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Here’s to cheering for the other person’s soccer team

The guy who sells soccer shirts in national team colours in my local mall is an Arab; his friendly wife wears a head scarf. He is very knowledgeable about the regulations that make a national shirt official – this year's European Cup insists that there be no large country name on the front, just a crest on the left breast. He is very sorry that he only has the red Polish shirts – I want the white one – but he has them in all sizes.

He knows the names of the star players on each national team, and can search his stock for them. He is not as amused as I am by the fact that the striker who scored for England, against France, Joleon Lescott, has a last name probably derived from French, whereas the guy who scored for France is called Samir Nasri (also a now typical French name).

I guess it seems natural in this neighbourhood that a contest of emotional patriotic nationalisms be thoroughly interbred.

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The shirt seller's retail neighbours in the mall are almost entirely Portuguese – as is the whole area, indeed almost the entire west end of Toronto, a city-within-a-city bigger than most towns. The Portuguese are relatively recent immigrants (mostly from the Azores) and so most still speak Portuguese at home. In the mall, the Azorean sports-memorabilia sellers specialize, paradoxically, in signed National Hockey League jerseys and hockey cards.

The whole city right now is decked out in lurid polyester shirts proclaiming some national heritage, and every third car is flying bright flags. It is a brief suspension of all aesthetic sense in clothing, especially for men, who are embracing polyester every day. For several kilometres around me in every direction, it's nothing but the red and green of Portugal. So it is that when I watched a game (Germany against Portugal) inside an Italian pizzeria in Kensington Market, the Italo-Canadian staff and the tables of Anglo-Canadians alike were cheering for Portugal. In the entire western half of Toronto, the Portuguese team has become the stand-in for Canada.

We've seen these odd substitutions in international fandom before, even just this week: On Tuesday, the Canadian national team played Honduras in Toronto in a World Cup qualifying match. Half the fans in the crowd – Canadians all – were cheering for Honduras. There are 14,000 people of Honduran descent living in Canada. And their hostility to the Canadian team has been such that the fans were separated, European-style, in the bleachers by barriers. Those same fans would probably cheer for the Canadian hockey team in the Olympics.

And we've seen before that Portuguese-Canadian soccer fans tend to become Brazilian en masse during World Cup tournaments, once Portugal has been eliminated.

There was a large table of Germans in that Italian pizzeria. They had planted a German flag as a centrepiece and were being loud. They looked exactly like the Anglo-Canadians, with their khaki shorts and their strollers and their blond kids. You would think there would be a much greater affinity between the Anglo-Canadians and them – Anglo-Saxons and Teutons are pretty close, linguistically, culturally, physically. But the Daves and Karens were rooting enthusiastically not so much for a country or an ethnicity as for their own neighbourhood, which happens to be Iberian.

I know this is an unusual part of Canada, and that the rest of the country doesn't care as much about the massive and emotional proving ground of national pride currently under way in Poland and Ukraine. Indeed, even the Canadian broadcaster of the tournament doesn't seem to care so much about it. If you went to the website of TSN earlier this week, in the middle of the competition, you would have seen on the home page a slew of news updates about the National Basketball Association or the now-over Stanley Cup or even the National Football League draft – anything but international soccer. Even if you clicked on "soccer" at the bottom of the page, you would have been taken first to a story about the U.S. men's team in qualifying rounds of the World Cup or the women's team preparing for the Olympics.

I feel as if I'm living in a different world here in the smoggy city – a world in which even the most irrational and pigheaded of nationalisms ends up being an exercise in internationalism, evidence of an overlooked success of an unpopular policy called multiculturalism.

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