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When Italian soccer fans of all ages see names like Salvatore Schillaci, Dino Baggio and Simone Perrotta, they no doubt will recall memories of each of those players performing for the Azzurri in a World Cup. They’ll remember each of them starring for different Italian squads on remarkable runs to the final stages of the competition in three separate World Cup tournaments. On March 5th, 2016, generations of Italian soccer fans will have the opportunity to unite and cheer on these and other former Italian stars once again when the first edition of a new venture called “Italian Football Heroes” will be staged in Toronto.

At the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Salvatore “Toto’” Schillaci became an instant Italian hero. Coming on as a substitute in Italy’s first game, Schillaci went on to score six goals in the tournament, claiming the Golden Boot as the leading scorer, and the Golden Ball as player of the tournament. Italy’s magical run however ended with a semifinal loss to Argentina and the Azzurri went on to capture the bronze medal with a win over England in the consolation final. An overnight sensation with the Azzurri, Schillaci’s club career in Italy didn’t produce as many memorable moments but he will forever be grateful for the opportunity he had to wear the Italian jersey.

“The highest honour I had was playing with Juventus,” Schillaci recalled in a recent interview from his home in Italy, “because it allowed me to reach the National Team. I achieved great success with the Azzurri. We had a great World Cup but were not able to win it, even if we had a great team, perhaps the greatest Italian team ever.

 
“That success with the national team has allowed me today to work abroad. I’m sought after for events such as this one coming up in Canada. An important accomplishment like this has perhaps only been achieved by Paolo Rossi and myself.”

“I was the first Italian to go to Asia. For me it was a positive experience. I think Italian players must show their passion and professionalism outside Italy’s borders.” – Salvatore Schillaci

After a brief stint with Inter, Schillaci ended his playing career in Japan, where he enjoyed his time. “I was the first Italian to go to Asia”, Schillaci proclaimed. “For me it was a positive experience. I think Italian players must show their passion and professionalism outside Italy’s borders.”

Schillaci is supportive of the recent trend of Italian players choosing to move abroad to play in Major League Soccer. “Soccer is growing rapidly in North America,” said Schillaci. “There are many teams investing in top talent. Giovinco, for instance, is still a National Team player and has demonstrated his value by winning awards. This only proves that players that go overseas are not too old or have somehow failed because Giovinco, at 28, could have played in Italy but made a lifestyle choice, as well as an economic one.
 
“He also wanted to enrich his intellectual makeup, to learn English. Of course he was tempted by a rich contract that he would not have earned in Italy. But he also wanted to prove himself against the best players outside of Italy. This is important because it opens up new markets and demonstrates Italian players can compete in other leagues around the world.”

While Simone Perrotta didn’t win individual awards at the World Cup, his experience was that much sweeter because he was able to lift the ultimate prize. The rugged, hard-working midfielder was one of the key components of Marcello Lippi’s Azzurri squad that captured the World Cup almost a decade ago in Germany.
 
“When you have the good fortune to win the World Cup,” Perrotta recalled in an interview from his Italian home, “beyond that there is nothing else. I didn’t win many trophies but I was satisfied with my career because a player’s satisfaction is not only measured by the number of trophies they win but also by the personal situations you experience with the team, the city and the fans.

“When you say the World Cup, it’s every kids’ dream. To wear the jersey, to play in the World Cup and to win it, that goes beyond any imagination, any dream.” – Simone Perrotta

“I remember the years at Roma and at Chievo, when we were a newly promoted side that was first in the league for three months and I was only 23, so those are also great moments. When you say the World Cup, it’s every kid’s dream. To play in the World Cup and to win it, that goes beyond any imagination, any dream.”

Perrotta, who was actually born in England but raised in Italy, is also a supporter of Italians playing abroad and looks favourably upon MLS. “It’s obviously a league that’s growing thanks in part to the fact that many world class players are performing there,” Perrotta said. “It’s certainly attractive for the experience to learn a new culture, a new language. English is universal so you can work in any industry. It’s also attractive on a professional level because, whereas in years past you would have been playing with, at best, semi-pro players, in the past decade, the league has improved thanks to so many experienced players.”

The man behind “Italian Football Heroes” is Italian media and marketing expert Federico Fantini. Through a sports business management course he founded, he developed a relationship with Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the Canadian sports empire that owns, among other franchises, Toronto FC of MLS. Taking notice of the large Italian community in the Greater Toronto Area, and with the backing of MLSE, Fantini proposed the idea for an Italian Legends showcase unlike any other. The event combines soccer and popular music, two of Italy’s greatest passions. The setting is the 8-thousand seat indoor arena, Ricoh Coliseum, an intimate venue that will bring fans closer to their heroes.

