Burning up the pitch

JASON PAUL -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:47 AM ET

Melanie Booth. Candace Chapman. Diana Matheson. Stacey Janetos.

You may not be familiar with these names, but all four of these local soccer players might be competing at the Summer Olympics next year in Athens.

They also play in one of the top female soccer leagues in North America, for a team that may be the best-kept secret in Toronto.

These ladies may not make any money playing, but all 24 players on the Toronto Inferno give more than just their best efforts on the field.

Autographs, clinics and public appearances are all part of the job as they try to raise the profile of the W-League across the city.

\"Toronto is a tough (sports) market, but our players have been fantastic in supporting the team,\" said Tony Marmo, the Inferno\'s coach, president, director of soccer, part-owner and organizer of anything else that needs to be done. \"This is a high-calibre league that features national team players from countries all over the world.\"

The 26-team league is in cities across North America (Vancouver and Ottawa are the other Canadian teams) and is the next best league for female players behind the professional Women\'s United Soccer Association.

The Inferno, now in its fourth season, play its home games out of Birchmount Stadium in Scarborough. While attendance in the league ranges anywhere from a couple hundred to 3,000, the Inferno is rebuilding after a disastrous time last year when all home games were moved to Burlington because of a city workers\' strike.

\"That really put us behind the eight-ball,\" said Marmo, whose team drew 112 fans for their home-opener last weekend against the Rochester Ravens. \"These guys deserve to be supported and we have to find a way to get more fans in the seats.\"

There\'s no shortage of talent on the team. Booth, Chapman, and Matheson are all on the national team while two of the younger players -- Holly Lincoln and Robyn Gayle -- are on the under-19 squad.

Janetos, meanwhile, is on the Greek national team.

\"I wanted to play because of the high level of soccer,\" said Janetos, 24, who grew up in Scarborough and plays for Greece because of her dual citizenship. \"This year, we\'re hoping to get more publicity and slowly but surely become more known.\"

After the Inferno\'s win over Rochester, players spent almost an hour signing autographs for the large contingent of girls that showed up to watch.

\"That\'s great to see kids excited to come out and watch us play,\" said Inferno forward Tina Blaskovic, 31, who was the league MVP two years ago. \"It\'s tough when you sometimes play with no one in the stands.\"

Even tougher are the road trips the team faces every other weekend. During the team\'s last away game, the Inferno (3-0) spent all night on a bus travelling to New Jersey for a Sunday matinee against the Wildcats. After winning 1-0, the Inferno hopped back on the bus and pulled into Toronto at 5 a.m.

Some of the players were then off to their day jobs that same morning.

\"You get used to it,\" said Blaskovic, who makes her living as a tennis pro.

\"I have a pretty flexible job so it works out well.\"

Even though there are no salaries and all tickets are under $10 ($7 for adults, $5 for kids), it\'s a pretty expensive venture for Marmo\'s ownership group, which plops down more than $100,000 each year.

\"We just wanted to put something back into the game, sometimes we put in more than we want,\" Marmo said. \"It\'s not all fun and games, but I wouldn\'t change it for the world.\"


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