Vitoria under spotlight

The Vitorio family eagerly await the arrival of star Portuguese centre back Steven Vitorio last...

The Vitorio family eagerly await the arrival of star Portuguese centre back Steven Vitorio last night at Pearson Airport. (Sun Media/Craig Robertson)

GEORGE GROSS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:17 AM ET

The tower of strength of Portugal's World Cup Under-20 soccer team is a Toronto-born Portuguese-Canadian.

No kidding!

His name is Steven Vitoria and at 6-foot-3 he controls the air space at the centre back position.

Vitoria didn't learn the basics of soccer in Portugal.

In fact, his parents, Alice and Pedro, moved to Canada from the Azores, and young Steven played soccer in Woodbridge until age 18.

"Then his father, a dedicated soccer enthusiast, wanted the youngster to develop his skills in Portugal," said Alex Franco, owner and publisher of the Portuguese newspaper Post Milenio, sort of a bible for the GTA's 500,000 Portuguese.

"Papa wanted him to sign with a top Portuguese first division team, which happened when championship team FC Porto signed and sent the young man to the Tourizense farm team.

"His parents remained in Canada and still live in Mississauga, while Steven is trying to make Porto's first division squad, something that may happen in the not-too distant future."

Franco, who came to Canada in 1976, is very proud of the Portuguese community in Toronto and the fact a Toronto-born youngster will represent Portugal in the U-20 World Cup.

He also was at Pearson International Airport to welcome the Portuguese lads when their plane landed last evening.

Portugal will be Toronto's team when the tournament opens on Sunday and is expected to advance against Group C rivals Mexico, Gambia and New Zealand.

Portugal's games, not surprisingly, are sold out, thanks to the support of the Portuguese community.

"They can seat over 20,000 at Toronto's BMO Field," said Franco, the unofficial spokesman for Team Portugal.

"I would say that half of them will be Portuguese fans. Even now I'm getting five or six calls daily from people begging me to get them tickets to the games.

"But when they are sold out, you can't get any more tickets. The fans know they'll get to see good matches and they think that Mexico is the team to beat because they will arrive with players who became world champions in the Under-17 global tournament.

"New Zealand and Gambia are not as well known."

Even though coach Jose Couceiro says he hopes Portugal will reach the quarter-finals of the tournament, followers of youth soccer picture the host Toronto team to advance even further.

After all, it has some really talented players on its roster.

True, that Diego Maradona, the former Argentina superstar, played in the Under-20 event, but Portugal had its own superstar in Luis Figo, who starred in the 1991 event when Portugal became World Cup champions in Lisbon.

The Benfica Lisbon Stadium normally holds 120,000, but for the Portugal-Brazil U-20 World Cup final they jammed in 127,000, many in standing-room only. The game ended 1-1, but in the penalty shootout Portugal's Emilio Peixe scored the winner. I asked Franco to name some of the better players of this year's team. He didn't have to look for any notes. He has been to Portugal several times and saw the youngsters play. This is what he had to say:

"I like forward Bruno Gama. Though he is young, he played for the first division team Sporting Braga. I already mentioned Vitoria and they have another good defender in Antunes at left back. He signed for Benfica and also played for the big national team. Moreover, they have a fine striker in Fabio Coentrao, who also signed for Benfica and another talent is Bruno Perieirimha, who played the entire season for the first division team of Sporting Lisbon.

"Finally, there is goalie Rui Patricio who played several games for the first team of Sporting Lisbon."

And, while Franco is a man who grew up with the greatest Portuguese player in history, Eusebio, it is the new generation of Portuguese players who arrived here with the nation's Under-20 World Cup team that Franco is sure won't disappoint fans at BMO Field.

GROSSLY ABBREVIATED

Franco bought five existing Portuguese newspapers in Toronto and turned them into one big one. He also had a Portuguese television show and a radio broadcast, but had to give it up because the newspaper required all of his time ... Terry Kelly, former president of the Ontario Soccer Association and one of the greatest Canadian soccer fans, has in his possession the whistle used in the 1966 World Cup final between England and Germany. England won the World Cup that year by defeating Germany 4-2.


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