Ready to kick off

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:17 AM ET

It doesn't take long to realize that the Euro 2008 soccer tournament is not the ordinary run-of-the-mill sports extravaganza.

It is perhaps the biggest sporting event in Europe after soccer's World Cup but it draws a fervent following from around the globe and from people who have never set foot on its soil. Its allure extends beyond borders and it can make people behave in strange ways.

Last month, 1,800 men and women showed up to pose for U.S. photographer Spencer Tunick to celebrate the refitting of Vienna's Ernst Happel Stadium. Nude!

Then there are the tournament mascots, Trix and Flix, who have names that sound like they should be on a mailbox in Amsterdam's notorious red-light district -- and look like Dennis the Menace buzzed out on too much Red Bull.

But, then, talk to anyone about football as it is known in lands where the sport is king and it will be described as an endeavour of passion. So, it makes sense. I guess.

From Moscow to Toronto's Little Portugal and from Paris to The Danforth every four years, in spring a young man's fancy turns to his country's football team.

"I wish I was going -- lots of people are going over and those who don't will be glued to televisions and watching at the local clubs," says Costas Menegakis, president of the Greek Community of Toronto. "The only thing I could compare the excitement to here might be a Montreal-Toronto Stanley Cup final ... or maybe better like a 1972 Canada-Russia hockey tournament final. Every match you're talking 60,000 people in the stands. It's unbelievable. An electrifying atmosphere. The only thing bigger is the World Cup."

This year the tournament runs June 7-29 in Austria and Switzerland with 16 teams facing off in eight stadiums. When games conclude fans spill into the streets to celebrate. When Italy wins the noise can be heard all the way to St. Clair in Toronto's Little Italy; when Portugal wins College St. becomes a pedestrian mall; and when Greece won in 2004 they partied all night along the Danforth.

"In 2004 lightning struck. The underdog won. That year with the Olympics in Athens and the young lady winning Euro-Vision, (the American Idol spinoff) being Greek, it happened to become a magical year for Greece," Menegakis says.

But even he was startled by the reaction after Greece beat Portugal in the final.

"The Danforth was packed. The Greek community (in the GTA) is about 120,000; to have 400,000-500,000 people on the street, immediately after the match -- unbelievable. I went down there and the police are on the road. And they said to me, 'Mr. Menegakis you are president of the community. You have no permit; the road is blocked.'

"I said, 'I'm sorry, we didn't realize people would be celebrating in the street.' We didn't realize people would be bringing their friends. We didn't realize how big this thing was going to be. Nor did we foresee that we would have to close the street for a victory celebration we didn't expect to happen in the first place.

"The police finally said, well, we can't do anything. I guess we'll keep the road closed and let people celebrate. I agreed. It was an unbelievable thing, and that phenomena we saw in every major city around the world."

In Little Italy, there is Giovanni's Restaurant, which showed games on a screen so big in 2004 that people often stopped on the sidewalk to gawk. Dutch-Canadian clubs in west Toronto coloured themselves in orange. Then, there is Little Portugal, roughly bordered by Ossington and Lansdowne, Queen and College. There are almost 100,000 Portuguese-Canadians who are now spread throughout the GTA, but when their native sons play Turkey on the opening day of Euro 2008, Party Central will still be the College-Dundas St. enclave.

"There's not one particular area anymore. Fifty years ago it would've been Augusta near Spadina. The community tends to have pockets now," says Peter Ferreira, president of the Portuguese Federation of Canadians. "But, when events like this happen people seem drawn to the historic areas."

Home to about 12,000 of Portuguese descent still, Little Portugal's cafes will suddenly burst with colour and excitement.

"Everybody looks forward to this," Ferreira says. "Our Portugal Day celebrations are normally on June 10, but the parade is on June 8, so I expect a lot of floats with the Euro theme. Assuming we win that game the day before, there'll be one hell of a party already. Although we probably shouldn't celebrate too soon."

Switzerland will kick off against Czechoslovakia in the other opening day game of the tournament that includes three-time champion Germany and the only other multi-title winner, France (1984, 2000). One of the big stories surrounding the event involves a team that won't even be there. England.

"I still can't believe of all the teams in the world that England isn't in it," Ferreira says. "That's like Russia or Canada not qualifying for the world hockey championship. It's unheard of ... they're like France, Germany, Holland -- you expect those teams to be there all the time."

Poland and Austria are in the tournament for the first time. Italy, winners in 1968, Holland and Russia round out the top of the field.

The excitement in Europe is understandable, but what continues to make Canadians -- many of whom have never set foot in the countries of their ancestors -- such devout fans?

"It's an interesting phenomena," Ferreira says. "It's a good question because it keeps having an appeal even to third and fourth generation Canadians whose families originally came from overseas. Most men in the Portuguese community take football very, very seriously.

"I think it's a cultural thing. We're like the Italians -- very loyal to the team from the country of our ancestors. But it's not just the Portuguese; it's in general. The Italians love to do it (celebrate) on St. Clair, the Brazilians and us love to do it on College St."

More than 50% of Toronto's Hellenist community was born in Canada. Little Portugal and Little Italy are showing signs of splintering into Etobicoke and up to Woodbridge. But Ferreira says a modern media keep many families connected to their soccer roots.

"I'm no sociologist, but humans being what we are, we take sides. Most people would look to their heritage. Even third- and fourth-generation Canadians who've never been back to the countries; we can't deny our heritage -- even when we lose to Greece," Ferreira says. "We may be heartbroken for a few hours or few days, but we're still proud of where we come from."

Then there's the fact that Canada has never been a factor on the world soccer stage. It has left soccer fans few cheering alternatives.

So, with the kickoff of Euro 2008, cafes from Little Italy, to Greektown and Little Portugal, will be filled.

"It's a very passionate sport," says Menegakis, who expects capacity crowds at the Olympiakos Club on Danforth and Pape Avenue's Panathinaikos Club.

"It's the national sport of Greece. If they win, there will be major celebrations again. The entire Hellenic community and friends will go nuts."


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