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Kicking and screaming to be kings of Europe

Euro 2012 soccer tournament is on, fans enjoy banter

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Will your team be poleaxed by the Poles, gutted by the Germans or devoured by the English Lions?

The Euro 2012 soccer tournament kicked off last week in Poland and Ukraine and Winnipeg soccer fans supporting Europe’s leading nations have been busy flying flags of national pride and debating the chances of their beloved teams.

"It all depends on our first game on Sunday (June 10). I hope we tie with Spain and then we should beat Ireland and Croatia," said Italian fan Mario Perrino, speaking before the start of the month-long tournament.  

Euro 2012 comprises of four groups of four teams. Each team will play  its group rivals once and the top two finishers in each group then advance to the knockout stages of the tournament.

Perrino, a Naples native who emigrated to Canada 44 years ago, said despite being traditional slow starters in big tournaments, Italy should have enough gumption to do well.

"I believe we have a very good defensive team. A strong defence will make a difference in this tournament," said Perrino, a sales manager and a highly-respected referee in national circles.

The Linden Woods resident said if Italy does well, the team’s success will be mirrored by a groundswell of support in Winnipeg.

"If we start to win, you will see more and more Italians gathering in numbers at the Centro Caboto Centre, where the games are being shown," he said. "Everything will build up."

Perrino reflected on the post-match celebrations on Corydon Avenue after Italy won the World Cup in 2006, when "everybody came out of the woodwork."

"Winning does change the feeling of Italians towards Italy into pride," he said.

"It brings Italy back in people’s minds, which makes it more than just a soccer game."

Adam O’Connor, manager of St. Vital-based Sweat Shack, is anticipating an internal tug-of-war and split loyalties when it comes to cheering on his team.

O’Connor was born in Winnipeg, but his parents are English and he is second generation Irish.

Though his loyalty remains with England, he said, the politics behind the makeup of the English squad could make them less appealing this year.

Like many sports, an international soccer team is made up players from rival teams in that nations’ domestic league.

So, being a Manchester United fan, O’Connor hates arch-rivals Liverpool.

"The squad has so many injuries, it’s looking like a Liverpool team with new players being drafted in," said O’Connor, noting England fans will be watching games at The Pemby.

"It’s going to kill me to cheer for them. How do I cheer for players I’ve been cheering against all season?"

O’Connor suggested that since the advent of the English Premier League 20 years ago, some clubs have "become bigger than country" meaning players are less likely to roll-up their sleeves and give everything for the national cause.

The Irish, he said conversely, will "come together and play like they’re Irish  — with pride," said O’Connor, a key organizer on the Winnipeg soccer scene.

The Fort Rouge resident said the best part about major tournaments is being able to relax with friends, have a few pints and enjoy the spectacle.

Which is just as well — if O’Connor’s prediction for England’s chances of progress come true.
"We’ll go out in the group stage or the first knockout round. Fact."

England will face France, Sweden and Ukraine in the first round.

Germany fan Jurgen Launer has no doubt his motherland  can collect another European crown.

But Launer — who owns Strikers Deli & Meats in the North End and is president of the Bayern Munich Fan Club in Winnipeg — is under no illusions about the task ahead.

Germany is matched against Portugal, Netherlands and Denmark in the so-called Group of Death.

"We’re in a tough group, but I’d say Germany goes through first," Launer said, noting fans will watch the games at the German Club.

"If we don’t get any injuries in the next few days, we will do well. We’ll have lots of young players on the bench who’ll be hungry," he said.

Launer, who lives in North Kildonan, enjoys the atmosphere generated in Winnipeg during major soccer tournaments — especially when communities come together.

"This is my sport. It’s nice to go to an English pub, for example, and sit down and enjoy the games with other fans. It’s about nations coming together," he said.

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