Stalteri fuels enthusiasm for Spurs' European quest

Canadian learned trade among Germany's élite
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The Independent Online

Paul Stalteri doesn't know why he is nicknamed "Diesel" - "it's an all-right name for a wrestler or something," he says - but it probably has a lot to do with his powerful and efficient style of play.

He is also, as the sobriquet suggests, somewhat unspectacular. But in a Tottenham Hotspur squad brimming with youth and fragile potential, the arrival of a seasoned Champions' League player over the summer, and on a free transfer, represented an astute piece of business.

Stalteri's credentials are indeed impressive; he played an ever-present role in Werder Bremen's league and cup double the season before last, thereby becoming the first Canadian footballer to win a title in one of the five major European leagues. That can be added to his fame back home, where he has also earned 50 caps playing for his country, whose football fans - known as "The Voyageurs" - dreamed up the fuel-related nickname.

"It's actually a good place to go on vacation because no one bothers you," Stalteri says when asked about his profile in his hometown of Etobicoke, a suburb of Toronto on the banks of Lake Ontario. "Football's not the main sport. The interest is still in basketball and hockey."

Stalteri himself is also into the latter - his hero is the legendary Edmonton Oiler Wayne Gretzky - but as one of three sons of an Italian immigrant father (a hairdresser by trade) it was too expensive to pursue. "Having two brothers, it was too much for us," Stalteri explains. "If one played, we all had to play. Instead it was football, which is much cheaper."

After being offered a university scholarship in South Carolina, Stalteri, who, to add to his exotic background, has a mother who was born in Guyana of Portuguese descent, opted to stay in Canada and play for the Toronto Lynx.

It was there that he was spotted by a Bremen scout, invited to Germany and offered a trial. His chances of succeeding were rated, by himself, at more than "1,000 to one" but, aged 20, he earned a contract. Still he had to wait almost three years for his Bundesliga debut.

"It took maybe 12 months longer than I would have liked," Stalteri says. "But it was probably the best thing for me. I learned my trade and so when my debut came I was really ready, mentally as much as anything." He made his mark. Playing as a makeshift striker against Cottbus, Stalteri scored.

"It was great to score. It's always fun," he says; he thereby became the first Canadian to do so in the Bundesliga. "I was playing in a number of different positions at that time. I think that I've played everywhere for Canada, although mainly in midfield." However, he concedes his best position is right-back, where he settled in Germany and where he has impressed this season.

"I try to be an honest player out there," Stalteri adds. "I think the fans recognise that. First and foremost I put the team before myself and my performance. My goal each week is to get a win, keep a clean sheet, and my performance goes from there."

At Spurs, now aged 28, he is as much valued for his experience as his ability. "I put in a lot of time in Germany and learned from some top international players over there and hopefully I can bring some of that over here," Stalteri explains.

He has noticed the differences between the Bundesliga and the Premiership. "A different pace," Stalteri says. "And scoring goals. They've been tough to come by in the League this year. Not just for us but in general. Probably in Germany we'd score two or three goals a game. And this year they've not come easy for teams."

Another difference, and an experience he hopes will be short-lived, is the absence of European competition. "It's fantastic to play Tuesday and Wednesday nights against the biggest clubs in Europe," says Stalteri, who made his Champions' League debut against Internazionale in September last year. "And that's something we have to strive to achieve. Hopefully we can qualify for the Uefa Cup this season, which may be a realistic goal for us, and then fight for that Champions' League spot a little bit more consistently."

Today Spurs face West Ham United, knowing they have to register a win to overcome the "setback" of losing to Bolton Wanderers before the international break. "I've got used to some big games in my career," Stalteri says when asked about the prospect of another London derby with added spice because of the four former Spurs players in the visitors' side and the two ex-Hammers now residing at White Hart Lane.

Stalteri's own decision to join Spurs, on a four-year deal, was an easy one, he says. His efforts were recognised by the Bremen fans, who held up banners of thanks on the final game of last season. "I was 27, almost 28, and my contract was up in Germany and I had had some great times there. But I have always wanted to experience another country and always wanted to play in the Premiership."

In fulfilling that ambition, he joins Fulham's Tomasz Radzinski as the only Canadians playing in the top flight here. "The interest is massive," he says of how the Premiership is followed back home. "I think there are four or five games live every weekend, probably more than in England. Because of the time difference, everyone watches while having their breakfast."

Despite that, and the fact that almost one million Canadian children play football, there is still no real system to encourage them into the game full-time. "You have to do it for yourself," says Stalteri, who has undoubtedly set a good example. After all, and with that nickname, few players offer more miles to the gallon.

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