You can tell a lot about a country and its people by checking out a sporting event.The Cubans have baseball with boxing-style knockout chants. The Americans have massive football games where the entertainment is closer to a Hollywood action thriller. In Canada we have hockey, played in an atmosphere more suited to a crematorium.
Genuine throat-shredding, flag-waving enthusiasm is hard to come by, which is why it's so hard to equate the scenes on the streets of this city over the last five weeks of the World Cup with Toronto the Good -- and oh-so-staid.
It seems too obvious to say that the World Cup transformed Toronto -- the genius who invented those little flags that stick onto your car window will testify to that. What's truly shocking is the degree of the change and where it occurred.
You knew before the tournament began that the Portuguese, Brazilian and Italian fans would block off the streets and burn out their car horns at a moment's notice. The most raucous football fanatics, though, turned out to be the ones that, officially at least, no one knew about.
Looking for a place to watch South Korea's first game with Poland, the word from those I spoke to in the community was that Korean Canadians would either be watching at home or not at all.
In the Internet café Digital Fusion, owner Doug Sohn rigged up a small TV in the front of his shop. "I hope to get a few friends out," the soccer-mad Sohn intoned.
The next morning, the noise from the 50 or so gong-bashing fans dressed entirely in red, chanting, "Tae han min guk!" -- Republic of Korea -- and standing on top of Sohn's computer tables for a better look was deafening.
By the next game, Sohn had cleared out the computers and replaced the little box with a movie screen. The crowd spilled out onto the street as, across Bloor, Korean fans climbed onto roofs and cars, and quickly picked up the intuitive skill of following a World Cup win or draw by immediately getting into a car, driving around in circles and honking your horn with a flag the size of a minivan dangling out the window.
Who says different cultures don't have similar reference points?
Then there were the hundreds of Turkish fans who came out of the woodwork once Turkey made it into the semi-finals.
The rough-looking Club OV's on Queen West hardly seemed like the place where 300 or so crazed Turkish soccer fans would gather to sing and shout for their team, but the wall of noise that hit you upon opening the door was deafening.
Inside, there was a sea of red shirts, young men and women shouting Tur-ki-ye! while a marching band tried to raise the dead and a man with a megaphone shouted exhortations from the stage.
I'm about as Turkish as my cat, but it was hard not to feel a part of something.
Typically, Torontonian party-poopers who fought against bars serving drinks all night whined about the noise or wrote letters complaining about being woken up by the hoopla.
They will say this explosive outpouring of raw emotion, one that saw grown men weeping on the streets and 3,000 Korean fans cleaning up after their all-night street party, was an aberration, an unfortunate incident that only happens once every four years. Maybe so. But, Torontonians who never cared about Little Korea, now know such a place exists and might check it out.
I spent five weeks getting up in the middle of the night and crawling from pubs and bars to cafés, restaurants, a sports bar above a butcher shop and a gelateria on St. Clair West to watch games.
I ate burnt English sausages at 3 am, slurped down a bowl of kim chee while the sun rose, paid $20 for a seat and a roast beef sandwich in an Etobicoke Irish pub and drank dozens of cups of appalling coffee. World Cup fever is indeed a disease, but even the most jaded Torontonian had to come out of this whole experience with a big, shit-eating grin on his or her face.
Our city had never been this alive, and by the end of it Saturday afternoon, four years seemed like an awfully long time to wait for it all to happen again.