The CSA seems intent on imposing a nationwide structure for a third tier of soccer in Canada, with a focus on developing young (U23) Canadian players. While this is a very good thing (the Bundesliga's success in this year's Champions League tournament has provided a powerful argument for the effectiveness of well structured academy environments), in this top-down approach to developing talent, there is something else we must not lose sight of.
Developing soccer culture, and hence a passion for the game in our youngsters, is a vital piece of the puzzle, and building it the "Canadian way", embracing diversity as opposed to throwing immigrants into a melting pot (as our southern neighbours would do), need not be seen as a bad thing, even if it means working with players who could never represent Canada. Beyond the fact that young Canadians can learn a lot from training and playing with veterans who have plied their trade in Europe and elsewhere, having accessible heroes can really change the way young Canadians see the game as they grow up. The following is a Canadian soccer fairytale that maybe one day can be a realistic part of life across the country.
Jimmy and Sarah are playing in their front yard when their neighbour comes running up the road. As the man catches his breath on his driveway, Jimmy calls out.
"Mr. Ivanovic, are we going to win on Saturday?"
The veteran midfielder walks over and sits down on the grass beside the children, and begins stretching: he has some time before he needs to get to his part-time job at the mechanic shop. He has a thoughtful look on his face.
"That depends, Jimmy, coming to watch?" he asks in his Eastern European accent. It's been almost five years since he's made this place home, and he will raise his children here, but the accent will never go away.
Sarah, excitedly, responds, "Mommy and daddy are taking us!"
"Then, if you cheer loud enough, we will win."
Sarah, cuts to the more serious concern, "Dad says you might retire after this season."
A look of mock-horror instantly replaces the warm smile that was on the player's face. "He thinks I'm too old!?"
There's some kind of irony here, he thinks to himself. When he'd moved here half a decade ago, after hanging up his boots back home, he'd been the one who'd had to be convinced that he wasn't too old to suit up for the local club. Sarah's father, and a friend of his, had played a part in that.
Jimmy replies, "He says if we don't win the cup this year we'll probably have to wait until I'm old enough to play."
The smile returns. "Have you been practicing?"
"Yeah, I can't wait 'til they let us keep score!"
"Hey, remember, a good pass is a good pass, no matter the score."
"I know, but I want to win, like you!"
"Don't worry, you will win plenty when time comes."
"You really think so?"
"I believe it!"
"What about me?" Sarah asks.
"You'll be even better than this guy!" Mr. Ivanovic replies, before sticking his tongue out at Jimmy, and high-fiving a giggling Sarah. After a moment's pouting, Jimmy uncrosses his arms to claim his high-five.
Mr. Ivanovic gets up to go. He needs ibuprofen for his old knees and a shower before work. He says, "See you guys Saturday, we'll be counting on you!"
"Good luck!" one child echoes after the other, as they watch their neighbour walk away.
He thinks of his knees, and he thinks of the truth in Sarah's concern. He will retire, for the second time, after this season, and his child will be too young to have memories of him playing. He thinks back to moments over his two careers that he wishes had been caught on video. Maybe his children will hear stories from the older kids. Then he shakes his head and smiles, as he thinks of all that the game has given him, not the least of which is a place that feels like home, even in this strange land, so far away.