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This article was published 10/6/2016 (1456 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Ralph Cantafio is often referred to as the "father of modern soccer in Manitoba," but when you meet him, you get the distinct impression that he'd never refer to himself that way. Not because he isn't proud of his achievements, but because he's incredibly modest.
On Sunday, the Winnipeg Soccer Complex on Waverley Street will officially be renamed the Ralph Cantafio Soccer Complex in the 87-year-old Italian-Canadian's honour. "I'm still a little bit... not confused, but excited," he says. "I don't know what to expect on Sunday. I know it's going to be a lot of people. It's overwhelming. It's extremely overwhelming."
The complex will be the second building in the city to bear his name. He's one of the Ralphs of Ralph's Custom Tailors on Corydon Avenue; his son is the other. Cantafio opened the business in the early 1950s, shortly after he immigrated to Canada from Amato, Calabria, Italy.
Of course, he's impeccably dressed when I meet him at his shop Friday to discuss his latest honour in a long list. In 2004, he was inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame as a builder. He's dedicated his life to building and growing the sport in this province, doing everything from volunteering as a coach to cutting grass. He founded several leagues and teams — including the Winnipeg Fury of the former Canadian Soccer League, which took home the 1992 championship cup and was honoured with the Order of the Buffalo Hunt that same year.
The walls of his shop are decorated with team photos and trophies. But Cantafio isn't driven by recognition. "I didn't expect anything from this, never. I never, never expect this," he says. "Everyone's compliment is, 'Ralph, it's about time that they did this' — but I didn't expect anything from it!"
When Cantafio arrived in Winnipeg, he started as an Italian-Canadian soccer club. He'd played the beautiful game in the streets as a child back home — with a handmade ball, made from cloth — and was eager to build a soccer community in his adopted hometown. The teams consisted mostly of Italian immigrants, and they played in whatever field that would have them. "It was 85 to 90 per cent Italians on the teams — and there were big fights all the time," he says with a laugh.
Eventually, the club expanded to include newcomers of all kinds: German, Hungarian, Polish. "It was the best thing I did," he says. Soccer was, for them, was both a meaningful connection to home as well as a chance to build community and camaraderie in a new country.
The 1960s and '70s saw growth in the sport in the city, with Cantafio playing an active part. When the former Canadian Soccer League was formed in the late '80s in the wake of the 1986 World Cup, Cantafio had a thought: why couldn't Winnipeg have a team?
"I'm proud to be a Winnipegger. I'm proud to be a Manitoban — anytime, anywhere," he says. He figured the heart of Canada ought to have a team. He remembers a lot of red tape, meetings and hustling to get sponsors, as well as naysayers who didn't think it could happen because of time, because of money. Cantafio says it was former premier Gary Filmon who opened the door for the Fury. "I still have a lot of respect for him," he says.
Cantafio served as the Fury's president and chairman of the board. Those years with the team are a major part of his personal highlight reel. "I'm proud of what we did," he says. "We got to meet a cup — the last one. I wish I had more people supporting us to keep that team. The team wasn't mine. It was the community's. The crowds that were there were unbelievable, superb. The enthusiasm was unbelievable."
These days, he takes great pleasure in watching the evolution of his beloved sport over his lifetime, seeing it become more technical, more beautiful. "The progress of the ladies' teams is unbelievable," he adds. "They're incredible."
He has a lot of hope for the future of soccer in Canada. "Canada believes in soccer," he says, but he laments the lack of coverage at the amateur level. "We need exposure."
Cantafio doesn't have much use for other sports. He tolerates hockey. He really hates baseball.
"Soccer is the best sport in the whole world, period," he says. "Soccer is for everybody — for girls, for guys, small, big, tall, short. Anybody can play soccer."
One should be so lucky to be as passionate about anything as Cantafio is about soccer.
The renaming ceremony in Ralph's honour is at 10:30 a.m. Sunday at the Ralph Cantafio Soccer Complex and will be followed by a Manitoba Major Soccer League game.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
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