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Soccer, uh... calcio is not just a game in the Italian community; it's a way of life

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North Americans often call it "soccer" while most of the rest of the world refers to it as "football" or "futbol."

But Italians call it "calcio" and, quite frankly, it's more than just a game or a sport. It's more than just a passing fancy or something they'll stop and watch for a few minutes while channel surfing.

To an Italian, soccer -- calcio -- well, it means everything.

And so when you ask a Winnipegger of Italian descent to try to answer this very basic question: "Why are Italians so passionate about this game?" the answer can't possibly come in one sentence or even in a few hundred words. It's bigger than that. Much, much bigger.

You see, not only does the answer have historical roots dating back to Italy winning the second and third World Cups ever played, back in 1934 and 1938 (Italy refused to play in the first, 1930, in Uruguay) but it's how that passion has also managed to remain deep-rooted even among generations who were born and raised here in Winnipeg.

It's sport, it's family, it's tradition, it's home and it's faith all meshed together.

"In Italy, soccer is even more than a religion," begins Gus Fiorentino, a local barber who owns Agostino's For Hair.

"It is our passion. And from four or five years old, you have that passion because, before anything else, you have a soccer ball at your feet.

"So that's how I would explain it: Soccer is a religion to us."

A religion that often can become a reference point in an Italian's life. An example: when Fiorentino is asked what year he emigrated to Winnipeg, he answers: "In 1968 -- a month after Italy won the Euro Cup in June."

Mario Perrino arrived in Winnipeg from Naples a year before Fiorentino, in 1967. A highly skilled referee who has officiated games for 49 years, he answers the pivotal question about an Italian's passion for soccer this way: Multiply a Canadian's love for hockey times 10, then maybe you'll get a sense for how the game runs through Italians' veins.

"Remember when Canada played Russia (in the Summit Series) in 1972?" asked Perrino.

"Remember how the country came alive? Remember how you could feel the electricity all across the country when Paul Henderson scored? Well, that's what happens EVERY TIME Italy plays. It's just something inside you that comes alive.

"It's a cultural event where the community comes alive. It's not just a stupid soccer game."

And this passion doesn't just revolve around their beloved national team -- the "Azzurri" -- but the many club teams in the Italian pro soccer leagues, including Serie A, the NHL of Italian soccer.

It's why you don't have to wander too far in Winnipeg to see a local wearing Juventus, Inter, Roma or Milan colours.

"If you're playing hockey, basketball or any other sport, you will always have room for your soccer team," explains Tony Nocita, the Winnipeg-born former captain of the Winnipeg Fury of the defunct Canadian Soccer League, which represented Canada internationally.

"You talk to any person who is Italian in this city who has other interests, and they'll always know when Italy is playing or their favourite club team every weekend. It's ingrained in you.

"My family still gets together every Sunday at my mom's place, and what do you do when you get together? You talk about soccer. It's 'Oh, Juventus lost to Rome,' or it's about how the national team is doing. That's how you start the conversations. At Christmas, we have like 50 people, and I can tell you some of them aren't afraid to wear their Juventus jersey to Christmas dinner. That's just the way it is."

And therein may be the key to how the passion for the game continues to grow here in Winnipeg's Italian community: So much of what the Italians do involves family, and whenever those relatives get together, the conversation invariably turns to the interests they have in common. Sometimes it's the other subjects we associate with Italy -- food, fashion, fast cars -- but, most often, it's soccer.

"What's amazing to me is how it continues to grow from generation to generation," said Nocita, who now coaches the FC Winnipeg Lions of the Manitoba Major Soccer League.

"The Euros that just finished this June... I saw five-year-olds wearing the Italian jersey."

That's why Corydon Avenue -- Winnipeg's "Little Italy" -- comes alive whenever the national team is playing. It's why the Centro Caboto Centre is often packed with fans when the Azzurri are in action or there is a huge Serie A game. It's like a little piece of the old country right here in Winnipeg. It's a connection.

"I can remember back in the late '60s or 1970s, standing there in the rain, listening to the games on the shortwave radio," recalled Fiorentino. "It would fade in and out, and you'd hear one word then nothing. You'd go crazy until you heard the final score. We'd almost get a heart attack.

"Now every day in my shop, I've got soccer on the TV. People come in and they don't see soccer on the TV, they say, 'Gus, is something wrong?' But when I see the young kids get together at the Italian Cultural Centre or on Corydon for the World Cup or Euro... those events bring the world together. It's indescribable. These kids, they were born here, but they are cheering.

"To me, that's beautiful. THAT is our passion."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 25, 2012 j5

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