Historicist: Taking It to the Streets
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Historicist: Taking It to the Streets

Early World Cup celebrations in Toronto.

Italian fans celebrate on St. Clair West. The Toronto Sun, July 6, 1982.

Every four years, Torontonians congregate around bars and cafés, glued to live broadcasts of World Cup games. Flags fly from cars and shop windows, and every so often a street fills with fans celebrating their home country’s victory. In the 1960s, such celebrations were still unheard of in Toronto. While the World Cup did warrant some coverage in the local newspapers, it scarcely dominated the local sports sections as it does today.

In 1962, the CBC broadcasted Brazil’s victory in the final over Czechoslovakia—a full two weeks after the game had taken place. CBC aired the 1966 World Cup final between England and West Germany live on the radio at 10:00 a.m. EST, and aired it on television two hours later. Although local newspapers reported the tournament results with some interest, none of the Toronto papers took a special interest in England’s victory, nor reported on any reactions from English expatriates living in the city.

Things started changing in 1970, as the advent of mass communication enabled Torontonians to watch live broadcasts of the matches from Mexico. These live broadcasts were not available on regular television, however; the Toronto City Soccer Club acquired the rights to show games on closed-circuit television, and charged admission for those willing to pay.

On June 7, 1970, a capacity crowd of 5,300 watched a group stage match between England and Brazil at Varsity Arena, while a further 3,000 fans were turned away at the door. According to the Globe and Mail, the decidedly pro-England crowd at the arena “applauded and yelled through most of the contest. Loudest cheers were reserved for the outstanding play of the two goalkeepers, and Bobby Charlton of England and Pele of Brazil.” The same article notes that the game would have been shown at Maple Leaf Gardens—where, indeed, the later matches were shown live in 1970—but the venue was unavailable due to a Red Army Chorus concert.

Tickets at these live, closed-circuit broadcasts sold for between five and seven dollars. One Globe and Mail article predicted a sellout at Maple Leaf Gardens for the Italy-Mexico match. A few days later, the Globe ran a picture of an Italian crowd celebrating in the Toronto streets following their semifinal victory over West Germany, setting the stage for the final against Brazil. A mostly pro-Italy, sellout crowd watched Brazil cruise to a 4-1 victory at the Gardens.

Italian fans celebrate their victory over West Germany in 1970. Photo by James Lewcun. The Globe and Mail, June 18, 1970.

Following Italy’s win, the Globe reported that “Italian fans marched in grim crowds along College Street toward their west-end Toronto enclaves, occasionally jeering at the joyous horns of cars, festooned in the green and gold of Brazil.” The Star was more critical of the Italian fans, claiming that some of their number “broke a streetcar window injuring a passenger, beat up Brazil fans, and threw eggs at police.”

Toronto’s entire Brazilian-born population in 1970 was estimated around 200, making their victory parade somewhat small by today’s standards. The Globe and Mail summarized their modest celebration briefly, writing that “100 Brazilians and Brazilians-for-the-day marched down Yonge Street to City Hall, chanting ‘Bra-a-azil, Bra-a-a-zil!’ to an obsessive, jungle beat. . . . Toronto Brazilians have a club of 150 members but no clubroom. Last night, they spread out among each others’ houses at impromptu parties.”

Live broadcasts of World Cup games were shown at the Gardens again in 1974; post-game celebrations appear to have been minimal that year, perhaps in part because Italy failed to advance from the first round and Brazil lost their third-place game. A crowd of more than 13,000 paid between $12 and $15 to see West Germany defeat the Netherlands in the final. Those who attended the closed-circuit broadcast of the final at the Gardens were treated to a halftime performance by the Alberta All-Girls Drum and Bugle Band. Of the major Toronto newspapers, only the Globe and Mail ran a photo of a small group of celebrating Germans at Maple Leaf Gardens.

West Germany fans celebrate at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1970. Photo by John Malola. The Globe and Mail, July 8, 1974.

In 1978, evangelist Billy Graham‘s crusade forced some of the early World Cup games from Maple Leaf Gardens; this time, the backup venue was the Coliseum at Exhibition Place. Crowds at the Coliseum were reported between 4,000 and 7,000. “The Scots thought it worth dressing up in Tartan gear and bringing a piper,” wrote the Globe and Mail. “The Italians had the rafters ringing with chants of ‘Italia! Italia!’ and the Argentinians brought a 40-foot national flag to encourage their heroes. . . . [T]he spectators were well behaved, although the clink of beer bottles became almost deafening during yesterday’s Scotland game.”

