Fanatics

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:33 AM ET

It is a drizzly spring afternoon and disaster has struck the Glasgow Celtic Supporters Club in Scarborough.

The taps runneth dry. The club's inventory of Guinness has disappeared. Sound the alarm.

Hell hath no fury like thirsty soccer fans. Behind these doors guzzling a pint and watching the big game is an undeniable rite of passage. To be here without their favourite brew would be blasphemous. This dilemma calls for quick thinking. Sure enough, one phone call and the problem is solved.

"The Rangers supporters club sent some Guinness over to help us out," the bartender said.

Did we hear right? Rangers supporters helping their Celtic brethren? These are two of the most bitter rivals in all of sport, a disdain fanned by the historical religious differences between the Protestant-backed Rangers and Catholic-supported Celtic.

"If this were Scotland, accepting (beer) from a Rangers club would be unacceptable," Ron McGarry, the president of the Glasgow Celtic Supporters Club of Toronto, said. "But here we need each other. Without the rivalry we would have nothing. We work together. They send cheques to support our charities and we do the same."

Yes, the two clubs share common goals -- to a point.

"Everybody here knows their people and they know us," Arnold McMillan, vice-president of the Glasgow Rangers of Canada, Toronto Branch, said. "For the most part, we're all friends."

Except ...

"Except for that one day when Rangers and Celtic meet. On that day we hate each other."

Such a day occurred April 24. Final score: Celtic 2, Rangers 1.

"Once the whistle goes for that game, ---- them!" McGarry said, echoing the sentiments of the majority of fans from both sides.

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The Rangers-Celtic rivalry underscores the passion for soccer that brews in southern Ontario.

Within minutes of Greece's Cinderella championship at Euro 2004, the Danforth was clogged by a sea of euphoric flag-waving Greeks. Brazil captured the 2002 World Cup and College St. became the stage for green-and-yellow clad fans to revel. And whenever Italy wins a big game during an international competition, drivers are advised to avoid the intersection of Dufferin St. and St. Clair Ave.

Such allegiances tick off many naysayers who claim those living within Canada's borders should funnel their emotions behind Canadian teams. They may have a point, but it will take more than criticism to keep these fans from pouring out their enthusiasm.

From Woodbridge to Oshawa they have established support clubs in honour of their beloved sides. Celtic, Rangers, Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspurs, AC Milan, Juventus and Roma are among the squads with southern Ontario-based organizations backing them.

Some, like Celtic, Rangers and AC Milan, run their own establishments where supporters can congregate. The Man U Supporters Club of Canada has a PR man. Most of the clubs have established websites or are in the process of developing them.

Given all this underlying fanatism, it's no surprise that the available televised soccer coverage from around the world has exploded in this market.

While such programming, aside from the odd highlight show, once was the specialty of the various ethnic stations, there is no shortage of it now. Sportsnet has weekly games from England and holds the Canadian rights to the 2006 World Cup; The Score provides an informative daily world report; Fox Sports World Canada shows games from around the globe; and TSN is enjoying lucrative ratings for its Champions League coverage. TSN reports an increase of 14,000 viewers per Champions League game, including 22,000 per playoff match, from a year ago.

So what's the deal with all this soccer-mania?

While visiting many of the clubs over the course of a week, we discovered one common thread: A passion for the teams -- and the sport -- they love.

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Do we need to check our flares at the door? Robert Iaruschi, realizing the question is nothing more than a good-natured joke, is not offended by the inference. But he is not laughing, either.

We have come to a quaint establishment in Woodbridge to join rabid Italian fans watch AC Milan meet Dutch side PSV Eindhoven in a semi-final game of the European Champions League.

AC Milan reached this stage after defeating city rival Inter Milan in a quarter-final marred by an ugly incident in which flares were hurled on to the pitch from the stands. One struck the AC Milan goaltender, who narrowly avoided becoming a toasted marshmallow in cleats.

Patrons here at the 90 Minuto Sports Bar are quick to express their disgust at the behaviour.

"How the (bleep) do they get those flares in the stands in the first place?" Iaruschi, wearing an irritated look, asked.

"Back in October I was in Italy to see an Inter-Roma game at the Olympic Stadium. The fans were throwing flares at each other. Disgusting. We certainly don't condone that here."

Iaruschi's mood lightened as we entered the bar. One step through the door and he was greeted by a swarm of well-wishers who acknowledged the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame member.

"There are dozens of these places now where Italians go to watch their respective teams," said Iaruschi, who played with soccer greats such as Franz Beckenbauer, Pele and Eusebio and won four North American Soccer League championships -- three with the New York Cosmos, the other with the 1976 Toronto Metros Croatia. "There are places like the AC Ranch at Dufferin and St. Clair but, with so many Italians having moved to places like Woodbridge, the fan base is fragmented between different venues."

While AC Milan might be on the big TV screen at the front of the room, this is the same venue where the Juventus supporters club holds its meetings. Pino Albi, manager of the 90 Minuto Sports Bar, noted that 100 Juventus and Milan supporters from the Toronto area dropped $2,000 each to attend a game between the teams in Italy last weekend.

