PHOTO: Steve Kingsman/Freestyle Photography/Ottawa Fury FC
By Théo Gauthier
In the Age of Social Media, what if you came up with an idea so grand in its ambition that it would be near-impossible to distil into tweet-sized bites?
What if you tried to convince Canadians that their professional soccer players were good enough to warrant their attention? It might be a uniquely Canadian question, but two soccer trailblazers are attempting to move that needle in the National Capital Region.
The coach was furious.
On the surface, he had no reason to be upset. Following a rough start to the 2018 season, his new club, Ottawa Fury FC, had only minutes earlier extended their undefeated streak to five matches—all of them clean sheets. They were now on an upward trajectory with 11 points from their previous five matches and were steadily climbing the United Soccer League’s Eastern Conference standings.
Instead of basking in the afterglow of a home victory, however, Fury Head Coach Nikola Popovic was fuming. Entering the room from the back, he made his way to the podium and blasted a warning shot across the bow: “When we were losing, everyone was here. Now we’re winning, and nobody likes to come.”
Popovic then took his seat in front of the microphone and, instead of answering the first question, delivered an impassioned plea: “I think before we speak it’s important to say one thing. I think a lot of people forget this. How many Canadian players do we have in our starting eleven? Seven. How many clean sheets (in a row)? Five. Whoever likes football in Canada, and whoever wants to develop this game, should fight for what’s yours. I don’t feel this from the press. I don’t feel anybody embracing this project. We are putting professional (Canadian) players in a professional league, and we are winning. You have to understand the ‘why’. Why (does) this club exist, and why are we here? Why?” Popovic was so enraptured by his monologue that it seemed he was gripping his temper tightly in both fists to the point of turning his knuckles white. “Why?” he continued. “Why have we created a reference for Canadian football? I think all of you should embrace this. Now about the match…” The outburst was unexpected and stunned the assembled media who, once Popovic left the room, exchanged nervous laughs about what they had just witnessed.
What was the “why” to which Popovic kept referring? What was it he felt the media and local fans were failing to embrace? A few days after his initial outburst, Popovic and Fury General Manager Julian de Guzman sat down to explain their grievances and lay out their ambitious plan.
“We’ve taken a major risk here,” de Guzman says sitting in a boardroom at Fury headquarters. “Bringing Canadians into a professional environment, while making sure we are also successful.” Offering an oasis, in Canada, to young Canadian soccer players, expecting success on the pitch, and to have the community stand proudly behind them in great numbers are the pillars of what de Guzman and Popovic have dubbed “The Project”.
“In November of last year, I showed my shortlist of (potential) players to the board and the (country) flags next to these names. It was the first time they saw that many Canadians. And they were like ‘Ok; maybe this is too many Canadians. Where are the Americans?’ It’s a normal thing to have a professional soccer team in Canada, but cater to Americans.”
De Guzman believes this mentality is onerous and damaging to Canadian soccer. “I think too many people have been fooled in the past based on someone’s resume, or the country they’re from. It’s a Brazilian? We take him. It’s an American? We take him and forget the Canadian. But if a Canadian’s just as good, I’d rather take the Canadian. Why not?”
The doubters weren’t limited to the Ottawa Fury boardroom; friends and colleagues were quick to call de Guzman to express their doubts and offer unsolicited advice: “I’ve had agents call me and say: ‘What are you doing? Are you sure you’re doing the right thing? It’s too many Canadians now. Too many Canadians for a Canadian team.’ That’s the stuff I heard,” he says in disbelief.
The Fury’s poor start to the season didn’t help matters. “You look at the first five results, and everyone starts saying they told you so,” de Guzman says.
De Guzman has had a lot of time to think about this mentality. In many ways, his entire life has led up to this moment in his career, his first season as a general manager after a 17-year playing career that saw him play in some of Europe’s top leagues. Having left his home and family in Scarborough at the age of 16 to try his luck playing for the Olympique de Marseille youth team, de Guzman understands what it’s like to go to another country to try and pry a soccer existence away from a local player.
“At that age, I was going to get a scholarship or I was going to pack my bags, leave everything behind, and go to Europe. That was the route I had to take at 16. I’m taking someone’s position from France. I’m taking his spot as a Canadian. So it’s the same situation now. I can sign a guy from Brazil; he’s taking a Canadian’s spot. Not an American’s spot, but a Canadian’s spot.”