The picture quality at these broadcasts was considered quite good, and the Globe reported that the signal, “sent by satellite to New York, and then by landline to Toronto,” only went out a handful of times. This proved problematic at a crucial moment in a match between Peru and the Netherlands when, with two minutes remaining and the score tied, “the Netherlands won a free kick on the edge of the penalty area. Suddenly, a film of a man entering what appeared to be a washroom flashed on the screen. The crowd was too stunned to yell its complaint . . .”

Argentinian fans cheering at the Coliseum in 1978. Photo by James Lewcun. The Globe and Mail, June 12, 1978.

At the Gardens, a crowd of 14,000 saw Italy eliminated by the Netherlands, the Star noting that some had paid scalpers as much as $30 for a $12.50 ticket. The final between the Netherlands and Argentina attracted a crowd of between 9,000 and 12,000 to Maple Leaf Gardens, although the Star observed that it was “a rather subdued crowd compared to the wildly celebrating fans of earlier games when Italy and Scotland were still in the running.” The Globe noted that the Argentinian fans, definitely in the minority, “made up for their lack of numbers with spirited chanting, bells, and horns, to bring Toronto a little of the stupendous from the magnificent River Plate Stadium in Buenos Aires.” Following Argentina’s victory, a 100-foot Argentinian flag was, according to the Star, “unfolded and carried like a snake out of the Gardens and down Carlton Street by hundreds of shouting and singing Argentina supporters,” leading to what the Globe and Mail described as an “impromptu horn-blowing parade” along Carlton Street.

This small victory parade paled in comparison to what Toronto saw in 1982.

A police officer swings his baton at the crowd following Italy’s defeat of Brazil in 1982. Photo by Barrie Davis. The Globe and Mail, July 6, 1982.

In 1982, CBC acquired the rights to all of the World Cup games for the first time, enabling Torontonians to watch the tournament live in their own neighbourhoods. Some watched at home, while others watched at local community centres or local soccer clubs.

On July 5, Italy upset Brazil 3-2 to advance to the semifinal, prompting a spontaneous celebration on St. Clair Avenue West. Several thousand fans took over the street, honking horns, waving flags, and shouting “Forza Italia!” Police were called to the scene and, although at least one officer was reported to have used his riot baton, most allowed the celebration to continue. Only one arrest (for drunkenness) was reported, although the Star mentioned that “one group picked up a red-faced Metro police officer and hurled him in the air in celebration.” “I’d hate to see this place when they win the World Cup,” one police officer told the Sun, “because it can’t be more of a zoo than this.”

Local media reaction to the street party was positive. A Star editorial went so far as to relate the celebration to Canada’s multicultural policy, arguing that “the Italian community is a key element of Metro’s cultural mix. And Monday’s celebration should remind us all it is one of our national strengths that, rather than the melting pot concept, we honour cultural ties as an essential part fo our mosaic.”

Polish fan Chester Kosalka, prior to the Italy-Poland match, holding a zucchini in a “victory gesture.” Photo by Jack Cubano. The Toronto Star, July 8, 1982.

Three days later, a much larger street party ensued when Italy eliminated Poland and advanced to the World Cup final. This time, an estimated 100,000 poured onto St. Clair, dancing and cheering, shutting down the street for several blocks. According to the Star, a “parade of flag-draped vans cruised all of Dufferin St., from the Canadian National Exhibition to beyond Highway 401. Having made the 17-mile trip, the celebrants would turn around and do it again.” In both the Star and the Sun, confident members of the Italian community promised an even larger party that weekend when Italy beat West Germany in the final.

The day before the final on July 11, Metro police closed off St. Clair between Caledonia and Dufferin, and College between Ossington and Bathurst. Jubilant soccer fans had remained a presence on St. Clair since Italy’s victory over Poland on the 8th; the Sun described it as four days of “spontaneous street parties and lots of horn-honking motorcades.” Souvenir stands popped up along the street, many selling Italian flags or shirts that the vendors had made by hand.

The Italian community was not disappointed. “Soon after the 3-1 game ended,” wrote the Globe, “bicycles, bare feet, camera buffs, ringing bells and Italian belles, the sounds of whistles, pounding music, snapping flags, and honking horns filled the street.” An estimated 300,000 fans celebrated Italy’s World Cup victory on St. Clair West, shutting the street down for nearly 20 blocks between Caledonia and Oakwood. Although there were a few minor incidents, police mostly allowed the revellers to celebrate. Many officers themselves reportedly wore “Forza Italia” buttons, and the Globe reported that they turned a blind eye to the “men swilling beer or spraying champagne from the top of green, white, and red cars.”

