'Inter' name poses Real problem for club
T.O.'s MLS entry needs more inclusive moniker
Major League Soccer is working very hard to get its new brand of pandering just right. Largely unable to interest mainstream America, the league has turned its sights on the ethnic fans most attached to the beautiful game.
So when Toronto's MLS franchise debuts in spring 2007, it seems it's going to do so brimming with Italian brio. It's been widely reported that the team will be called Inter Toronto FC, a name inspired by Serie A club Inter Milan. Team owner Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment has neither confirmed nor denied the widespread rumour.
At first blush, this is a clear sop to the 200,000 or so members of Toronto's Italian community. But for every Inter fan in this city, there's an Italian Juventus, AC Milan or Roma supporter who won't like the idea one bit. It's more likely that MLSE's braintrust thought the name suited our multicultural make-up since Inter Milan was born as an immigrant experiment.
In the early 20th century, the Milan Cricket and Football Club didn't accept non-Italians as members. So in 1908 a group of unhappy Swiss players and some Italian rebels formed their own side. They named it Internazionale to celebrate its multinational character. Thus the nickname "Inter." The MCFC would go on to become their bitter modern rivals, AC Milan.
When MLS kicked off in 1996, it did so with team names like the Crew, the Mutiny and the Rapids — American names. After the 2004 season, the thinking shifted to accommodate the league's fastest growing fan base.
The Dallas Burn was renamed FC Dallas ("F" for futbol rather than football), acknowledging that the club's core support came from the Latino community. An expansion franchise aimed at Los Angeles's Spanish speakers was named Deportivo Chivas. Another in Utah, where Latinos make up more than one-tenth of the population, was dubbed Real Salt Lake. Most white Utahns, even the soccer fans, mistakenly pronounced it "Reel" instead of "Ray-al."
When the San Jose Earthquakes moved to Houston for the 2006 season, they tried a variation on the league's new theme. Officials christened the club Houston 1836 to mark the year of the city's birth. It's common for German sides to note the year of a club's creation in their names (e.g. Munich 1860, Bayer 04 Leverkusen). This time, the moniker blew up in their faces.
As in Dallas, L.A. and Salt Lake City, a large part of MLS's Houston strategy was to attract Latinos.
So when the team's target audience pointed out that 1836 also marked the year white Texans bloodily seceded from Mexico, it was cause for concern. When the issue spilled into the larger political debate of Texas, a state where one in three citizens claims Mexican ancestry, it became a crisis. Before it had played a game, the club was renamed Houston Dynamo.
That's not to suggest any sort of ethnic revolt is going to happen in Toronto. But naming the team Inter annoys non-Italian fans, Italian fans who don't like Inter and the vast sports-going public who has no idea what the name means. Even Inter Milan's fans could conceivably object to an upstart side equating itself with the Italian giant.
Appealing directly to Mexican-Americans in cities where Anglo locals politely ignore your product is one thing, but picking ethnic favourites in Toronto is all downside. Someone's bound to feel left out.
Also, aping the names of bigger clubs only calls attention to what MLS isn't — a European league.
In the end, the team name has to make a compromise between pleasing the relatively few knowledgeable local fans while not alienating the legion of others who might warm up to Toronto soccer, but need to be coaxed along gently.
And here's the thing about compromises — they usually bother someone.
Houston's compromise — Dynamo — echoes Dynamo Moscow. That club was named and controlled for many years by the Soviet secret police. Fortunately for MLS, Houston's eastern European émigré community doesn't have the clout to mess with Texas.