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Memories of soccer at Waterloo Park

Published in the Canadian Immigrant, August 30, 2011

The ball hovers by and hits the hard, dry ground a few metres behind the last man. Two players, one from each team, start running. A frantic race ensues as defender and forward sprint to claim the ball. So intent are they on winning the race, they fail to see two other players heading to the same ball downfield. These other two, however, seem more interested in their conversation than the play that is unfolding.

The rest of us, far from the action, stop to watch this curious scene take place. The soccer ball trickles to a stop and the space between the intense players on one end, and the coffee house conversationalists on the other, rapidly narrows.

“What are those two doing?” says somebody from our group, referring to the two gabbers.

“I think they’re talking,” replies another.

When the two runners converge on the ball, they hesitate and finally stop. Confused, they watch as the two talkers ignore the ball. For a fleeting moment no one moves.

We start yelling at them to keep the play alive and the two players nearest to the ball remember that they are each other’s opponents and, so, reach for the ball.

The talkers, meanwhile, amble over to the side of the pitch to continue their conversation. And so — bizarre situation aside — the game goes on.

“Oh, man, this isn’t calcio,” bellows Elio Brunetti, using his native Italian word for the beautiful game. “This is piazza!”

Welcome to Waterloo Park — where “beauty” more accurately describes the joy with which we play soccer than it does our collective ability to produce aesthetic, scintillating soccer.

Welcome to this sun-scorched and pockmarked field, where the place you’re from is as unimportant as the number of goals you score … but every bit as interesting.

It was the spring of 2006 when I first moved to Waterloo, Ontario. Among the first things I did when I arrived was scour the neighborhood in search of people playing soccer. It had been a long winter and I was burning to play. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before I saw a group playing at a public park near the University of Waterloo.

My heart started racing and, like an excited child, I hurriedly laced up my boots and ran to the field. I watched and waited for a pause in the play and asked if I could join the action. I was welcomed warmly by a large group of players and told to join the team whose shirts mine matched. That, I soon learned, was how it was done in Waterloo Park. “Playing at Waterloo Park was like playing with your childhood friends. You didn’t have to announce that you were playing, much less introduce yourself. You simply entered the field. All of a sudden, you received the ball from someone wearing a shirt with a similar colour to yours and instantly, you were one more player,” says Miguel Madrid, a Chilean-Venezuelan fanatic of all things soccer.

By the weekend following my first game, I was a regular. I had enjoyed playing with people with whom, it seemed, I shared a mutual ability and vision of soccer. I was the “new guy,” and yet people were generous with their passes; they read my ideas and often anticipated them and we connected for some pretty plays. In a soccer sense, there was good understanding.

Certainly, with people who had come from a long list of countries — Somalia, Syria, Lebanon, Nigeria, Angola, Italy, El Salvador, Chile, Ethiopia, China, to name a few — the mix of soccer styles seen on the pitch was eclectic. And, yet, we all understood the same language.

“Soccer is what unified everybody,” says Carlos Timoteo, who grew up playing soccer as a youngster in Angola. “Every single person who showed up down there loves soccer.”
Impressed with the level of play and the welcoming nature of everyone involved, I returned the following week.

There were few rules at Waterloo Park: there were no off-sides and the teams were selected according to shirt colour. Kilian, well into his 60s, who had come from Austria decades earlier, and who had been among the pioneers of these informal games back in the early 1980s, brought the game ball and the homemade goal flags that were used when the size of the field was altered according to the number of players present. Despite the fact that he was much older than most of us, he was the most devoted player.

There were no time limits to our matches; we played for as long as the waning light allowed us to see, and sometimes even longer.

There were no referees, but that didn’t seem to matter: we relied on the honour system. Even on those hot, humid summer days so typical of southwestern Ontario, when the heat often made people do strange things, or when a reckless tackle was instead interpreted as malicious, cooler heads always prevailed.

“People are relaxed, they’re laughing, they’re joking,” says Sam Hajjar, a first-generation Canadian born of Lebanese and Armenian parents. “There was synergy between all the people … It’s like a getaway for me,” says Hajjar, one of the few players to boast the presence, on more than one occasion, of his own personal fans — mother, father, wife and children in tow.

