IT’S A SUNNY EVENING at a soccer park on the eastern edge of Thornhill, and Toronto FC’s star forward is planting slalom poles into the ground. Around him clamours a group of nine- and 10-year-old kids clad in soccer kits, eager to get their training started as they juggle balls with their feet. Finally, Danny Dichio blows his whistle.
Practice at the Thornhill Soccer Club has officially begun.
With military efficiency, the team falls into single file. One by one, they duck and weave between the slalom poles.
“Don’t touch them sticks!” bellows Dichio in his thick London accent.
Course completed, each kid scoops up the ball and heads it over to Dichio at the far end of the obstacle course, where they’re rewarded with a quick high five.
At 6’4” Dichio towers over the tykes, but he’s got a gentle manner that belies his tough-guy character. When a young player approaches Dichio with an untied cleat, the superstar quickly descends to one knee and fixes the problem — a gesture you might not expect from the man who strides the field like a colossus.
Training tomorrow’s stars of the pitch has become a significant part of the life Dichio leads beyond the bright lights and cheering crowds of BMO Field. In his role as technical director of Thornhill Soccer Club, Dichio puts in two to three nights every two weeks, developing new training regimens and spotting young talent for the club’s competitive squads.
“It’s fantastic,” says the veteran footballer, 34, of his job. “It’s something I definitely want to get into and this is a great experience for me, for what I want to achieve when I’m finished playing.”
Dichio is still a commanding presence on the field, notching three goals and two assists so far with TFC this season, but he confirmed in March that the current season will be his last, making now a perfect time to start the transition to coaching.
With permanent resident status here in Canada, a house in Toronto and baby number four due in October (“I’m working on a five-a- side squad,” he jokes), it looks like Dichio and his family are here to stay, which bodes well for both TFC and TSC in the years to come.
“I’m here until I get kicked out,” he says. “We’re here as a family. My kids and my wife really like it and they’re settled here. We’ve been made to feel welcome here. I’ve got a rapport with the fans and with this club, so for me and my family to be happy off the pitch is an even bigger bonus.”
Dichio’s connection to the club began informally last year, when he was introduced to the Thornhill Soccer Club through a contact at local sports apparel shop. Towards the end of the season Dichio sat in on training sessions and gave some input on how to improve the players’ technique. Then, last May, the relationship was finally made official, and the club couldn’t be happier to have him.
“He works exceptionally well with the children,” says Thornhill Soccer Club president Gerry Salvati. “He’s got the respect and the attention of the kids all the time. There are a lot of awestruck kids, there’s no question about it. But once he starts the training, the kids are attentive. They’re like sponges and they pick up everything he has to say. He speaks with authority without being domineering. It’s an all-around positive experience and that’s what we’re here to provide.”
For Dichio, it’s simply a matter of paying it forward. Dichio grew up with a love for the beautiful game with his Italian dad and English mom and sister in West London. Dad, a diehard AC Milan fan, saw talent in the boy at an early age and set out to make sure his natural prowess didn’t go to waste. Life as a kid was therefore somewhat strict (other boys were allowed to play in the street well past his bedtime), but looking back, Dichio admits his family did him a good turn, given the payoff. At 9, Dichio was signed to the Queen’s Park Rangers (or QPR) youth system.
“My father was a major mentor, very soccer-crazy as Italians are,” laughs Dichio. “It’s different over here, where you’ve got a lot of different sports to get involved in at a young age. There’s hockey, baseball, football or whatever. In England, 99 per cent of the kids want to be a soccer player. It was a dream that came true for me. I had to work hard at it,but I had a good family behind me that was very disciplined with me. Sometimes too hard, but looking back I see that they did it for a reason, and I thank them for that.”
Dichio got his big break in 1993, when the Rangers called him up to play for the senior club in the English Premiership, the top soccer league in Britain and one of the most lucrative in the world in which to play.
Along the way, Dichio played for various community clubs, including Forest United, where he first matched wits with childhood friend and soccer demi-god David Beckham. The friendly rivalry continues to this day whenever Beckham comes to town. “We go for coffees whenever we see each other,” says Dichio. “He’s not keen on all the attention he gets. He’s as shy now as he was then.”
For fans on this side of the pond, Dichio’s most notable achievement came on May 12, 2007, a moment otherwise known to fans as “23:13.” — the time on the clock at which Dichio scored TFC’s first-ever goal. The goal sent the BMO Field faithful into a roaring frenzy, prompting those in attendance to hurl their commemorative seat cushions onto the field in celebration. To this day, fans sing and chant his name when the game clock strikes 23:13.
“Yeah, the fans remind me of it. I’m surprised they do after the beers they’ve drunk,” Dichio laughs. “It was a hot day for an Englishman, and the crowd was on top of their game as usual. I remember the whole scenario happening in slow motion. The ball came across, and I caught the defender marking me napping and I put it in. Then about 2,000 seat cushions hit me on the back of the head. It could have been anyone that day. I’m a very lucky man. That’s up there with my favourite moments. It was a tremendous feeling.”
In all, then, it’s a tremendous coup for the Thornhill Soccer Club to nab a veteran of both English and Italian soccer at his most intense and competitive. He has staked his claim with authority in both, and has become one of Toronto FC’s most celebrated players.
Back at the soccer pitch, the kids are put through their paces. But Dichio’s objective, he says, is to find the balance between pointing out what can be improved while making sure players don’t get discouraged.
“A kid might hit the target seven times out of ten,” he said. “But if I can correct them a little bit so that they hit the target nine times out of ten, that works better than telling him he’s doing something wrong. They might go home not angry, but thinking they’re not the best player in the world, which many do at that age. And we don’t want that. We don’t want to just build their skills. We want to build their character.”