Boy, Canadian soccer supporters are a fickle bunch, aren't we? Canada hadn't gotten a result in Central America in 11 years - but when we drew El Salvador in November, fans were clamoring that it could have been a win. After years of Hoilett holding out he joined Canada for the 2018 World Cup cycle, but some fans wouldn't forgive him until his major part in the win over Honduras. So how did fans feel when Steven Vitoria, an ex-Portuguese U20 player, joined Canada for their friendly roster against the US? Fans weren't exactly rolling out the Red and White carpet to greet him.
But before we jump into the factors in his decision let's look at his story. Born and raised in Ontario under Portuguese immigrants, Vitoria was obsessed with soccer growing up. Starting out as a midfielder, Vitoria would go on to be a star on his house league teams before joining the Woodbridge Strikers rep team. It was at the age of 16 when he had his first professional influences training with Portuguese side Benfica and it was two years later he was signed to his first professional contract with FC Porto. It was there he was converted to a defender while then being loaned out to multiple teams across Portugal.
During his tenure in Portugal, the then converted defender was brought into the U19 Portugal squad to play in the U19 European Championship. But it wasn't until after that tournament that he had his first communication with the Canadian Soccer Association. Prior to the U20 World Cup the CSA sent a fax to Porto requesting Vitoria play for the Reds for the upcoming Under 20 World Cup in Canada - Victoria declined and continued to play with Portugal. At the tournament Vitoria would start in a 2-1 loss to Gambia.
Fast forward to 2015, Vitoria is now playing with the Philadelphia Union and has accepted the call to play for Canada in their February 5th friendly against the United States which has caused outrage among some supporters. Not the first and likely not the last to burn Canada on the international stage, Vitoria's legacy has been s tainted solely by his decision to turn down the call in 2007.
In an interview prior to the Gold Cup with Anthony Totera's show "Red Card" Vitoria was questioned how he would respond to Benito Floro if he was to be called up to the national team. This was his response:
"My answer is the same as of day one. I want to make sure I'm clear when I say this, I've never said no to Canada, since day one. I've always explained what had happened, and what had happened at that time was that Portugal, when I decided to play with Portugal U19s and U20s in the Euros and the World Cup and be in the Portuguese pool it was all because Portugal game me a chance I kinda never had at that time."
Which brings me to my first point, Vitoria was not discovered by Canada despite living and playing here for the majority of his life. It wasn't until he had a professional contract and had played for Portugal in the U19 Euros that Canada took notice. Portugal was the first national team to give him an international opportunity, and that shouldn't be put on the shoulders of Vitoria - It's hardly a decision if there was only one option at the time.
When given the chance to play for Canada, Vitoria also had an opportunity to play for a higher quality side in Portugal, but it one he was familiar with. 13 of Vitoria's 20 Portuguese teammates carried over from the U19 side to the U20 team certainly easing the decision and allowing him to play with players he had already trained and played with. By any means Vitoria would play better with a squad he was familiar with then an unfamiliar Canadian side. Vitoria would simply be more confident and more comfortable with the nation that had discovered him first.
While success of the Portugal versus Canada teams may have played a role, we can only make assumptions about how this affected Vitoria's decision. In 2007 it wouldn't be hard to pick which association had more success at the U20 level. Canada had qualified for seven U20 World Cups leading into 2007, while Portugal had qualified for six, however the Portuguese team had consistently made it out of the group stage winning the tournament twice and placing third once. Canada had only won 5 games in 24 attempts at the tournament.
This brings us to the final topic, national pride. While fans look at playing for a national team as a true honour and the focal point of the decision, it isn't the only factor involved in the decision of players. In Vitoria's case, there are hints of pride, opportunity and success, however all signs point to Portugal. At 16 years of age Vitoria had Portuguese professional influences. At 18 he was playing professionally in Portugal, 19 playing internationally for Portugal and by 20 the CSA came calling. While Canada was certainly Vitoria's birthplace, what pride could he take from Canadian soccer at that point in his life? He didn't have opportunities or successes from Canada at that early point of his career so what was there to take pride in? He was already representing a country that gave him a sense of pride and rewarding them for giving him these opportunities.
So where do things stand now? Vitoria is suiting up for Canada, and pending his performance he very well may do so again. But shouldn't that be enough for fans to be content? Canada has picked up a player that is expected to play a depth role on the back line and has the same goal of helping Canada succeed on the field. This does not taint our program. Canada does not need Steven Vitoria, nor does Steven Vitoria need to play for a national team. The two sides have simply just come to an agreement that now is the right time to make amends, and look past a decision made by a twenty year old nearly a decade ago.
Canada will, I hope, make the World Cup in my lifetime. And when they finally return to the world stage I can assure you I will not be looking over the starting eleven questioning each player's motives for choosing Canada. They all dawn the red and white because in some capacity they are proud, skilled and are fighting for a dream of seeing Canada succeed on the world stage, and isn't that what we all want? Vitoria has been given an opportunity to not let that 2007 decision be the defining moment of his international career, and if he proves his worth, he may help write Canada's path to future successes.
Fan or player, the end goal is a World Cup berth. If Vitoria is one of the pieces that leads us to that then Canadian fans may have a change of heart.