Young striker bringing it on home

Andrea Lombardo, at 20 years of age, is on of Canada's brightest offensive stars of the future....

Andrea Lombardo, at 20 years of age, is on of Canada's brightest offensive stars of the future. (Craig Robertson/Sun Media)

BILL LANKHOF

, Last Updated: 8:24 AM ET

There are moments when Andrea Lombardo looks up from the BMO Stadium pitch into the stands and gets the feeling he never left Italy.

It is, in those moments, that the just-turned 20-year-old striker for Toronto FC and Canada's under-20 team realizes how far both he and his sport have grown in a few short years.

"I knew it would be good, but I never expected the fan support to be so passionate," Andrea says, strands of hair hanging in dew-like fashion into his neck from a morning training session. "It's not like I get noticed on the streets, but the fans have a chant for me when I come on. It's an honour they think enough of me to do that.

"Our fans have a very European mentality ... When guys from the other teams go to take a corner where our fans are, they'll start throwing things at them or chanting: 'Who are You? Who are You?' You don't see that in any other MLS stadium. That's what they do in Europe or South America. It really makes you proud to play here."

Lombardo hasn't always had reason to feel that way. There was a time when the only thing that mattered to him was finding a way out of Toronto and out of Canada.

"He always said: 'Daddy, if I want to continue playing, you've got to get me out of here.' " says Onofrio Lombardo from the family home north of Toronto. "He never said, 'I don't want to be away from home, my friends.' Soccer is his passion."

At 15, Andrea earned a spot with Manchester City's development squad, only to lose it with visa problems. Soon after, he would follow his older brother, Steven, to Italy, to try out with Atalanta -- that country's No. 1 youth development program.

And, so began Andrea's meandering pathway from North York, via England, Milan and Perugia, to the stadium at Lake Ontario that he now calls home.

"I wanted to make soccer a career. At the time my father and I both knew that wasn't possible by staying in Canada," he says.

At 17, Andrea enrolled in high school at Atalanta's home base just outside Milan. He didn't speak much Italian.

"My dad would talk to me in Italian and I'd answer him in English. Then, I get over there and now I have to do Grade 12 in Italian. The only time I spoke English was when I talked to my parents on the telephone," he says.

Onofrio chuckles at the memory. To this day, he is undecided whether this chapter in the family history was hardest on his wife or on his youngest of three sons.

"We are a close-knit family. We spoke on the phone every day. It was hard," he says. "But our oldest son (Steven) had also played in Italy when he was 16 so we had some idea what it would be like. When my first son went, my wife (Anna Maria) said to me: 'Because of your stupid soccer, my son has gone away and he's only 16.' With Andrea it was more accepted that he really wanted to do this himself."

Onofrio had a brother and sister living in Milan. And, every four months he and Anna Maria would fly over to visit. Onofrio remembers the first time, in October of 2004.

"We had return tickets ready for him," he says. "He didn't want to show us how much he missed us, but when we were leaving he hugged his mother and he broke up and cried ... you could tell he missed Toronto, family and friends. But, he never used the return ticket. He said: 'I'm okay, I'm here to do a job.' "

Andrea would spend the next 31/2 years learning the intricacies of a sport in a way he would never have been able to do in Canada.

"I knew a lot of kids I played with who were amazing players but just fell off the rails and stopped playing," he says. "It's tough to see. It's a shame but that's what happens when you don't have the soccer environment. We have good grassroots players. It's just a matter of developing them like they do in Europe. "

"Atalanta was really good because from eight-year-olds to the first team, we all trained in one place. Eight or 10 pitches. When you're a kid that's important because you can see: 'Yeah, one day I want to be up there with those guys in Serie A.' Most of the good clubs over there have facilities like that."

About the only thing he couldn't stomach was the food. Living in the team dorm, all players were expected to eat in the cafeteria. Attendance was taken. Unfortunately, dessert should have come with a stomach pump.

"The food was disgusting," Andrea says, shaking his head. "We had to go down for dinner because if we didn't, we'd get into trouble. We'd get a plate of something, sit for about 20 minutes, then dump it, go back upstairs and order pizza. Three or four times a week. Good thing Italy has good pizza places."

But the soccer was good. He made his Serie B debut in October 2005 -- still one of the highlights of his young career next to playing on Canada's under-20 team. He signed a five-year pro contract in 2005 and today he is fluent in Italian, French, English and homemaking.

"When you move out at 16, there's a lot of maturing to do in a short amount of time," he offers. "My roommate and I learned to cook and do our own laundry."

He was also learning that soccer was growing up back home and after a season with Perugia, when Toronto FC came sniffing around, he asked for, and got, his release.

DEVELOPMENT

"I don't think I'd be playing with Toronto FC right now if I hadn't gone over there to play," he says. "It helped me develop because the biggest difference was that in Toronto you practise three times a week after school and if you didn't feel like going you'd call the coach and say: 'I've got to stay home and study.' In Italy that doesn't exist. There's no excuses for missing practice. There's no calling the coach. They treat you as a young professional and that's what got me where I am now."

He is now one of the brightest young offensive stars on the horizon for Canada. In a warmup game for the under-20 World Cup tournament, to be held next month in Canada, he was named man of the match in a 2-1 loss against powerful Argentina. Evidently, the only one who wasn't impressed was Andrea himself.

"I was really upset because their second, the losing goal, was actually my fault because the guy I was marking ended up scoring. I was supposed to do an interiew with a TV station after the game, but I was so upset someone else had to do it."

He has the stereotypical Italian temperament.

"That's one of my flaws. I'm very emotional," he says. "It's good for me in one way because it helps me play the game well, but it also gets me into trouble with yellow cards. I haven't had a red card, ever, but I have to keep my emotions in check."

He has helped the team beat Scotland, the Czech Republic and the U.S. -- all among the top 20 youth teams in the world. The tournament, he says, "could be a launch for the sport in the country. If we can have a good tournament, it'll gain this country some respect ... people will realize Canadians can play soccer, too."

Meantime, Anna Maria Lombardo has the potatoes with sausage and peas in the oven. And, pass the pasta a la bolonaise. Andrea's favourite.

"Italy was nice," he says, "but home is always home."


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