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Getting to Know ... Filiberto Tavani

Filiberto Tavani has been involved in the Atlanta soccer scene since moving here in 1979. He coached his three boys, including his middle son, Gregg, who is the head soccer coach at Duluth High School. The entire family is involved in the Tavani Soccer Camps, a seven-year enterprise that offers week long summer camps at Bunten Park in Duluth.

Filiberto Tavani grew up playing street soccer in Naples, Italy, but immigrated to the U.S. when he was 12 and lived in the New York area until his work as an electrical engineer brought him to metro Atlanta.

For this installment of "Getting to Know ...." Tavani talks with staff writer Christine Troyke about a variety of topics, including soccer in America and overseas, where his loyalties lie and learning English.

CT: So I was kind of hoping for an Italian accent.

FT: (Laughs) You got a Brooklyn accent. A Brooklyn-Italian accent.

CT: You've been involved in the Atlanta soccer scene for 30 years now?

FT: It started off when I was a kid, obviously, playing soccer. But nothing formal. You'd go in the streets and you'd play. Most of us didn't have a ball so actually we made balls out of mostly old socks. That was the thing. In cobblestone streets. That's where we played.

When I got here, there was no soccer here (the U.S.) in '56. Nothing. So I got into baseball and football and all that stuff in terms of being a fan.

But I always said, someday when I have kids, they're going to be playing soccer. So I started coaching all three of them. I did that for seven years.

In '79 we came to Atlanta from New Jersey. I grew up in New York after six months in Ohio. And mostly Brooklyn. I went to school in New York and all that sort of stuff. When I started working, got moved around to Long Island, then New Jersey and now 30 years in Atlanta.

CT: What's your opinion on why soccer's status in the U.S. remains, you know ...

FT: Second tier.

CT: When it's obviously, hands-down, the most popular sport worldwide.

FT: Yeah. If you go to Europe, Italy as an example, it's soccer. That's the sport. You have cycling races and a little bit of everything else. But soccer is the sport.

Here, you've got baseball, football, basketball. You've got all these major sports and that gets in the way. If you didn't have all those other sports, soccer would easily be as big as anywhere else.

CT: I was thinking, too, that if you tried to take American football to any other country, you'd have just as hard a time convincing them to play that instead of soccer.

FT: Much harder. They tried. They had the European football league, so they tried.

But soccer, in terms of fans, versus here - versus even football here - is more passionate. Soccer in Italy is more passionate than football fans here, as much of fanatics as they are.

I'll give you an example. As a kid, there used to be a little deli store kind of thing. Everybody talked soccer there, all the time. I remember as a kid going in there and they had a bet between a customer and the guy who owned the store. One was from Rome and one was from Naples. They said, 'We're going to beat you,' 'No, we're going to beat you.' Went through all that. And bottom line was, whoever lost had to walk naked in the street. This was in the '50s!

CT: When the U.S. and Italy play each other ...

FT: I'm an Italian fan. That's an easy one. I root for the U.S., but I'm an Italian fan. It hurts watching Italy play because every second of the way I'm watching. I know all the players. I watch all the games all year long.

CT: The U.S. was only blemish on Italy's perfect record in (the 2006 World Cup).

FT: And they scored themselves! But hey, they're champs.

CT: You moved here as a teenager?

FT: I was 12 years old.

CT: Was it a difficult transition?

FT: Well, I'll tell you what, first of all I couldn't speak English. The toughest thing was living in Ohio, because I went from a big city to a little town. At night, it was actually dark. But that only lasted five months. My mother couldn't find a job, so we moved to Brooklyn.

By the time I was in Brooklyn, there was an Italian neighborhood and after a while I became the translator for all the kids that moved in. Within a year, I could speak English and was playing stickball. I became an American kid in a short period of time.

CT: How did you learn English?

FT: It started off with television and my aunt, she spoke Italian and English. I remember my teacher in Ohio gave me 10 words every day that my aunt would tell me. I remember when I hit 'handkerchief', I said, wow, what a tough word. This is tough. The spellings in English are hard.

CT: I don't envy anybody having to learn English as a second language.

FT: But as a 12-year-old, it wasn't bad. I had television and my aunt and then Brooklyn. You get fluent in it.

But as my kids say, as my wife says, I get more Italian as I get older.