When asked if this nationalistic philosophy has the potential to create problems in the locker room with foreign players, Popovic is unequivocal: “It’s the same as we do in Europe. You (as a foreign player) didn’t come to the United Nations. You came to Canada!”
As an outsider, the 44-year-old Serbian is finding it difficult to wrap his head around the Canadian mentality vis-à-vis player development. “I was very impressed by the quality of Canadian players, and a lot of them were on trial with us. The sad part is it’s impossible to keep all of them because we don’t have a structure or even the investment to (keep them on). My question to Julian was: ‘What’s going to happen with these players?’ This is the frustrating part. They are not going to experience that higher level in the moment of their career that they need it. So they want to be released and from there they’re going nowhere. This is a waste of talent!” he says as he bangs his fist on the table in frustration. “There are a lot of (Canadian) players who have the quality, who have huge potential, but nobody will give them a chance.”
This type of attitude does not match up with what he’s seen throughout his travels. Over the past 11 years, Popovic’s career has seen him take the helm at a number of clubs in countries such as Portugal, Bulgaria, Spain, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. Most recently, he took USL side Swope Park Rangers to the USL Final.
“The difference in the other places that I’ve worked—and I’ve worked in a lot of countries— everybody defends their country.”
Creating an environment where young Canadian soccer talent can thrive in a professional environment is one of the rallying cries behind the upcoming launch of the Canadian Premier League. The Fury’s relationship with the league remains murky, with club officials taking a “wait-and-see” approach on whether or not to join. When it’s suggested that the CPL is instantly creating eight to 10 competitors to the Fury for Canadian talent, Popovic is succinct: “Fantastic,” he says.
De Guzman went into more detail. “I think this creates more of a helpful situation as opposed to a challenge. This is what we would want in a perfect world. When you look at the amount of employed professional soccer players today there’s only 150 I believe—Canadians—playing professionally in the world.” That low number is unacceptable to de Guzman. “Registered youth players in Canada is…now at 750,000. When you look at this number, the chance of becoming professional is less than 0.2%. You probably have a better chance of becoming a brain surgeon in Canada than you would be playing for a professional soccer team.”
According to de Guzman, the arrival of the CPL changes the landscape considerably. “(With the) CPL now in place, (it) allows Canadians to flourish at a professional level. We just don’t know the standard (of CPL). Today, when you look at 150 professional Canadians, how many would you have in a domestic league? These guys will be playing in a professional environment for the first time. Meanwhile here in Ottawa, (there are) 17 Canadians that are employed professionals playing in a professional environment. The (CPL) will help the Fury; it will help Toronto FC, and it will help other Canadian teams in MLS. It is slowly becoming a foundation and a platform for Canadians to finally be a part of it and grow from.”
For Popovic, the impending arrival of the CPL provides an obvious path to Canadian soccer glory, glory which many fans have been pining for since Canada’s only World Cup appearance in Mexico in 1986. “It’s a normal path if you are able to create a very strong league, a Canadian league. You will have more (professional) players. It means that you have a stronger national team. You will go to the World Cup. I think all these steps that are starting to come in Canadian soccer are helpful towards seeing…a very strong national team.”
Popovic feels that if local fans could see the connection between the Fury having 17 Canadians on the roster and the fruit it will bear to the larger picture of Canadian soccer, more of them would turn up. The Fury have traditionally drawn an average of 5,000 fans per match, with that number sometimes surging above 7,000. For other large soccer events, such as the FIFA under-20 World Cup in 2007 and the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2015, the stadium at Lansdowne was full. Recently, however, attendance at a few matches have been a cause for concern: “We cannot have only 2000 people,” says the coach. “If (fans understand) what we are doing here, I guarantee that you’re going to have a stadium half-full or full because people will embrace this. (They will) know the importance of what we’re doing here.”
He sees the potential for people in Ottawa, and across the country, to embrace “The Project”, and when Popovic talks about it, he gets worked up. “Believe me, what I see here in these five months—the size of the country, the number of people who play soccer—there is no reason not to have stronger soccer in Canada. There is no reason.” Popovic is banging the table again. “No reason. It’s (about) organising and having pride in your country. ‘We are Canadians. We want to win. We are better than anybody else.’ This is the mentality everybody has in (themselves). You don’t have any reason to be rated low-quality. Why? Why? Such huge a country with capacity, building infrastructure, and with money. Why? Why?!”
With “The Project”, De Guzman and Popovic are on a mission to break the mould of what’s accepted as “normal” in the Canadian soccer landscape, and in the end may end up answering that very question.