The Great Canadian Soccer Story: Christina Stalteri By Christina Stalteri Posted on June 5, 2013 3 0 727 Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Back in March, The 11 issued our first-ever call for the Great Canadian Soccer Story. The response was tremendous. We received stories about watching the game, playing the game and making the game part of everyday life. There were funny stories, sad stories, parenting stories, childhood-dreams stories. To all the entrants: Thank you. Your efforts help build what we hope is a great community — people who visit this site to read great Canadian soccer stories and celebrate our unique takes on the game the world loves. Today, we present the winner. It’s a touching piece on soccer, cheering Canada and national identity from Christina Stalteri (yes, that surname is familiar, isn’t it?). The illustrations come from the desk of Montreal artist Eugene Abrams. For more about Eugene’s work, CLICK HERE. Without further ado, here’s Christina’s story: My story starts off quite similar to many Canadians; born and raised in Canada, a child to immigrant parents. I grew up speaking Portuguese before I could speak English. When the Canadian kids called me “Pork Chop,” I learned to yell back: “Man-ja-cake.” The name-calling usually ended within seconds, and off we went, racing our bikes around the block once again. There was no point in drawing attention to our perceived cultural differences, as we were so similar in many ways. Stella was Greek, Rena was Indian, Heather was from Newfoundland; we all played together on our street. I loved eating chicken curry at Rena’s house. We all yelled “yuck” when Heather strolled down the street with a cucumber and peanut butter sandwich in hand. The whole street cringed when the scent of fish filled the air as we grilled sardines on the barbecue. It was a very typical Canadian street in the acceptance of various foods and celebrations. Being of European descent, soccer held pole position in our home and everyone on our street knew that. The patriarch of the family was a Sporting Lisbon loyalist. He went to great lengths to follow his beloved team. Within our home, the trusty 1970s radio was the only source of information for this passionate supporter in that era. The brown leather case which held that antique relic still remains a part of my most vivid childhood memories. On the weekends, if we were not awakened to the sound of a loud Portuguese commentator breaking in and out of white noise, we knew we could find my dad at the local Portuguese Supporters Club down the road. Even though my father was a soccer fanatic, when I was 18 and I brought my Canadian-soccer-player boyfriend over for dinner, it was not the ice-breaker I had hoped it would be. Thankfully, the two of them always had something to talk about as our little story took a somewhat fairy-tale twist. That boyfriend was Paul Stalteri. Paul and I eventually got married and, in a very unlikely twist for a Canadian young man at the time, he got to play professional soccer for a living in Europe. I had grown up alongside Paul and we knew one another for a very long time. We had not crossed paths very often, but fate had it that we would share multiple classes in our final year of high school. To our surprise, we got along really well. I helped him at school with his homework, especially if he had a game or was working late the night before. I even put together group presentations, and ensured he was all caught and up to speed on his studies when he returned from playing soccer with the U20 Canadian team. I was extremely skeptical about how the wages of a Canadian soccer player would put much food on the table and I thought I was being supportive and helpful as he began to prepare for university in pursuit of his career path. We had slightly different visions of our future together. He had a dream, and I was more interested in preparing us both for a the more realistic plan “B.” The fact that he was a soccer player was interesting, but I genuinely thought it was more of a hobby to get him a free ride through university. Although many people are always curious to learn how Paul got the opportunity to play professional soccer in Europe, I want to share a pivotal experience here in Canada as he took his first steps playing with the Canadian men’s national team and my first experience as a Canadian soccer supporter. In the summer of 1996, Paul and I knew we were destined to venture off in separate directions to our universities. In August, he was heading 16 hours away on a soccer scholarship to Clemson, South Carolina. In September, I was heading two hours away to London, Ontario. It was that summer in 1996, in Toronto, that I saw him play his first live game for Canada; Canada vs. Portugal. Leading up to the game and at the time the game was played, it was thought to be an official cap. Regrettably, this game was deemed a “B” game shortly after being played. Even in this digital era, it is difficult to find record of this game. Old newspaper clippings are the best source of confirmation that it even took place. The game was played at Varsity Stadium. On my way to the stadium, I proudly walked down Bloor Street with a Canadian flag in hand. I was very new to the soccer scene in Canada, and extremely naive. I was so excited about the opportunity to see Paul represent Canada for the first time — and all in front of Portuguese-Canadians like me. During my approach, I did not feel outnumbered, I felt surrounded with people who I thought were like me and had been born and raised in Canada of Portuguese-immigrant parents. My soccer fanatic father had always supported local soccer. My father coached my sister’s team. We went to the Toronto Blizzard games. Even before Paul came into the picture, my father always watched the national