CT: Why did your family move to the U.S.?

FT: Very simple, the story of immigrants. It was my mother and I, just a better future. Pretty straightforward. I have a special place in my heart for all immigrants because I am one. Yeah, you come here just for a better future. And obviously I got one.

CT: It seems like it's still true that if you're willing to work in America you can have a better life. Whereas there are a lot of countries in the world where you can work as hard as you want and you may never get anywhere.

FT: Yep. You know, the street are paved with gold somewhat. They really are.

My mother worked in the garment industry in Manhattan. She became a seamstress and made a living. And because it was New York, I got a free college education going to City College. America has been good to me.

CT: And soccer is obviously still a big part of your family.

FT: We're a soccer family.

CT: You're wife (Elaine) even helps out.

FT: We're the gofers (laughing), my wife and I.

But it's great having mom help. She takes off from work, she works part time, and she arranges her whole schedule so she can be here all the time. Seven years ago we started this thing saying, hey, let's make it a family affair.

CT: How did you meet your wife?

FT: I'd just gotten my master's degree in Manhattan. That was in '69. So I went to celebrate. I lived in Brooklyn and went to celebrate in Manhattan. My wife worked in Manhattan. Her and her friends were in this restaurant. There was three of us and three of them. So we sent drinks over to where they were eating. Didn't even smile or anything at me. Turned out that she didn't have her glasses so she couldn't see our table.

Later on we went to sort of the bar area and, you know, we met. We started dating and that was it.

That was the first, and only time, that we had ever been to this restaurant.

CT: How often do you go back to Italy?

FT: Well, the last two years I've been back. My father is from the northern part of Italy, a place called Udine, close to the Slovenia border. My mother is from Napoli. I was born in Milano and I had blondish hair. We moved to Naples when I was about 6 years old and everybody was darker.

Even then I was a Yankee living down in the South.

And they did make fun of me because I had a 'northern accent.' But then I picked up my southern Italian accent. Which is interesting because the first time I went back, I was 25 years old, and I was in Florence. I was talking to guys in Italian and they would say, 'You're from Naples.' I was amazed. (Laughing) So I have my Napoli don accent, like down here I have a New York accent.

But last year I was back in Naples with my family there. I have cousins everywhere. My mother was the oldest one of nine. My father was one of 10 and he was the youngest. So first cousins, I have, probably 30 or 40. Of which I've met, probably half of them. But the ones in Naples, I grew up with. In fact one was my best friend. We were about the same age and like two brothers.

So we spent a week there. And the year before I went up to see the northern family.

We're not going this year, but next year. As often as I can.

CT: I think anybody would love to have an excuse to go to Italy.

FT: But if you go to Italy, you've got to go to Naples and have the best pizza in the world. It's heaven.

Italians, when they get up in the morning, they say, 'What am I going to have for dinner?' Americans, at 6 o'clock say, 'What are we having for dinner?' It's a mentality.

CT: Do you have a specialty you make yourself?

FT: Simple thing. I make a good marinara sauce. It takes 30 minutes to make and it's fabulous and the ingredients are as simple as they come. As often as I can.

SideBar: Tavani continues summer camps

DULUTH - In their seventh season, the Tavani Soccer camps have long offered top-notch coaching in the variety of skills needed to excel at the sport. A family enterprise, Duluth head soccer coach Gregg Tavani is the program's director, but his parents and brothers are also involved.

What started with a one-week camp and 50 kids, now includes five weeks in two counties and over 300 participants.

"Even through the economy, it's done pretty well," Tavani said. "We just love the game of soccer, the chance to be around family and coaching kids. It's been a lot of fun."

There are two more camps this summer, one starting Tuesday that runs through July 11 and another from July 13-17. Both camps are for boys and girls age 7 to 15 and run from 9 a.m. to noon daily at Bunten Park in Duluth. The cost $145 and includes a T-shirt, a hand-stitched soccer ball and player evaluation.

"We do a different topic every day," Tavani said. "It's passing one day, dribbling another. We have a tournament and work on shooting. It's all organized and safe for the kids."

There's also an elite camp for players age 10 to 15 who are interested in more intense training. Those run from noon until 1:30 p.m. the same weeks as the regular camps. They are $65 per session.

For more information or to register, go to www.tavanisoccer.com.

- Christine Troyke