West Vancouver teenage soccer star Yigal Bruk has already experienced a lot of setbacks in his young career, but nothing matched the soul-crushing potential of his experience a few weeks ago just as he was about to realize his dream of playing professionally.
Bruk wrapped up his Grade 12 year at Rockridge Secondary near the end of June and a few days later was headed to Vancouver International Airport to catch a flight to Germany to begin his new life as a professional soccer player with the U19 team of storied Bundesliga club FC Schalke 04. But as he was about to board the plane, it all came to a halt.
“I had my bags packed, I was mentally already in Germany, and then the lady says, ‘Unfortunately we’re not letting you on the plane today,’” Bruk told the North Shore News. “It was because of COVID. There was a new rule that to enter Germany you had to have a visa, even though Canadians don’t normally need a visa for up to six months.”
All he could do was head home, unsure of his future.
“I wasn’t even sure what to think of it. I kind of got back to my room and I was like, ‘well, what do I do now?’ I finished school, I said goodbye to everybody, and now I’m already back.”
It was one more major obstacle on what has already been a nomadic, twisty path for Bruk to travel.
His parents were both from Ukraine and moved together to Israel, where Bruk was born. The family then moved to Winnipeg when he was five, and two years later to the North Shore.
His skill on the soccer field grew in Canada as he played stints with the North Shore’s Mountain United, in the Whitecaps programs and with several other local academies and clubs.
One of his first big breaks came when he starred for Team Canada U16s, coached by North Vancouver’s Darren Rath, at the 2017 Maccabiah Games in Israel where he turned heads with his performance as one of the youngest members of Canada’s team.
Bruk said his exposure there and future performances led to tryouts for youth teams with clubs ranging from Maccabi Tel Aviv to Bayern Munich to Manchester City, with many other stops in between. Nothing ever quite stuck, he said, due to issues ranging from passport problems to major miscommunications. Bruk said that in Grade 11 he travelled to England for a year to play for a soccer school only to be told when he got there the school wasn’t fielding a team in his age group that season.
This winter as a 17-year-old he played with NVFC Norvan in the Vancouver Metro Soccer League's premier division, the top amateur men’s league in B.C., and led the team in scoring, finishing eighth overall in the league in goals.
As a youth player he also had a sniff with the Canadian national program – he scored two goals in just 15 minutes of action against a national age-group team while playing with the Whitecaps – but that was it. Just a sniff.
“It was 0-0 and I got put on for the last 15 minutes and I scored two goals in 15 minutes and we ended up winning 2-0 against them. And then I just never heard back anything.” He ended up using his Ukrainian heritage to find a spot on their national junior team after Canada never came calling. Bruk said his time with the Whitecaps also ended in disappointment, claiming that he was suspended by the club for attending a tryout with Tel Aviv.
Add it all up and Bruk was used to dreams not quite coming true, but the COVID cancellation seemed particularly cruel. And then, a lifeline.
Working with the German embassy in Vancouver, Bruk and his family learned the visa rule was changing and they got him a letter confirming he was OK to travel to Germany. The delay was just a few days, and Bruk boarded a plane on July 2, although even when he landed, made his way to the club and started practising with his new teammates, it still didn’t quite seem real.
“It kind of gave me a little trust issue,” he said. “Once I was already here and in the club, I was still kind of struggling to believe that I was really there. It still feels kind of surreal, but I’m slowly getting used to the lifestyle and realizing that it’s finally a reality and not a dream.”
And the reality is, finally, all he dreamed of, he said. He’s living in Gelsenkirchen, Germany and training with the Schalke U19 team as they prepare to start their season against other Bundesliga U19 squads this fall. Germany has always been one of the top destinations on his dream list, he said.
“That’s been pretty much my goal since when I was a kid, to play professionally in the Bundesliga,” he said. “I love the environment here. In Germany, everything is surrounded by football. You can barely find a car here that doesn’t have some kind of sticker of a club.”
Strangely enough, Bruk speaks three languages, but not German. He’s got English, French and Russian nailed down, but his German?
“It’s bad. It’s Scheisse,” he said with a laugh.
It’ll surely get better though, as he just signed a two-year contract with his new club. His goal is to move rapidly through the club during that time, hopefully finding a place in the top Bundesliga squad by the end of the contract.
“My goal right now is I want to score as many goals as I can this season and hopefully for the second year of my contract, skip the second team and go into the first team,” he said. “There were a couple of players who did that last year. I just need to prove myself and do everything I can, and hopefully make this happen.
He’s had many near misses before, but when he actually gets an opportunity, his aim has been true. This, said Bruk, is the chance he’s been waiting for.
“I definitely feel like this is my shot.”