Remberto Navia, 63: Soccer hero Created one of the most successful kids' leagues in Canada Pro players came by to coach, as program grew and grew http://www.thestar.com/NASApp/cs/Co...l_pageid=968332188492&call_pagepath=News/News He died at 1:30 Sunday morning, Jan. 22. He had just finished the schedule and phoned in the scores of the day's matches of his Copa El Popular soccer league at the Driftwood Community Centre, in the heart of the troubled Jane-Finch area. He collapsed at his desk, a small wooden table in the bedroom of his apartment above a strip mall hard by Highway 401, his battered briefcase with its handle wrapped in duct tape close by. Every day since, there have been a dozen condolence ads in El Popular, Toronto's Spanish-language daily newspaper. For two days, people lined up for three and four hours outside the Bernardo Funeral Home to pay their respects to his grief-stricken widow, his three sons, three daughters and 13 grandchildren. Thousands of people. And the children came, too — 10 of the teams in the league he founded 27 years ago because he didn't like seeing kids not having fun — proud in their jerseys, taking 10-minute turns on either side of the casket, standing so tall, young and sad-eyed, honouring him. In the church, they formed a procession through which the casket passed en route to the burial. Police stopped Jane St. traffic so that the funeral cortege could pause outside the Driftwood Community Centre, where he had spent every Saturday and Sunday for decades. The flag there was at half-mast; the staff rushed out to the street, tearful, waving. Hundreds lingered at the mausoleum; nobody wanted to say goodbye. His name was Remberto Navia and you have probably never heard of him. He came to Canada from Ecuador in 1973; for a decade, he worked two jobs — as a courier and as a night cleaner at the Constellation Hotel — and he single-handedly created one of the largest and most successful children's soccer leagues in the country. All without ever taking one dime from the government. "I used to tell him to apply for grants," said Councillor Peter Li Preti, who delivered one of the eulogies at the service. "If the city had to pay for his program, it would have cost tens of thousands of dollars." But Navia, 63, would just smile — he was always smiling — and say he was happy doing things himself. Officially the league was called the Driftwood Hispanic Soccer League; unofficially everyone has always called it the Copa El Popular, which was the name of the first tournament that Navia convinced Eduardo Uruena, El Popular newspaper's editor, to sponsor 27 years ago. "He's one of those guys who comes to you very humble, with a very nice, honest smile and you can't say no," Uruena said. "I thought it was a good idea. He thought it was a dream." And the one-time-only tourney became an annual event, with Uruena and the paper, and later local chiropractor Robert Gringmuth and Li Preti, all helping defray some of the costs of the hundreds of trophies Navia liked to hand out every year to the kids. "He would invent prizes," his daughter Patricia said. "He bought 4-foot shiny trophies because he thought the kids would love them." And so the league grew to 65 teams, and the schedule expanded to almost 11 full hours Saturdays and Sundays, winter and then summer in the outdoors. Word got out that the kids up at Driftwood were playing high-quality soccer, and parents from Mississauga, Vaughan and Scarborough started signing up their offspring. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- `Dad loved soccer, but he never played it. It was always about the kids for him.' Remberto Navia's daughter Liliana -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Pro players such as Carlos Rivas, who played for Chile in the 1982 World Cup and now runs a soccer school here, was so impressed he coached some teams. Lula Maradona, brother of Argentine champ Diego, also coached for awhile. There are plenty of success stories — Patricia said her dad could recite them all — including the de Guzman brothers. Julian is playing professionally for Spain and Jonathan for Holland. But Navia had other success stories — the local kids he let into the league, quietly covering the $100 they needed to register and outfit themselves, the ones who stayed on track in school, and when they were older came back to coach or work with the other 150 volunteers. Then there were the adults, new to Canada, whom he hired to help his wife Gelma sell the hotdogs and soft drinks at the snack bar or work with one of his children collecting the $2.50 admission fee. "We all worked there," Patricia said with a laugh. "It was the only way we could see him." He missed their weddings and baptisms because he couldn't and wouldn't leave the gym. "He always came to the party at night," Patricia said. "`Please understand me,' he would say. `I can't leave it.'" They did understand, because three of his children help out weekends and all six played soccer — unlike their father. "Dad loved soccer, but he never played it," said youngest daughter Liliana. "It was always about the kids for him." Navia was in his element in the finals, when 600 people would crowd into the gym, waving flags, signs and singing national anthems. He'd take the microphone and, with great flourish, announce each player one at a time. As the crowd roared, each child would run out to the centre of the gym, shake hands with the referee, then join his or her teammates for a photo. After the game, there would be a victory lap round the gym, then trophies all round. For the last few years, Navia had been spending the time between the finals in June and the start of the indoor league in September at his family's farm near Porto Viejo, a coastal Ecuadorean town. His son Ivan ran the summer league, while he oversaw the family's 20-room hostel. His children urged him to retire there, but he always returned to Canada, to Jane-Finch, to the gym. He rented a basement apartment in Jane-Finch for the family when they first arrived in Canada, then moved to a five-bedroom townhouse at Jane and Shoreham Dr., south of Steeles. But they left when it became tough, Patricia said, although Navia still loved the area. "He used to say that sport would at least give the kids there one happy moment in the week." A modest apartment in the Jane-Wilson area was his last home. Navia was devastated when someone broke into his car outside that apartment two weeks before he died. Much worse, a week later kids at the centre snatched the box containing the entrance fees from his wife. "He felt betrayed by the kids. He had always given them free hotdogs," Patricia said. Although he knew the identity of the culprits, he refused to confront or report them. He told Patricia they probably needed the money. He also told her he was feeling tired. His wife knew this and begged him to stop running the league, staying all day, all weekend at the centre, setting up before the games, sweeping the floors after them. "No," he told her. "This is what I will do until the day I die."