TORONTO — Zam Zam Saleh likes to mess with his customers, and when they’re as passionate as the soccer fans he meets by the hundreds every day, it’s pretty easy to do.
“Fanatics. . . Sometimes when someone asks for an Italian flag, I’ll reach for a Portuguese one instead,” Saleh says with a devilish laugh.
Zam Zam and his brother Hussein, who were born and raised in Iraq, have set up their soccer souvenir stand at the corner of Dufferin Street and Davenport Road in Toronto for every major international tournament for almost 20 years.
The big bright flags flap in the wind, and lick at the cars driving by. It’s one-stop shopping for soccer fans. There are balls and car flags and full national team kits. Thirty-five dollars will get you a car hood cover in your country’s flag.
Canada, of course, isn’t in the 2014 FIFA World Cup which kicks off Thursday in Brazil. Canada has made just one World Cup appearance, in 1986 in Mexico City.
But that hasn’t stopped Canadian soccer fans from gearing up for the sport’s biggest party, which runs for five weeks culminating in the final on July 13 — especially in Toronto, one of the world’s most multicultural cities. Statistics Canada reported in 2011 that 48.6 per cent of Toronto residents are foreign-born.
Iraq also isn’t the World Cup, so Zam Zam Saleh cheers “mostly for Portugal, because of the neighbourhood (in which he lives and works).”
The World Cup kicks off today in Brazil, and business is booming. Hussein, who runs the outdoor soccer shop, is getting as many as 700 customers a day and barely has time to pause and talk between restocking the car flags.
Zam Zam runs their second store, inside the nearby Galleria Shopping Centre, and by lunchtime on a weekday, he’s already seen 140 customers.
Their top-sellers: anything Portugal or Italy. Latin American team souvenirs are also popular.
A short drive south, at Cafe Diplomatico on College Street, Rocco Mastrangelo is dabbing at his glistening brow, sweaty from installing several new large TVs.
The Diplomatico, which has been in Mastrangelo’s family for 46 years and is known to locals as simply “The Dip,” is smackdab in the middle of Little Italy, where even the lush flower baskets that hang from the street lights are coloured red, white and green.
The restaurant, which Rocco co-owns with his uncle Paul, is a popular destination for World Cup fans. Inside, there are framed newspaper photos of a jam-packed College Street during the 2006 World Cup, when Italy defeated France in a penalty shootout to win. In the photos, the Cafe Diplomatico provides the backdrop for the jubilant sea of Italian soccer fans.
“It was absolutely crazy,” Mastrangelo says. “We had a full house, and we had College and Clinton Streets (the corner on which the restaurant is situated) closed within seconds. The masses. . . people standing on chairs, tables. It was crazy.”
He says they see about a 30 per cent increase in business during the World Cup.
“The better the team does, say if we have Italian fans or Portuguese fans, I guess they tend to spend more, they’ll be celebrating more, they’ll be drinking more, eating more. It all depends right?” he says.
He’s just finished installing an 80-inch TV, and he will have installed eight 40-inch TVs on the patio by Thursday. The restaurant will extend its patio for opening weekend, making for an additional 250 seats. They’ll throw a street party for the World Cup final. Fans can watch the game on a video wall 12 feet wide and 10 feet high.
And the party will go on whether Italy is in the final or not.
“Our name is Diplomatico, and our slogan for World Cup, we’re branded as ’Soccer Headquarters’ and it’s ’where nations unite,”’ Mastrangelo says. “We have tons of Spanish, Mexican, Brazilian, German, English, French fans that come down to watch all the games. And even non-soccer fans get into the World Cup because it’s such a big deal, especially for Toronto.
“College Street, the history, all the ethnic groups that live on this street. . . We’re surrounded by all kinds ethnic groups, Little Portugal, Little Korea, Chinatown is down the street, so it is truly the hub of multiculturalism.”
World Cup excitement stretches well beyond Toronto’s borders. Multifest, Nova Scotia’s Multicultural festival, will include a FIFA World Cup beer tent in Halifax. In Calgary, Jamesons’ Irish Pub will feature daily FIFA breakfast specials and a 32-man foosball tournament (for the 32 World Cup countries). At The Ship & Anchor nearby, they’ve stocked up on ingredients Brazilian drinks such as Cachaca and the Caipirinha.
In Winnipeg, Mayra and Marvin Dubon are hoping for a house-party atmosphere at their restaurant JC’s Tacos and More.
“This goes back to when I was a little girl, growing up (in Monterrey, Mexico),” Mayra says. “I remember sitting down with our family, and all the neighbours, all sitting together around a 13-inch TV. We would sit together, all crowded. But it wasn’t about being comfortable, it was about enjoying the game with a passion, and with food and drinks, and just being together and celebrating and chanting for your team.
“It will be awesome if we can recreate those times, those memories.”
Marvin, whose native country El Salvador isn’t playing in the World Cup, will cheer for Mexico, along with the other Latin American entries.
“I’m a very big fan of soccer, I love the sport because of the finesse of the game,” he says. “I cheer for Mexico . . . but also Colombia, Equador, Chile, Costa Rica, United States, Brazil, Argentina, so all these things make me very, very happy to do this, to be part of the game. Because in one way or another, we’re related, we’re related with that sense of soccer. I love soccer, I love the game, I find it so passionate, it gets in your blood, it’s hard to explain it.”
Back in downtown Toronto, Jamieson Kerr is taking some 40 inquiries a day about England’s opening game Saturday night against Italy. The owner of The Queen and Beaver Public House is telling fans to be there at least three to four hours before kickoff to get a seat.
“We will be extremely busy, obviously the England games are the busiest days of the week for us, and it will be almost tough to get in here because people will be camping out to get in here,” said Kerr, who was born in Canada, but grew up in Essex, northeast of London.
“As far as the other games go, some of the top teams — Spain, Holland, we’ll be packed, Germany, Portugal — for the first round. And then for the quarter-finals, we’ll be packed every day. Very very busy.”
Kerr opened the English-style pub in 2009. There’s an autographed and framed Ryan Giggs Manchester United jersey hanging on the upstairs wall. The special on the menu on this night is pork pie and pickles.
While it was jam-packed for the men’s hockey final during the last two winter Olympics, and when the Toronto Maple Leafs were in the playoffs last season, soccer is Kerr’s game.
He’s hedging his bets about England.
“I hate to say it, I’m not massively confident, but having said that, they could surprise. They have a lot less pressure this year. I think if they get through the group, they’ll surprise people, but it will be tough,” Kerr says. “England-Uruguay is the (key) game. Italy, I think we’ve got a chance to draw Italy, I don’t know if we’ll beat them. But I think it hinges on England-Uruguay. Depends on how fit (Uruguay striker Luis) Suarez is.
“I think we can get through, I think it’s 50-50, I think anybody English feels that way.”