I soon learned that what kept me — and many others — coming back to the same field was not just the soccer — it was the people. Everyone was so different and yet we all shared so much.

By returning every weekend, and often playing three nights in a row – a schedule not easy on the older players – we came to know each other well.

“That’s what makes you stay, because it’s not just soccer anymore now — it’s a friendship,” says Timoteo, a regular since 2001.

Even on those chaotic days that the field was so crowded with players that you managed to touch the ball just once every half hour, there was laughter to temper your frustration.

“It was like a [soccer] stadium inside out; more people on the field than in the stands,” remembers Madrid.

That’s a far cry from how it all started decades earlier when the weekly sessions drew just a few players.

“When we started nobody was there. The net and everything was there but nobody used it and we put it up Monday, Wednesday and Friday,” says Cuong Truong, a Chinese-Vietnamese player and one of the 1980s originals.

In the 1990s, organized bookings forced the players off the field and so games were moved over to the weekends. It has stuck ever since.

You could always count on getting your fair share of laughter when you came to the park. And this, says Hajjar, allowed people to flourish not only as players, but as individuals.

“It brings out the individuality of people. As much as it brings the culture of people … you also see people’s individuality come out.”
Certainly, there were a lot of characters.

There was Mohamed, who, despite his middle age, was nearly unstoppable when burrowing down the wing, head down like a bull, before releasing his trademark cross; there was Wilfred, who took forever to warm up and who celebrated his every goal with his arms spread wide like wings; there was Moamin, who at 16, possessed the skills, technical ability, maturity and generosity with the ball that players 10 years his senior could only have dreamed of having; there was Karl, the Dutch gentleman in his early 70s, who often exhibited flashes of a talented youth, and who, along with Kilian, had seen three decades of players come through the field; there was  Darwazeh, who thanked his opponent every time he robbed him of the ball; and there was Massimo, who having once forgotten to bring his shorts, shed his long pants and played in his underwear.

There were nicknames, too. Some people, naturally, assumed the names of the soccer stars they bore on the backs of their shirts. Others, with a healthy dose of irony, became known for the superstar players whose style of play they would never, not even in their dreams, emulate.

“There was a lot of talk, too, about people’s backgrounds, where they came from. We talk about everything down there: religion, politics, partying — everything,” says Timoteo.
Indeed, sometimes there was too much talking. For some reason, throw-ins — in particular, to which team they belonged — were among the most bitterly disputed topics. Neither religion nor politics seemed to spark such vociferous debate.

All of these antics and simple pleasures made the countdown to Friday evening the highlight of my week. As Madrid recalls, the intensity of this feeling multiplied when the wait between games was drawn out by a long and cold winter.

“Seeing the guys at Waterloo Park after almost a whole year was like seeing your schoolmates after vacation, or seeing your family at Christmas. Truth is, I really miss it,” says Madrid, who hasn’t experienced the same type of soccer since moving to Ottawa. The banter and the camaraderie that came with playing with the same people every weekend led to friendships that continue today, despite the fact that many people have moved away. But other newcomers join. “If there’s good weather and they see people playing, then, slowly, they come out.”

I, too, like Madrid, have moved from Waterloo. And while I play soccer in Vancouver, I have not yet discovered an informal league to replicate my experience there. Waterloo Park is but a distant, magical memory.


Whitecaps soccer season ends; highlights love for ‘the beautiful game’

Published in the Canadian Immigrant, October 25, 2011

When the ball first rolled at kickoff on March 19, 2011, the crowd erupted and an electric feeling shook Empire Stadium. It had been a long time since the Whitecaps, which originated in 1974, had battled in a Major League setting. The boisterous B.C. fans, deprived of their major league team for so long, watched euphorically as their team defeated Toronto FC 4-2 in the proverbial east-west rivalry.