Photo by Michael Peake. The front page of the Toronto Sun, July 12, 1982.

People of all ages joined in the party. “Kids and old men danced in the streets,” wrote the Star. “Middle-aged mothers shrieked and waved their $5 flags like teenagers.” One family reportedly had a rooster festooned with red, white, and green ribbons. According to the Globe and Mail, “a dog and donkey—both draped in the Italian flag—joined the unceasing parade, which promised to amble back and forth along St. Clair until early morning.”

While the main throng celebrated on St. Clair, secondary parties took place near College and Grace, on Yonge Street, and on Danforth near Woodbine, where a reported 15,000 joyous fans forced a street closure that local police had not anticipated. Over 30,000 of the St. Clair merrymakers moved into Earlscourt Park, where a group of musicians played trumpets and homemade percussion instruments while a coffin marked “West Germany” was symbolically lowered into the ground. A police escort led mayor Art Eggleton into the park where he observed the celebrations, subsequently telling the Star, “I guess every Italian-Canadian in Toronto is out celebrating—along with a lot of people who would like to be Italian-Canadians.”

The 1982 World Cup celebrations had a profound effect on the city’s Italian community; the celebrations themselves became a source of community pride due to their relative peacefulness. In describing the 1982 World Cup celebrations for Heritage Toronto, Riccardo Lo Monaco writes that “a collective memory [of the celebrations] . . . is sustained by the entire Italian-Canadian community and remains one of the most important moments in their history.”

The 1982 celebrations also had a profound effect on the rest of Toronto. When 1986 rolled around, all three major Toronto newspapers stepped up their extensive coverage of the tournament from day one, with considerably more attention given to fan reaction across the city.

Argentinian fans celebrating in 1986. Photo by Edward Degan. The Globe and Mail, June 30, 1986.

Despite an early exit from the Italian team, St. Clair West still hosted a victory party in 1986—for Argentina. Although not nearly as large as the Italian bacchanalia four years earlier, more than 5,000 Argentinians celebrated on St. Clair West in 1986, while a smaller group congregated near Bloor and Avenue Road. “Anything that moved got into the parade,” wrote the Star,”from kids’ bicycles to foreign sports cars, old jalopies, and an enormous Italian Transport company dumptruck with a load of Argentinian flag-wavers. . . . One convertible sports car was turned into a moving bandstand . . .”

As if to demonstrate how the new phenomenon of World Cup celebrations reflected the city’s changing multicultural landscape, the Star spoke with local resident Tina Ninni, out celebrating Argentina’s victory, who said that “we did the same thing when Italy won (in 1982).” The Star explained: “She’s of Italian heritage while her husband, Daniel, is Argentinian.”

Additional material from: Michael Buzzelli, “Canadian Urban Landscape Examples — 22: Toronto’s postwar little Italy: landscape change and ethnic relations” in The Canadian Geographer, Vol. 44, No. 3 (2000), 298-305; Nancy Byers and Barbara Myrvold, St. Clair West in Pictures: A History of the Communities of Carlton, Davenport, Earlscourt, and Oakwood, 3rd ed. (Toronto Public Library, 2008); he Globe and Mail (July 29, 1966; June 8, June 9, June 13, June 18, June 22, 1970; June 24, July 8, 1974; June 2, June 12, June 22, June 26, 1978; July 6, July 7, July 9, July 12, July 13, July 19, 1982; June 1, June 18, June 30, 1986; July 4, 1990); Latin American Immigrants in Toronto (IMPACT Toronto, 1978); Riccardo Lo Monaco, “Siamo Number One!”: The Soccer Game that Changed Toronto, Heritage Toronto (accessed June 20, 2014); the Toronto Star (June 28, 1962; July 29, 1966; June 12, June 13, June 17, June 20, June 22, 1970; July 5, July 8, 1974; June 11, June 22, June 24, June 26, 1978; July 2, July 6, July 7, July 8, July 9, July 10, July 11, July 12, July 13, 1982; June 18, June 30, 1986; July 4, 1990); the Toronto Sun (June 22, June 26, 1978; July 6, July 9, July 12, 1982; June 18, June 29, June 30, 1986).

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