Thirteen wee soccer players from the Lower Mainland will settle in today and watch Manchester City take on Tottenham in an English Premier League matchup.
They won't, however, be sitting on a bunch of couches in a North Vancouver basement. They'll be right there at White Hart Lane in London — close enough to see the sweat on Sergio Aquero's brow, hear the songs of the rabid supporters and smell the history of the 115-year-old stadium — thanks to the first international tour organized by the North Vancouver Football Club.
"They had their last training session last night and they were just over the moon," NVFC High Performance Academy director Tony Pensato said Wednesday, a day before the team was set to depart on their two-week odyssey to England and Italy. The players will train at famous academies, play games against European youth squads and take in professional games featuring some of the world's greatest players. "What they're really excited about is going to the Man City vs. Tottenham game. They're really fired up about that - that's a tough ticket to get over there. And for a lot of them Man City is their favourite team."
Pensato and fellow academy director Michael D'Agostino did the bulk of the planning for the trip and will accompany the 13 players - all born in 2004 - on the trip as coaches. Nine of the players play in the NVFC system while four come from other clubs. The players were selected in November based on their playing ability as well as training habits and behaviour. The trip has been in the works for two years now as a natural extension of the club's High Performance Program.
"One of the things we wanted to do was be a place for all levels of kids, and kids with different kinds of aspirations and abilities," said NVFC technical director Steve Kindel. "We have a good house program, we're very good at retaining players. . . . This program we were looking at what can we put on, and be attractive to, our most high-level players."
NVFC was formed in 2010 as a result of the merger of North Vancouver's Lynn Valley, Lions Gate and Seymour soccer associations, immediately becoming one of the largest clubs in Canada. The High Performance Program was created for players looking for more intense training. The club wants the international trip to become an annual tradition that will create some buzz around the soccer community.
"This is sort of like the icing on the cake," said Kindel. "It goes beyond just an extra practice once a week and having some games against teams from Coquitlam or Burnaby or other academies. It's a huge step above that in terms of excitement levels.
"No matter how you participate in our club - as a coach, as a board member, or a manager, and obviously as a player - we want everybody to have good experiences.. .. This particular group of players happens to be good at soccer and they want to practice and play four or five times a week and sign up for all kinds of extra soccer. We want them to have an awesome soccer experience."
The players and their families aren't only investing their time — the trip comes at a relatively high cost. All told the price tag will be about $3,500 per player, with each player accompanied by at least one parent at the same price.
"Financially it's a big commitment," said Pensato. "The fundraising only does so much — it's just a fraction of it. . . . London is killing us. It's very expensive." The rewards, however, are more than worth the price, he said.
"It's more than just going over there for soccer. They pick up the subtleties of other cultures, how passionate they are," said Pensato, who organized several team trips to Europe through his own private business before joining NVFC to get their travel program flying. "The kids love being treated like professionals. You've got a 7 a.m. bus, you've got to meet at the bus, you've got to pack your gear and all that stuff. You have a game, you shower up and you head back in the bus, back to your hotel. They just get a kick out of that."
Some players who make the trip end up hooking up with European clubs for future training opportunities, said Pensato, although that's not the point of the trip.
"I never sell it as, 'Hey, this is your chance to go pro in Europe,'" he said. "That's just too much of a long shot."
The secret, said Pensato, is that the trip is just as much about the parents as it is about the kids, adding that parents are blown away by what they see when they go to youth academies in Europe.
"They'll see these guys the same age as (their children) — the teacher comes into the training facility, teaches them for four hours a day. Two hours in the morning, then they train, two hours in the afternoon, then they train. That's what's happening to kids their age over there. . . . The parents see that and they say, 'Aw geez, maybe that's why Canada can't crack the top 130 in the world.' It's so unbelievable what they do for player development over there, and what a big business it is. Right now they think soccer is their world and it's like, 'Oh man I hope I can make the Whitecaps one day.' It's so much bigger than that. Not to downplay the Whitecaps, but it is huge with these teams. Tottenham has been around for (more than) 100 years."
The travel team has already succeeded in creating buzz around the club.
"When they're at the field these guys practice in their special gear," said Pensato. "Everyone is aware that there is a travel team now and everyone is kind of gunning for it."
One thing Pensato is sure about is that the kids who are living out their dreams right now will be re-living them for years to come. He has a 22-year-old son who came on a tour when he was 12.
"He and his friends still talk about that trip as one of their (career) highlights," he said. "They've been playing at places around the world and that's still one of the things they remember."