“Since this is our first attempt,” Fantini explained, “we felt it was better to strive for a sold out arena with an enthusiastic crowd and have people wanting tickets rather than going to a larger venue and only selling 25% of it. As a first time event, this initiative carries with it a great deal of risk. But we’re confident that the dimensions of the Ricoh are just the right size to create a positive ambience for the next event.
We’re looking to make this an annual event and, if the demand is there, we can take it to the Air Canada Centre or even to an expanded BMO Field in an open-air setting.”

“The idea of the legends is growing because big pro clubs are using their legendary stars as club ambassadors for their brand” – Federico Fantini

In fact, Fantini is already working on exporting the event to other prospective cities across Canada and around the world. “We’ve already been in contact with local groups to set up similar ventures in Vancouver, Montreal, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires, even China,” Fantini admitted. “There’s a lot of interest. The idea of the legends is growing because big pro clubs are using legends as club ambassadors for their brand. We want to form relationships with reliable contacts in those destinations.
 
“In South Africa,” continued Fantini, “there’s a significant Italian community, not as large as that in Canada, but we’re working with entrepreneurs there that will help us direct the promotion not only to the Italian market but also to other communities. South Africa has a respectable soccer culture thanks to the 2010 World Cup and the phenomenal growth since then. In China it may be a game with an international all star selection that will obviously attract more than just one ethnic community.”

In this first outing, the Italian Heroes squad will face a Canadian All-Star selection that includes Paul Stalteri, the all time record holder in appearances for the Canadian National Team. The format will be a 7-aside game played over three 20-minute periods, similar to hockey, with live entertainment during the intermissions. And, also like hockey, player substitutions will be made on the fly. A VIP meet and greet with players from both teams will precede the game. Popular Italian artist Enzo Ghinazzi (better known as “Pupo”) will perform and act as the event’s Master of Ceremonies.

Schillaci and Perrotta are enthusiastic about the event and can’t wait to return to Canada where they hope to be embraced by a community they both know quite well. “I’m happy to come back to Canada, and Toronto in particular,” Schillaci said. “I was just in Toronto recently. This is the third time I’ve travelled to Canada. I always enjoy meeting Italians in other parts of the world, particularly Sicilians as I am one.
“We’re a group of players who travel the world,” added Schillaci. “We were just recently in Congo and we were also in Russia. We meet Italians wherever we go so we just want to put a smile on their faces. We’re looking forward to meeting the Italian community.”
“We were (in Toronto) two years ago for a game against the Portuguese legends,” said Perrotta. “And it was nice to embrace the Italian community again. Plus, I’m originally from Calabria and there are many people from that region so for us it’s nice to embrace the community and offer a day of enjoyment for our countrymen.”
 
“It’s a way to see one another and to relive emotions that are part of our past,” continued Perrotta. “But the goal is to export our Made in Italy brand abroad where we always feel appreciated.”

Tickets for the event are now on sale. Visit italianfootballheroes.com for details.

Italian Heroes Roster:
1. Angelo Peruzzi – 31 caps | Former goalkeeper, Roma | Current assistant coach, Sampdoria
2. Ciro Ferrara – 49 caps | Former Italian National Deputy Head Coach
3. Francesco Colonnese – UEFA Cup winner, 1998
4. Max Tonetto – 1 cap | Winner, Coppa Italia, 2007, 2009 & Supercoppa Italiana, 2007
5. Dino Baggio – 60 caps | 1994 FIFA World Cup, UEFA Cup 1992 – 93, 1994 – 95, 1998 – 99, Coppa Italia 1998 – 99, Supercoppa Italiana 1999
6. Damiano Tommasi – 25 caps | Italian National Team 1998 – 2003, Super Coppa Italiana 2001
7. Simone Perrotta – 48 caps | 2006 World Cup Winner
8. Angelo Di Livio – 40 caps | Italian National Team 1995 – 2002
9. Bernardo Corradi – 13 caps | Italian National Team 2003 – 2004
10. Toto Schillaci – 17 caps | Bronze Medal in 1990 World Cup
11. Luigi Di Biagio – 31 caps | 1998 – 2002
12. Head Coach: Mr. Renzo Ulivieri – Current chairman of the Italian Football Managers Association

Canadian National All Star Team:
1. Paul Stalteri – 84 caps (national record) | Canadian National Team 1997 – 2010
2. Jim Brennan – Canadian National Team 1999 – 2008, Former Toronto FC Manager (first assistant)
3. Marco Reda – Canadian National Team 2005 – 2008
4. Joe Mattachionne – 2006 Toronto Lynx Assistant Coach
5. Rob Aristodemo – Canandian National Team, 1997 – 2000
6. Chris Pozniak – Canadian National Team, 2002 – 2009
7. Jason Bent – Toronto FC Assistant Coach, 2011-2014
8. Rick Titus – Toronto Lynx Assistant Coach, 2007 – 2008
9. Ali Gerba – 2005 – 2011, Canadian National Team

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