You’ve probably never heard of the Cape Verde Islands. No surprise. It’s a largely unknown tiny cluster of islands just off the west coast of Africa which is home to barely half a million people.
Canada’s soccer-playing population is five times that. Yet with all those players and all our resources, we remain buried on FIFA’s world rankings, 80th overall, just ahead of places like Mali, Benin and Jordan. And yes, behind Cape Verde.
Ian McClurg would love see this change. All of it.
The new assistant coach with the junior team for Toronto FC’s elite soccer academy says there’s no reason Canada has to continue languishing in mediocrity or worse. Which is why he thinks some recent changes in the way the game is overseen will pay big dividends down the road. Maybe rather quickly.
If you are a young soccer star in this country, getting spotted at a young age has long been a crapshoot at best. You’ll need luck and probably some connections to be discovered. By the time a talented kid is identified as such, he may have lost a number of years of prime instructional and development time which puts him way behind players from other countries that are finding their top prospects early – age seven or eight in some European countries – and giving them the resources to become elite.
Further, few Canadian kids dream of a career in the pro game because they have no idea how to achieve such a thing. Hockey has a clearly defined hierarchy and path unlike soccer whose ladder remains a mystery to most.
“I believe firmly Canada hasn’t maximized (its talent),” the Ancaster resident says.
Hence our terrible international record in men’s competition over the past few decades. Throwing young men into games against opponents who have had top training since they were boys usually isn’t a fair fight.
McClurg knows a little about being on the other side. Growing up in Belfast until his family came to Canada in 1981, he was raised in a soccer culture. He later earned a tryout with a British team but he says he always felt he had a coach’s mindset more than that of a player.
“I definitely challenged coaches when I played,” he chuckles. “I would ask questions about why we would play in a certain way.”
He simply couldn’t figure out why some things were done the way they were. Still doesn’t. When he drives around town and sees practices going on, he occasionally finds his blood pressure rising as he watches drills he believes are rather unhelpful.
Coaching allowed him to fix that. With the kids he instructs, anyway. He ran a provincial team for a few years and for the past decade has run a soccer school that stresses building technique and skills ahead of winning games. Last fall, he was asked to help with TFC’s academy.
The idea behind the program is to scour the country for top kids, bring them to Toronto and train them effectively. Get kids as young as 14 and start getting them ready not only for a career in the pros but also to take on the rest of the world. McClurg, who recently got his top-level coaching licence in Europe, explains the kids don’t pay to come, so economics don’t weed out some of the best talent.
“This is the first time in my lifetime a young player in Canada can see a pathway to the pros,” he says.
Already it’s bringing some results. Canada’s Under-17 men’s team just qualified for that age group’s World Cup with 14 of the players on the roster coming from Toronto FC or the Vancouver Whitecaps’ academies. Last year, the Montreal Impact started its own academy, suggesting the number of elite players could continue to grow.
Further, McClurg says with Vancouver joining the MLS – the top level of professional soccer in the country – this year and Montreal in 2012, there will be more pro jobs for Canadians which will also help develop talent.
So, with all this effort being made to shore up the foundation of the sport here, is there really a possibility Canada could get back to the World Cup one of these years for the first time since 1986? McClurg doesn’t hesitate.
“Oh definitely,” he says. “Maybe not this time, but the one after.”
Maybe climb the FIFA rankings past the Verde Islands, too.