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  • In honour of Danny D


    With thanks to the just-retired Danny Dichio for maybe the greatest moment I’ve ever had in a soccer stadium.

    As I reported, on Sportsnet.ca, back on May 15, 2007.


    Thunder on the lakeshore

    Here’s how it really feels to watch Toronto FC win at BMO Field.

    Straight off the clipboard; right from the heart …

    as soon as i get to the pressbox, i don’t want to be in the pressbox … it’s a cool beautiful sunny day in toronto and the pressbox view is obstructed by window struts and a big freaking column that all but takes out the south goal … it’s also heated in there, which is pleasant, but the atmosphere’s about as authentic as watching the game on a black-and-white tv in a laundromat … no, i’m not going to keep complaining about this, because i’m about to abandon ship … alfons rubbens (publisher of insidesoccer magazine, a guy i’d always admired but never actually met) grabs me by the arm and hauls me (dude’s got a grip!) out into the corridor, past the rows of broadcast booths, through an unmarked blue door and out – onto the roof! … open flat metal floor, with railings, directly above the last row of seats in the main grandstand of bmo field … hit hard, almost immediately, by the noise of the crowd and the stunning deep gorgeous green of the pitch … the city skyline stops your breath from here … the cn tower and the skyscrapers rise above the east grandstand like it’s wearing a crown … behind me, the heart-soaring view cuts all the way down and across lake ontario … i can literally see the buildings of downtown hamilton!

    toronto fc and the chicago fire take the field … four games in and toronto’s never won, only lost … never scored a goal … i’m not much of an anthem guy but the anthems are thrilling today … i’m lustily singing loud, flat harmony by the end … as soon as they’re over the hardcore fans behind the south goal sing and stomp, and up comes a billowing plume of white smoke … two confetti cannons go boom, covering the southeast corner and the chicago goalmouth with tiny shreds of red, white, gray – the tfc colours … and here come the seat cushions! … it’s seat cushion day and every fan got a lightweight plastic-covered foam disc to sit on … but it turns out they’re vastly better for throwing … their perfect roundness, sharp edges and a pleasant lakeside following breeze are turning average non-athletic fans into major-league right fielders … hundreds of white inflatable frisbees land simultaneously – all over the pitch! … the fans are thoroughly and deliciously enjoying their seat cushions – which is good, because it will never be seat cushion day here again!

    irish midfielder ronnie o’brien is finally in the toronto lineup, and we’re eagerly hoping his smooth, veteran presence will actually produce a few usable forward passes … it does, but for twenty-four minutes the endless, aching pattern of not being able to get the ball from the wing into the enemy goalmouth continues … and then comes one more attack and one more soggy breakdown … except this time edson buddle gets a boot into a cross-goal pass, tfc striker danny dichio slips his defender, gets there – and buries the ball firmly, finally and historically in the back of the chicago fire net … goal! … GOAL!!!

    the explosion must have thundered up to bloor street … loudest sound i heard, at first, was my own ecstatic screaming … but then came the stomping … and the shaking … and here came the seat cushions! … the cheering, throwing and clean-up scramble continued unabated for five full minutes … i swear there were tfc officials in suits scurrying here and there on the pitch, bending, stooping and picking up seat cushions … the p.a. announcer announced the goal, but dichio’s name was lost on the breeze as the thunder swelled again … the announcer then warned fans they could be ejected for throwing missiles on the pitch … the sheer impossibility of the threat rendered the whole thing comic … this was spontaneous … this was real … this was toronto? … this was FUN!!!

    ah, but it could never be that simple … chicago equalized on thirty-six minutes … the pass to chris rolfe was perfect, and his shot arced high into the top left corner with utterly no opposition from the torontos … the crowd was quiet … for the only time all day.

    but they blew up again when the game blew up, just before halftime … dichio, playing aggressively with his back to goal, backs into chicago goalie matt pickens … looks for all the world like pickens kicks at him, then the scuffle breaks out, then the scuffle ends up in the chicago net with players pouring in from both teams and the hardcore fans screaming and the seat cushions flying and the referee steps in and sees it differently from everybody else and red cards dichio along with a chicago defender but takes no action against the goalie and the stomping and hooting crescendoes as the banished players leave … the game resumes, but the hardcore fans aren’t done … they bellow obscenities at pickens, who moves some twenty yards out from his goal and pretty much stays there for the dying moments of the first half … could have been amusing if a toronto player had lobbed the ball over him from midfield, but i don’t want to hear any of the red patch boys or u-sector lads boasting about the “family atmosphere.”

    at halftime, i feel like i’ve watched an entire game … two entire games … the squadron of bagpipes on the field seems about as raucous as a single classical violin … no second half could live up to what just happened.

    but this second half almost does … with dichio banished and alecko eskandarian hurt, the tfc scoring burden falls on the flashy inconsistency of edson buddle … unfortunately, the burden flattens him … four times toronto pumps the ball into the fire’s six-yard box in the moments after the restart, and all four times buddle is out of position – almost comically so … so it’s fitting that when the game-winning goal comes, it’s off the boot of a tfc defender … just like the first goal, a multi-pronged toronto attack breaks down, but this time the ball falls to a magically wide-open kevin goldthwaite, who has time to take a look and line it up before burying it … chicago can’t craft an answer good enough to beat greg sutton in the toronto net, and top draft pick maurice edu puts it away on seventy-five minutes.

    from then on, it’s just a matter of watching history get made … the songs thunder and the grandstands shake … two policemen are seen manhandling a fan out of the stadium … maybe they caught the guy who threw all those seat cushions!

    and then, the flag! … a giant white banner – i’m guessing eighty feet wide and maybe twenty-five high – slowly unfurls in the southwest corner … fully deployed, it is spectacular, but even better is that it is moving, passing from hand to hand, section to section, all across the rapid south-end supporters’ sections … it looks like that will be the end of it – until someone in the private boxes reaches down, gets hold of a corner, and passes the flag’s leading edge across the empty space and into the main grandstand … its journey extended, the banner has time to reach the other end of the field, arriving there just as the final whistle sounds.

    how do you catch your breath when your heart is pumping like that? … toronto fc wins for the very first time and it’s a great story, but on this day, the experience trumped the story … never – NEVER – have i seen a toronto sports crowd behave like this … this is different, folks … this has never happened here … the authentic soccer experience, transported here through the unlikliest pile-up of circumstances i ever expect to encounter, has produced an entirely new species of toronto sports fan – out of thin air … and if you haven’t seen it, get on down here … the tradition, hide-bound toronto idea that soccer is a boring sport where no one ever scores is being blown up – right in the shadows of old fort york – in a thunder of noise, passion, drama, confetti, cheering, singing and stomping you literally have to see to believe … it’s time to throw out all the old perceptions, forget the things you thought you knew, and get down to bmo field to be part of this … if you’re lucky enough to be able to get a ticket.


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