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The NOW What podcast convenes a panel on football culture in the wake of Italy's city-shaking victory on Sunday.
If you were in Toronto’s Italian neighbourhoods on Sunday – Little Italy downtown, or Corso Italia a little further north – your afternoon and evening might have been a little chaotic. Italy beat England in the Euro Cup final. The Italian community in Toronto went wild. And for a few very noisy hours it felt like European football mattered to everyone.
And in this city, football really does matter to a lot of people. Italian supporters who were over the moon, and fans of England who had to watch as that team’s supporters turned on its players of colour, blaming them for the loss. Does that have to be part of football culture as well, and how does it impact Canadian kids from racialized communities dreaming of a future on the pitch?
On the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, teacher and coach Ainsley Romany and the Toronto Star’s Brendan Dunlop joined me to talk about what the Euro Cup meant to this city, and whether that racial backlash is something that’s felt here as well.
“I have been subject to that from time to time, and throughout my career,” says Romany, who coaches at Orangeville’s Athlete Institute. “On small levels, not on the level in which those boys have [experienced it]. But I think as a community, we just have to educate ourselves and educate our kids in how to problem solve; how to speak your feelings, speak your truths, and just be hopeful that at some point in time we won’t have to talk about this anymore. We’ll just talk about, ‘Okay, well, it was a player who missed the shot.’ Why do we have to talk about his colour? He’s just he’s part of a team.
“My heart goes out to them because they don’t deserve it,” Romany continues. “Nineteen years old on one of the biggest stages of their lives, the spotlight on you and having to go through that.”
“Seeing the organizations come out and condemn that, and support and work with police services to find these abusers and hold them accountable, that’s something that was far too slow,” Dunlop says. “What’s unfortunate is that it seems as though these incidents are increasingly predictable. There’s a lot of similarities, I think, between what’s going on in England to what we’ve watched south of the border in the United States. There’s a lot more similarities, I think, than people might realize … [and] you see that boil to the surface at these major events. You see that in soccer. And it really has been an unfortunate thing.”
“It’s a big argument with sports that the paying fan is entitled to to heckle and berate the players because he’s paid his money,” Dunlops says. “I do think that there’s a range [of heckling] which is tolerable – but racism absolutely is not. That’s immediately offside.”
But it tracks with a trend of English fans being empowered to exercise their worst impulses – Dunlop points out they’ve spent this past season heckling players who take a knee before the match, with the tacit approval of politicians like Boris Johnson and Priti Patel, who’d decried the “gesture politics” of civil protest – that connects to a surge in obnoxious nationalism, with English fans booing the national anthems of visiting teams as well.
“I was listening to England and Germany on the radio,” he recalls. “I love to listen to radio broadcasts of soccer, the commentary is so much different than the television [broadcast]. And you could not hear the German national anthem at all. It didn’t even sound like there was a song being played. All you heard was boos and sneers and jeers.”
Both Romany and Dunlop want to bring the game – and its young, impressionable players – back to the idealistic version that inspired them when they were kids. And the key to that is today’s aspiring athletes seeing players who look like them out on the pitch.
“I’m from Scarborough,” Romany says. “Growing up, my mom put me in soccer because she couldn’t afford anything else. And fortunately for me, I had a gang of kids in my age group that played the game, loved the game and were good at the game. One of those was [former Marseille and Toronto FC midfielder] Julian de Guzman, who’s my best friend, and being a part of his upbringing and seeing how soccer was so important to him and his brother [Jonathan] kind of propelled me to continue in the game, to grow the game as best as I could.”
“What’s so interesting about this period that Canadian soccer is in,” says Dunlop, “is now you can see representation: it’s people from your community playing in the biggest teams in the world.”
In addition to de Guzman brothers, he points to Alphonso Davies, who went from the Vancouver Whitecaps to Germany’s Bayern Munich. “He’s one of the best left-backs in the world, and he only started playing that position – a very specialized position – 18 months ago. And to see the success and the diversity of players from different provinces, from different cultural backgrounds, from different economic situations in Canada … you know, the game has had a lot of issues in [terms of] growth and access. And I feel as though some of those barriers are falling.”
NOW What is NOW Magazine’s twice-weekly podcast. New episodes are available Tuesdays and Fridays.