The challenges of pursuing soccer stardom

Illustration by Afshin Sabouki

Illustration by Afshin Sabouki

Despite the popularity of recreational soccer, many Canadian youth soccer players face significant challenges pursuing a career in soccer due to an underdeveloped soccer system and limited opportunities to progress professionally.

“Canadian soccer is making it almost impossible for a youth player to develop into an elite level soccer player if they are not streamed into the top tier of soccer by the time they are 12,” writes former Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Martin Rennie on his blog.

“Young Canadian players that are coming out of youth academies, high schools and colleges are almost all below the standard required to play in Major League Soccer.”

Recreational Soccer Participation on the rise

Recreational soccer programs enable youth like Style to learn the fundamentals of the game.|Photo by Smon Yee

Recreational soccer programs enable youth like Style to learn the fundamentals of the game.|Photo by Smon Yee

According to a 2013 Department of Canadian Heritage report on sports participation, soccer is the most regularly played sport by both boys and girls aged 5 to 14, followed by swimming and hockey. In addition, soccer was the only major sport that increased in overall participation between 2005 and 2010.

Style Mabanta is one of this cohort of young and enthusiastic soccer players. Wearing his Lionel Messi Argentina jersey, Mabanta and the other kids happily go through exercises and mini-games together at Renfrew Community Centre, one of many recreational soccer programs available throughout the Lower Mainland. Children as young as two learn the fundamentals of the game and basic techniques. Most importantly, the kids have a chance to interact with others in a gym setting and make new friends.

“Did you see me?” asks Mabanta after the hour-long soccer session. “I had the ball so many times!”

The problems of the Canadian soccer system
Although there are plenty of opportunities to play soccer in Vancouver, when it comes to producing players at an elite professional level, the situation is much less encouraging.

“There’s no development in Canadian soccer,” says Jonathan Friedman, 24. “When you play youth soccer, once you get to a certain age, there’s no place where older players can really develop.”

Friedman, Theo Finseth, 19, and Sylvan Hamburger, 20, are supervisory staff for the Britannia Micro Footie program at the Britannia Community Services Centre. Established in 1993, the program hosts boys and girls spring soccer games of approximately 1300 kids in various age groups from 4–15, as well as a casual drop-in co-ed program for teens over 16.

Friedman says young soccer kids here in British Columbia are no different from kids anywhere else in the world when it comes to the passion, dedication, and love for the sport. But the soccer system here doesn’t cultivate and encourage this passion as they grow older.

“They kind of lose their drive,” says Friedman. “In Europe, for example, if you play for the Barcelona youth team at age 9, there’s always that dream driving those kids to keep playing.”

“You can be a very talented player, but if you haven’t been properly scouted by the time you’re 13 or 14, you will find it very difficult to overcome certain barriers,” adds Finseth.

Trying to cultivate one’s professional soccer skill by going to Europe after playing university soccer and graduating also poses additional challenges.

Friedman related an anecdote about a friend who moved to Scotland to play for Celtic F.C.’s youth reserve team. His friend wasn’t treated well by the players there, who felt he was taking a spot that should have gone to a local player.

“If you go to Europe as a 22-year-old, teams are not going to sign you because they have kids who are younger, who are equally as good as you, and who have come up through the ranks. They would ask, ‘why should we give you a job as a foreigner?’” says Friedman.

A space to develop skills
So what can be done to improve the system here for youth who dream of soccer stardom?

In a series of posts on his blog, Rennie argues that youth leagues need to have a clear philosophy and curriculum to ensure players are learning the game effectively. Having good qualified coaches would provide mentors as well as knowledgeable instructors.

A Canadian professional league with at least eight teams and greater private investment in facilities, tournaments and community outreach are other steps that Rennie argues would help move Canada toward becoming a soccer country that provides opportunities for prospective professionals to develop their skills, advance through the ranks and become an elite player, perhaps even a world soccer legend.

“It is fantastic that so many volunteers give kids in Canada a chance to play soccer,” writes Rennie. “Now we have to give them and the career coaches the tools they are craving to take Canadian soccer to another level.”

Until then, Canadians will have to cheer for another national team at this upcoming World Cup.

“My favourite team is Germany, but in this World Cup, I would like to see Brazil take it. Just because I feel it would be great for the host country, the event, and the sport as a whole,” says Finseth.