World Cup on penalties and seeing it happen was overwhelming,” he said.

I remember taking a [Italian] flag in the middle of St. Clair. I started waving it up and I had to be one of the first 10 people to hit the road. Then, from all angles, the fans were just swamped like a crowd or a zombie run. It was just surreal. People hung from the lampposts and climbed to the top. It was something I had never seen before.”

Rocco Mastangelo Jr. is the owner of Café Diplomatico, a popular Little Italy restaurant and social hub where fans have gathered to watch football for decades.

In 1982, his father owned an Italian cinema in 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 had about 900 seats and upstairs there was a second cinema with 500 seats. I think I was about 10 or 11 years old and I was always working with my dad when I was a kid. And I remember telling the ushers, ‘guys, open all these exit doors,’ because the building was literally swaying,” Mastangelo Jr. said.

“We closed St. Clair and Dufferin about 15 seconds into the game because there were 1,500 people coming out of that location. And then there were three days of celebration.”

THE FIFA WORLD CUP 2022

Café Diplomático has billed itself as the “soccer venue” for the World Cup, encouraging fans of any national team to come watch the games.

But convincing the fans to come out and support Canada in the cold of November and December will be no small feat. The tournament is usually held in the summer, when people can watch the games outside on the patios.

Also, the time difference between here and Qatar means that many of the games will start in the morning, sometimes as early as 5am.

Still, Mastangelo Jr. says he hopes the fans will fully support Canada, adding that he is fully booked for all of Canada’s group stage games and plans to keep his enclosed patio open.

“We have heaters, we have the enclosure and we have the roof. So we’re doing the best we can and we saw during covid that especially Canadians don’t mind being outside when it’s minus one or minus two. So I hope the yard is still very busy,” she said.

Mastangelo Jr. says Torontonians of all ethnic backgrounds come to the Diplomat Cafe to watch World Cup games and this year will be no different. But for the first time in nearly 40 years, there will be a team everyone can root for together.

Diplomatic Cafe

“I think there’s going to be a lot of support for Canada and I think, let’s say for example, if Portugal or England get knocked out early and Canada is still in the tournament, they’ll definitely root for Canada,” he said. she said.

Pundits are divided on whether Canada will do well in the tournament this year and whether they will exit the group stage and proceed to the knockout round.

They are the lowest ranked team in their group, but many believe they have enough goalscoring prowess to surprise opposing teams.

“I think any 90-minute game can go either way. One mistake and it’s game over. So I think 100 percent, we will get out of the group and into the next round,” Antonucci said.

“In any given game, we can eliminate any team that is in this tournament. We have the firepower above. I think the back line just needs to be secured a little tighter, but I’m quietly excited about this team.”

While Italy has missed two consecutive World Cups, Canada is guaranteed a place in the next tournament in 2026 as a co-host country.

Assuming Italy can break the drought and return to the World Cup in four years, the loyalty of the Azzurri’s Canadian fans could face its first real test; if Canada and Italy met.

“My heart is 100 percent with the Canadians as it is with the Italians, but if they were to play each other, wow,” Antonucci said, laughing. “That would be difficult, but I love those two nations and both soccer communities for sure.”

Canada’s first match at the 2022 World Cup is scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday against world number 2 Belgium.


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