"When Milan and Juventus meet, we'll be like cats and dogs," Filippo Gravina, a committee member with the AC Milan supporters club of Toronto, said. "But it's just talk. We're not hooligans."

The game ends. AC Milan has defeated PSV 2-0 and there are smiles all around. Joe Daloisio, president of the Milan supporters club, predicts the club's headquarters, near Sheppard Ave. and Weston Rd., will be packed to the rafters cheering on their heroes for the Champions League final on May 25.

In the ensuing glee, Iaruschi asks what is next on the agenda. Told that a visit with Liverpool supporters is on tap for the following day, he laughs.

"You'll see those English guys singing in front of the screen," Iaruschi said. "I love those guys."

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It is rush hour in Toronto and the corner of Yonge St. and St. Clair Ave. has been transformed into a sea of red.

Liverpool supporters, proudly wearing their team's crimson jerseys, are pouring on to the streets after watching their team play Chelsea to a 0-0 draw in the opening leg of a Champions League semi-final.

Packed into Scallywags, the establishment that serves as the home base for the Toronto branch of the Liverpool Supporter's Club, it's surprising that any of these patrons have voices left after screaming at television screens for much of the afternoon.

They sing. They clap. They chant. And when the satellite signal momentarily fizzles, one leather-lunged fan screams, "Free pints for everyone!"

Graham Wignall, vice-president of the Toronto branch of the Liverpool supporters club, estimates his organization has about 200 members. There are similar branches in Vancouver, Calgary and Ottawa.

"Along with our (line of clothing products), former Liverpool players like Ian St. John and Ron Yeats have come over and met our fans," Wignall said of the benefits of being a member.

Scallywags also serves as the home for Spurs Canada, the supporters club of Tottenham Hotspurs.

Formed in 1999, Spurs Canada, a relatively new organization, has about 70 members across Canada.

"The Liverpool Supporter's Club are good blokes," Spurs Canada's Duncan Rowe said.

At least until the next Liverpool-Spurs game.

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Most P.R. people dress in suits for their job. David Coleman sports a Manchester United jersey. And he's proud of it.

As an official representative of the Manchester United Supporters Club of Canada, he wears his emotions on his sleeve. During any televised Man U game at the Main Event, the organization's headquarters in the Yonge-Eglinton area, he often can be heard bellowing at the screen.

"Being a Man U supporter is a way of life," Coleman said, adding the famous team is considered to be the most valuable sporting franchise in the world.

The following for Man U is amazing, even in Canada.

The Man U Supporters Club of Canada features an estimated 6,000 members and includes chapters in places like Vancouver and Winnipeg. Hundreds are expected to clog the Main Event for the F.A. Cup final between Manchester United and Arsenal on May 21.

There are yearbooks, golf shirts, pins and membership cards, all sporting the Manchester United logo. But there is one fringe benefit to members that stands beyond the rest.

"We can guarantee members tickets to Man U games at Old Trafford," Coleman said. "They are sold out every game. Unless you are a member, you can't get tickets."

Good selling point.

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Manchester United's storied past is not impressing Ron McGarry of the Celtic supporters club.

Sitting in his office in the Midland Ave.-Hwy. 401 area, a wry grin creeps over his face when told of a reporter's visit to the United supporters club.

"The telephone booth at Lawrence Ave. and Victoria Park is the headquarters of the Man U supporters club ... that is, if all three of them show up," McGarry said with a laugh.

McGarry has reason to chuckle.

Of the various supporters clubs sprinkled throughout the GTA, those linked with Celtic and Rangers have the most ideal setup.

Located just three kilometres apart, the two organizations have their own clubhouses, complete with televisions, satellite dishes and bars.

On this day, Celtic is en route to dropping a 3-1 decision to Hibernia. The joint is packed with patrons wearing green-and-white striped jerseys.

A woman's voice can be heard yelling "twit" whenever a Celtic player screws up.

Two framed plaques signify that the club owns shares in the publicly owned Celtic franchise. One certificate dangles above the women's restroom, the other over the liquor closet.

"Those are the two most important rooms in the place," one fan said with a mischievous grin.

Aside from the various autographed jerseys adorning the walls, the most impressive sight is a plaque of recognition from a local charity. Both the Celtic and Rangers clubs have raised thousands in support of worthy causes over the years.

Like their Celtic rivals, the Toronto branch of the Glasgow Rangers support club of Toronto was formed in the late 1960s. After bouncing back and forth between a variety of venues, it settled into impressive digs in the Ellesmere Rd.-Bellamy Rd. area.

"The beauty of this club, for many, is that it is like their rec room," Rangers club vice-president Arnold McMillan said. "They come to watch the games, see their buddies and attend other functions like dances, darts and billiards."

McMillan pointed to a group of youngsters sitting in a corner of the spiffy establishment.

"These kids are the future of the club," he said. "They are here for every game."

Many of the 350-plus members will be heading to Las Vegas the first week of June to attend a conference involving the various Rangers support clubs of North America. One week later, a similar get-together will be held in Vegas for Celtic backers.

The casinos had better stock up on Guinness.


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