For those fans old enough — or in Canada long enough — to remember the original Whitecaps, the noise and spectacle at the legendary Empire Stadium (the team’s original haunt) undoubtedly brought back fond memories of Vancouver’s golden era of soccer. Indeed, just five years after their inaugural game in the North American Soccer League (NASL), the Whitecaps went on to defeat the New York Cosmos — a team once fronted by one of football’s greatest living legends, Pele — in the semifinal of the NASL Soccer bowl championship in 1979.

That game was followed by a win in the championship final match against the Tampa Bay Rowdies; upon their return home, the Whitecaps were greeted by a throng of 100,000 appreciative fans, who took to the streets to celebrate the historic win.

For some, the distant memories of the 1970s will seem like better times, especially when compared to the Whitecaps’ mediocre performance this season. Like many nascent franchise teams, the Whitecaps struggled through their first season and posted a losing record.

But hopefully most soccer fans will keep looking forward. The game has evolved significantly since Vancouver brought home some heavy hardware in 1979, and many believe those changes have been largely positive.

Soccer fan base in Canada growing

The team’s president, Canadian soccer legend Bob Lenarduzzi is one. While not happy with the team’s overall finish this season, ending October 22, Lenarduzzi highlights the fervour and warmth with which Vancouver fans supported his team throughout the trying campaign. “I’m encouraged by the fact we’re still able to put 20,000-plus in there in spite of having had a bad year,” he says.

“We’re going to turn it around and I think when we become competitive our fan base will continue to grow.”

Indeed, any spectator having witnessed the Whitecaps in action at Empire Stadium — or having walked by the venue on match day, for that matter — can attest to the loud and festive noise that travels far.

Almost immediately following the Whitecaps’ inaugural MLS match against Toronto FC, fans were singing in unison, calling and responding, and stamping on the noise-conducting metal bleachers at Empire Stadium. “We were stamping and stomping our feet on the floor and that reverberated all through the stadium,” says long-time Whitecaps super-fan, and perennial season-ticket holder Anton van As.

A self-professed “soccer nut” who developed his appreciation for “the beautiful game” in his native Holland, before immigrating to Canada in 1952, van As has been a loyal supporter of the Whitecaps through their various incarnations since their inception in 1974.

The contagious atmosphere at Whitecaps matches, which van As describes so vividly, is now standard fare and one which, as Lenarduzzi says, helps differentiate soccer from its other pro, North American competitors.

In fact, the soccer atmosphere so typical of Whitecaps games today is also significantly different from that of the 1970s and 1980s.

“In the 1970s when we were putting 32,000 people at the old Empire Stadium, I’d hazard to guess that a lot of the people who were coming really didn’t have a good feel for the game, but we kind of just caught fire and it was the thing to do to go watch the Whitecaps,” says Lenarduzzi. Today’s soccer fan is, perhaps, more sophisticated.

“You see our first game at Empire when there was a sell-out crowd for the first time in many years, over 20,000 people inside the stadium, and they were cheering and chanting without being coerced into doing that — it was just a natural thing. It was as though they had been doing it for four or five seasons and you can only put that down to more educated fans that know the game,” says Carl Valentine, former Whitecaps player and current club ambassador.

In a country where hockey reigns supreme, and where other sports, like American football and baseball have, historically, relegated soccer to third-fiddle status, soccer now thrives. Pele and Maradona are suddenly joined by the likes of Ronaldinho, Beckham and Messi on the Canadian list of household names; sightings of shirts bearing the names of Camilo and Hassli, Drogba and Fabregas are now as common as those of Crosby and Ovechkin, Iginla and Sedin. Whereas some 15 years ago, no satellite dish meant no soccer, now it seems soccer is everywhere.

“Now, it’s at your fingertips,” says Lenarduzzi.

Immigrants love soccer

Another phenomenon that has played an undeniable role in bringing soccer to the fore in Canada is immigration. Many of Canada’s newest residents have come from countries where soccer is the predominant sport and as they have settled in they have sought to share their love of the game with their children.

