When it comes to the beautiful game there's no disputing it courses through the veins of Hawke's Bay United import player Joe Zupo.

That's because football is entrenched in Zupo's genetic template even though he was born in Toronto, Canada, and his father played ice hockey "as a good Canadian trying to acclimatise to the culture".

The 26-year-old defender, plying his trade for the Thirsty Whale Bay United franchise team this season in the national summer league, owes his love of the game to his Italian heritage.

He vividly recalls visiting his grandfather, the late Saverio Zupo, as a youngster to for Sunday dinners and watching the premier professional Italian league matches, Serie A, which is a far cry now from the 1990s.

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His grandfather had emigrated to Canada from Bari, Italy, when Joe's father, Tony, was barely knee high.

"I remember watching guys like [Zinedane] Zidane and [Alessandro] Del Piero," says Zupo who used to hoof the ball around the backyard with his grandfather, who died in 2007, as a toddler.

"I have to credit him for falling in love with the game as a young person," he says before Bay United host Waitakere United in week seven of the ISPS Handa Premiership match at Bluewater Stadium, Napier, in a 2pm kick off tomorrow.

The Brett Angell-coached side are still trying to throw the monkey off their back in eking out a victory at home since a winless patch last season.

Bill Robertson, the Bay United captain and assistant coach last season, is in the mix of Chris Millicich-coached visitors after Waitakere United threw him a lifeline last month when Angell dropped him from his squad following overall disenchantment in the franchise's inability to make the playoffs in finishing eighth after five seasons of traction.

If the 33-year-old centreback, who has won two premiership crowns with Team Wellington, takes the field it'll add some spice to the clash for home fans.

Zupo echoes the sentiments of fans players that Bay United's campaign to date isn't much to write home about after two draws and three losses.

However, the 2-all draw against Team Wellington on the road last weekend has created glimpses of hope and progress.

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"I think we showed a lot of character to come out in the second half and not kind of buckle after we were 1-0 down at halftime," he says.

Every player under the captaincy of Sam Mason-Smith needs to take account of Angell's feedback in training to improve their lot as they languish in ninth place on the 10-team table, two points above winless, pointless Wellington Phoenix Reserves.

"We might be able to turn the season around in the next couple of games but we need to put three points on the board as soon as possible, that's for sure."

He suspects, like other oppositions, fifth-placed Waitakere United won't be easybeats.
"For multiple reasons I know they've got some attacking players offering some threat going forward."

It'll be a grave mistake, Zupo says, for Bay United to turn up at Park Island to expect things to happen without taking ownership.

Joe Zupo helps coach youngsters in Napier but he harbours ambitions to continue doing that once he retires from playing to work as a history teacher in Canada. Photo/Warren Buckland
Joe Zupo helps coach youngsters in Napier but he harbours ambitions to continue doing that once he retires from playing to work as a history teacher in Canada. Photo/Warren Buckland

A striker/midfielder as a youngster, he started helping put up the storm shutters in the backline in his late teens because he couldn't plant the ball into the net.

"My coach decided to chuck me in the back to keep them [opposition strikers] out and I think that kind of worked."

He reconciles the backbenchers' role with a yearning as a youngster to be in the centre of the action at a park so he simply sees his role now in retaining his position but on the other end of the paddock.

Zupo, who still speaks in Italian with his father, is indebted to his entire family for how far he has got in trying to carve a niche in the professional arena considering his parents supported him unconditionally in trials and even travelled to Europe to watch him hone his skills.

"I like to think I'm proud of what I've achieved," says the bloke who believes the hallmarks of a good defender entails switching on for 90-plus minutes because a momentary lapse of concentration can be disastrous.

The complexity of that portfolio, compared with more than two decades ago, isn't lost on him where doing the "one thing and one thing only" is now redundant.

Zupo reveals football is not the most supported sport in ice hockey-mad Canada but it was getting better although former Football Ferns coach John Herdman had the female national team in a good space and was entering the male domain as well as a mentor.

At 13 he had gravitated towards ice hockey to hang out with mates but it was a little too late to bridge the gap.

It helped that Toronto FC, Major Soccer League campaigners, became professional when he was 14.

But his break as a teenager came from Kingston FC with Irishman Colm Muldoon at the helm as coach.

"I was playing with guys who had played professionally before and had been overseas ... so I thought I could play at a decent level."

He didn't think it was viable for him to carve a career until he was 20.

Not long after Zupo jetted off to Australia to play for Cairns FC in the second division of the National Premier League in Queensland in winter.

He then switched to Tasmania in 2016 before returning home the following year.

It is his first visit to New Zealand, thanks to his interaction with injured former Bay United and Thirsty Whale Napier City Rovers defender Fergus Neil who played for Kingston FC in 2014.

"It's been a really amazing experience because I've managed to see some places in the world and meet people so for me to do all that and play football at the same time mean I have no complaints about that."

Zupo says he had deposited Neil's endorsement and felt it was an opportune time to make the flight from across the Tasman to play here over the Canadian winter.

He believes the standard here is "very good" although he has had a taste of playing in the FFA Cup against Hyundai A-League campaigners Sydney FC.

Playing alongside the likes of Paul Ifill, Cam Lindsay and Mason-Smith in Bay United is a highlight for him.

"They are some of the players you can grow from playing in and around them in training."

A qualified history teacher, Zupo also hopes to mentor school children to playing a good standard of the beautiful game when he eventually graces the classroom in his country of birth after his playing career ends.

BOTH TEAMS

HAWKE'S BAY UTD: 1 Mack Waite (GK), 2 Anders Eriksson, 3 Liam Schoffield, 4 Cam Lindsay, 5 Joe Zupo, 6 Dan Allan, 7 Cory Chettleburgh, 8 Paul Ifill, 9 Sam Mason- Smith, 10 Sho Goto, 11 Maxime Oliveri, 12 Ben Lack, 14 Birhanu Taye, 15 Dilan Nanayakkara, 17 Jordan Lamb, 21 Bjorn Christensen, 22 Karan Mandair, 23 Jorge Akers, 26 Alex Britton (RGK).
Coach: Brett Angell.
Ast co-coaches: Paul Ifill, Jamie Dunning.
Strength: Chris Treacher.
Physiotherapist: Aaron Shirley.
Manager: James Calder.

WAITAKERE UTD: 1 Danyon Drake (GK), 2 Luke Jorgensen, 3 Kohei Matsumoto, 4 Ben Gordon, 5 Alex Solomons, 6 Dylan Burns, 7 Oscar Browne, 8 Samuel Burfoot, 9 Alex Connor McClean, 10 Eder Franchini Pasten, 11 Sanni Issa, 12 Matthew Conroy, 14 David Parkinson, 17 Jake Butler, 18 Lachie McIsaac, 19 Bill Robertson, 20 Oliver Bassett, 21 Andrew Abba, 22 Silvio Roddick (RGK), 28 Nicholas Draper (RGK).
Coach: Chris Millicich.
Ast co-coaches: Carl Jorgensen, Chad Coombes.
Manager: Grant Robertson.