Since the beginning of the World Cup Toronto’s newspapers have been bludgeoning readers with cliches about how the games on the soccer pitches of Korea and Japan also illustrate the wonders of living in Canada’s Vibrant Multicultural State. The character of the reportage most eloquently testifies to how many of the papers’ reporters live in the downtown Annex and College street neighbourhoods of Toronto, which is hardly a revelation to those of us who live here and have to put up with them and the television crews doing streeters. In these connected neighbourhoods, which have large enclaves of Portuguese, Italians and Koreans, the last week or so has been a painfully loud festival of native-origin fever punctuated each morning by outbursts of flag-waving, horn-tooting hysteria. Entrepreneurs have made a small fortune from those new-fangled attach-to-your-car-window flags that first began to appear while the Toronto Maple Leafs were making their ill-fated run at the Stanley Cup.
But Multiculturalism isn’t just a merry string of Kool and the Gang celebrations chased by media looking for cheap, light-hearted copy. Among the Italians I hang out with at Dooneys there was a distinctly snide pleasure when Portugal was eliminated in the first round. Losing didn’t bother the Portuguese, who cheerfully shelved their Portuguese flags and team jerseys, brought out their Brazilian gear and partied on, as loud as before. The Italians don’t have that option, since their best alternate, Argentina, had its team go down the tube almost as brutally as its banking system did late last fall, and there have been curiously gloomy predictions about the coming demise of the diffident Azzurra almost from the beginning. I offered the perfectly reasonable suggestion that once they’re out, the Italians ought to support England, who after all, rescued them at Caporetto in 1917. None of the local Italians seemed able to recall that favour.
The loudest revelers in this neighbourhood right now are the normally sedate Koreans, who go on for hours after each victory. After the Korean team eliminated Italy, a spontaneous parade made its way along Bloor West, with a block-long stream of several hundred raucous Korean kids shouting incomprehensible slogans clogging the lanes in one direction while their parents, nearly all in new expensive cars and vans, filled the lanes in the opposite direction, tooting their horns relentlessly. The Korean kids were polite to the glum Italians standing around Dooneys trying to be gracious in defeat while they grumbled about poor refereeing and being robbed by an botched offside call so blatant that it subsequently got the offending referee sent home to South America where he’ll likely be dispatched in the Colombian manner. But here in peaceful Toronto, marching along with the Koreans, I noticed, were a few eager-to-party Italian kids—or were they Portuguese getting a little payback? The oddest reveler in the entourage was an elderly black man in a motorized wheelchair covered with, of all things, Canadian flags. As I watched all this, I kept thinking that it’s too bad those nasty Spaniards cheated the Irish out of a berth in the final eight. A game between the Irish and the Koreans, who humourist P.J. O’Rourke has described as the Irish of the Far East, would have been a hoot.
It’s all quite charming if you have ear-plugs, at least at the distances a cliché takes you to. Closer up, one can detect a few stains and cracks in the mosaic. A few hours after the Korean win over Italy, a bunch of the Korean kids borrowed their parents BMW’s and Audis and sped along College street making a racket, which earned them more than a few withering stares and strangely-positioned fists and forearms from the locals. It hasn’t quite turned into Moscow, but a few cars have been keyed for displaying the wrong flag, a few people have been thrown out of bars and restaurants, and one of two, I’m sure, have gotten themselves slapped around.
It’s hard, meanwhile, to be English in this flag-waving jamboree. I’ve long had the suspicion that no one believes Anglos are rightfully part of the Multicultural mosaic, so as a test, I bought a Union Jack, mounted it on my car window, and parked on Bloor Street. Someone snapped off the flag within twenty minutes. Undeterred, I trimmed the flag-shaft, shifted the apparatus to the other side of the car where it has more protection from pedestrians, and soldiered on—as my English ancestors liked to do. I’ve since had several nicely-groomed accountants, mostly with young children, wave or give me the thumbs-up signal for no apparent reason. This morning, a young bicyclist, with his generation’s characteristic mix of political correctness and political ignorance, poked my car window while I was stopped at a traffic light to ask if I was rooting for England or Ireland. When I said "England", he suggested that I really ought to be running the cross of St. George. I told him that Owen Hargreaves, an English team member, is Canadian, so I was actually rooting for the British Commonwealth, not to mention the Spice Girls, to one of whom British star David Beckham happens to be married. I didn’t point out that Ireland hasn’t been part of Britain for about 80 years, and I didn’t admit that beyond trying to confirm my suspicions about the not-wholly inclusive character of Multiculturalism, I was really just teasing my Italian friends, who believe that the English fans in Toronto calmly sing God Save The Queen after a victory, and go home to sleep or count their money.
They’re not far wrong. Aside from the accountants, the only other expression of English solidarity I’ve had was from an elderly woman with a posh English accent and a Corgi on Bloor Street. She caught my eye as I was getting into the car and said "Jolly good," without an exclamation mark attached. I’m pretty sure I’m flying the only Union Jack in the neighbourhood, and I’ve yet to see a single American flag anywhere in my travels. The Americans are generally viewed as not belonging in the tournament even though they’re winning games, just as the Korean team was treated until they began dispatching pre-tournament favourites.
For a game that got its start at 11th and 12th Century English public executions—executed criminals were decapitated by the hangman and the mob was allowed to kick the severed heads around the village green—and doesn’t permit the use of the very body parts that have made the human species able to build stadiums and chew the grass down to uniform length across a wide area, Soccer is surprisingly intricate and complicated if you’re willing to spend 10 or 15 minutes figuring out what’s going on. I keep hoping for the famed soccer thugs to rise up and have a good riot, but the Koreans appear to believe that the G8 is watching, and I’m told they went so far as to obtain a list of all the best British soccer thugs, which they then convinced the CIA to add to the airlines’ list of Known Terrorists, so my hope is very faint. The consolation is that by next sunday, someone will have won, and it’ll be over. Personally, I’m rooting for Senegal, which has the smallest representation hereabouts, so if they hold a victory parade, it’ll have to be made up from everyone together, including whatever Brits are willing to take an extra dose of Geritol. And that sort of togetherness, as far as I can see, is the last thing either the newspaper reporters or the Commissars of Multiculturalism want to see. It almost makes me like soccer.
1000 words, June 20, 2002