“I followed Man United since I was a child,” says Valentine, who grew up in the legendary soccer city of Manchester before coming to Canada where he played for the Whitecaps and Canada in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

“And when you have kids you can’t always tell them ‘let’s jump on a plane and go over and I’ll show you what the atmosphere (at Old Trafford) is like,’ but you have a passion for it,” he explains, noting that the more feasible alternative is to take them to see a local team like the Whitecaps.

Next generation of soccer fans

Eleven-year-old Jennifer Mejia, whose father learned soccer growing up in El Salvador, tells a similar tale. “My dad used to play soccer when he was little, so I wanted him to pass down the tradition so I started playing soccer with him and that’s when I got onto a team and started playing,” says the Marpole Phoenix (U-12 Select) player. Her teammate, Amrit Jaswal, also learned to appreciate soccer through her father.

“My dad put me on a soccer team and I didn’t really like soccer at first because I thought it was boring, but then I started playing it and now I love it,” says Jaswal.

Having started soccer early, both Jaswal and Mejia have not only plenty of time, but also a lot of choice as to how they want to progress within the sport.

The Vancouver Youth Soccer Association (VYSA), a volunteer-run society that governs soccer in Vancouver, has been working with other bodies like the BC Soccer Association in an effort to improve the quality of the sport, the standardization of coaching and the promotion of a sustainable and deep soccer program. Most importantly, however, the VYSA seeks to provide youngsters with ample opportunities to pursue their own soccer ambitions.

“Most of the soccer players we have within Vancouver are recreational players and that’s the whole idea within Vancouver Youth Soccer is that we want to ensure that every child coming into the system has a positive experience and a positive home,” says VYSA chair Karen Thompson.

With a robust and varied soccer system starting at the youngsters’ level, the dream of cheering our national squad in the tournament of tournaments, suddenly doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

“How can we do a better job of ensuring that we don’t qualify (for the World Cup) by accident and that we continue to qualify for future World Cups because there is a steady flow of players coming through the system?” says Lenarduzzi, noting that all the stakeholders involved — local, provincial and national clubs and associations must work together to make it happen.

“For me, it all revolves around youth development or development of the elite players and how early we start.”


Mohamed Ihab Pharmacist film buff

When pharmacist Mohamed Ihab left his native Egypt for Canada in 2008, he knew of the difficulties that many immigrants encounter when resettling in a new country. “Some immigrants come and their credentials are not recognized and they fall into very stressful situations where they do casual jobs and they don’t have enough time to study for the exams,” says Ihab, who worked to have the credential evaluation process completed before coming to Canada and beginning his internship at a drugstore in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island.

It was a lot of hard work, but for the pharmacist/ebullient film buff and founder of Vancouver’s Reel Causes — a not-for-profit organization connecting cinephiles to charitable causes — it was an invaluable decision that enabled him to pursue other interests when he came to Canada outside his day job.

“Before I came to Canada, I didn’t want to be just another immigrant who comes and tries to make ends meet. Of course, I wanted to make a living and have money, right? But I wanted to do something to help the society that I live in, to have a purpose in society, to add something.”

It took Ihab just three months of living in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island to settle in, make new friends, plant the seeds of a social network that would later flourish into his film-related charitable organization — and to make the local news.

“My parents were happy — after three months in Canada, they write about me in the papers. That was very nice. It was very motivating for me,” says the affable Ihab with a chuckle, noting that in true Egyptian fashion, he came “to know half the town” in a very short time.

When his pharmaceutical internship came to an end, Ihab moved to Vancouver and became a licensed relief pharmacist who travels throughout the province’s remote areas. A voracious viewer of independent and “non-Hollywood” films, and a gregarious individual who enjoys the company and conversation of friends, Ihab then founded the Vancouver International and Independent Cinema Group on Meetup.com, which now boasts a membership of 825. That evolved into Reel Causes, which aims to take the love for film “a step further” by providing filmgoers with the opportunity to support local non-profits through ticket purchases.

“I was asking myself, ‘How can I make use of my big group and all of the network I started? How can I make something good out of that?’” says Ihab.

Published in Canadian Immigrant December Issue, http://www.canadianimmigrant.ca/immigrantstories/community/article/7871



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