team play on TV. I anticipated the crowd would be filled with people like my dad, who had found a way to fuel his passion for the sport and dedicate himself to Canadian sources as well. The scene that unfolded left me feeling so torn. In the second half, Portugal scored and the stadium filled with 10,000 fans erupted with cheers. Paul equalized for Canada, our section jumped up and cheered along with a few straggling supporters, however most of the stadium remained silent. It was at that moment that I felt like I had been winded. There are so few words to describe the gut-wrenching feeling I still have when I think back to that moment after Paul scored that goal. Granted, anyone familiar with the Canadian soccer scene would have told me to anticipate that type of reaction. However, nobody had warned me. I just sat stunned for the remaining 20 minutes of the game. I knew from that moment something was wrong. My feeling was not solely because I cared for a young man playing for Canada, but because, if it was not for that young man, I may have been one of those fans carrying around a Portuguese flag oblivious to the offence I was committing to Canadians like myself who were on the field in front of me. Here was our Canadian team. The players were born and raised like me, like the majority of the people in the stadium; yet the Portuguese Canadians did not cheer for Canada too. The fans on that day did not know that Paul has Portuguese blood in his ancestry. They did not understand how in his Canadian upbringing he was more like them than any of the other players on the Portuguese team. I had always known that my ancestors left Portugal in search of a better life for the entire family. I realized it was also time to understand that they sacrificed and left Portugal so I could be Canadian. The life that Paul and I have lived for the past 17 years appears to be a fairy tale at times. However, for those who know us best recognize there was a lot of personal sacrifice. There were always polar opposites from Paul’s career in Europe to his career as a Canadian international. The experience as a Canadian international always had a humbling effect. Paul built his fan based in Canada mainly derived from the European fame he was able to achieve, not due to the loyalty he showed to his country by representing Canada over the span of his long career. My European friends do not believe me; but I assure them it is the truth. For our European friends, the ultimate prestige always arose when representing their countries. This anomaly that Paul experienced was certainly perplexing to them. Although this game back in 1996 was essentially wiped from the slate and Paul was forced to wait another full year before getting his first official cap for the Canadian men’s national team, it still feels like it was a pivotal day for the both of us. On that day, Paul got a taste of what it would feel like to play for the Canadian men’s national team and, contrary to what I had been molded to believe my entire life, I realized that being born in this country certainly had a much bigger influence on me than I had ever accepted. Seventeen years later, and Paul has done an awful lot more than anyone could have predicted back in 1996. His story only reinforces the amazing determination from the Canadian-born people that surround us everyday. I have watched Canadian fans be outnumbered on Canadian soil many times over the years and never been affected as profoundly as I was on that day watching Canada play against Portugal. That experience was not an accidental first game for me to experience as a fan. If choosing my past meant sacrificing my future, then I needed to see that I was obviously on the wrong path. Experiencing a moment of awakening can act as a catalyst to make you stronger and allows you to embrace the life you will be destined to live with a different conviction. It certainly did for me. Ed note: Paul Stalteri, now retired, earned the most Canadian caps in men’s national-team history. He won a league-Cup double with Werder Bremen, and enjoyed a fantastic career which also included stops at Fulham, Tottenham and Borussia Moenchengladbach. Christina and Paul have asked that The 11 donate the prize money to a soccer-related charity, an organization that helps grassroots soccer in Canada. The cause we selected was Free Footie, an Edmonton-based organization that gives inner-city kids the chance to play the game. Here’s a little more on the organization: Free Footie is a free soccer league for inner-city kids in Edmonton, Alberta, who, in most cases, wouldn’t be playing otherwise due to cost, transportation or other barriers in their lives. Many are new Canadians and recent refugees. Boys and girls in Grades 4, 5 and 6 play together for their neighbourhood schools. Teachers and principals do the coaching while outside volunteers arrange all the schedules, administer the league and raise funds to ensure every child gets shin pads, socks, shorts and jerseys. Furthermore, any transportation is paid for by sponsors so that schools have no costs. The league is intentionally ran through the public and Catholic schools. We have found that once kids leave school it’s very rare for them to come back for the evening program. So, Free Footie is designed that when the last bell rings, the games start. The fantastic teachers and principals, who already have great relationships with kids, are the coaches. The close proximity of many schools means most games are within walking distance and that drastically reduces the transportation costs. Free Footie is in its fourth season. It started with four teams and, this year, there are 30 teams and approximately 650 kids. Within the next few years, provided sponsorship and volunteers are there to help, Free Footie is expecting to grow to 50 teams.