European success costly for Canada

KEITH BRADFORD -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 7:25 AM ET

He left his Port Coquitlam, B.C., home at the age of 16 and jumped straight in at the deep end.

Somehow, he'd managed to get a trial with one of England's top soccer clubs - at a time when few "foreigners" played in the Old Country.

But showing he had talent wouldn't be enough. Craig Forrest had to prove that as a Vancouver-born "American," he had a right to play for Ipswich Town.

"I basically went over myself - my family were all from Vancouver," recalls Forrest.

"It was obviously a culture shock because everything was different. There was a lot of banter and the football was not the same, being as competitive as it was.

"It was difficult trying to prove myself, because if you came from Canada you were already a step behind. I felt I couldn't be equal - I had to be better."

Within three weeks, Forrest had signed with the club and in 1992, eight years after arriving on trial, he helped them become 1st Division champions.

Forrest was the first Canadian to play in the Premiership and he effectively paved the way for scores of others to follow.

But with most of Canada's top players now scattered across Europe - and the dream of World Cup qualification all but over - he's hoping something can be done to keep the cream of the crop closer to home.

"It's more and more international (in the top leagues) now. They give people an equal chance right off the bat," said Forrest, now an analyst on Sportsnet's Soccercentral show.

"(The number of Canadian players in Europe) is a shame for our international team. I think with the travelling and the players not spending enough time together, it really hurts us."

Frank Yallop, Canada's coach, reads from the same script. When Canada took on Guatemala in a key World Cup qualifier in August - a game they lost 2-0 - he said the difference in preparation was there for all to see.

"They probably spent four or five weeks together as a team," said Yallop. "They had six warm-up games before they played us and we had none and two days together. It makes a huge difference."

Forrest spent many years travelling from England to play for Canada. But today's schedules - and the fact that the Canadian players get very little time together - means it's almost inevitable the national team will underachieve.

"They play on Saturday afternoon and they travel on Sunday," said Yallop of his Europe-based players. "They arrive with us Sunday night, train Monday and Tuesday and play Wednesday. It's almost impossible.

"I would like to think I can coach players to win games once we get the right scenarios in place, but it's difficult when you're up against it before you've even kicked a ball."

The solution, Yallop and Forrest have long believed, is for Canada to have its own Major League Soccer team.

"I think if we get knocked out of the World Cup, Frank should be pushing ... for an MLS team in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. All three would be better still," said Forrest.

"If you can get a league that pays decent money, we are going to be able to keep some of the players who go to lower divisions in Scotland and England to stay here, and use those three teams as some roots for the national team.

"That's what the Americans have done with the MLS. It kind of surprises me that they want to come across here because they are going to be helping us. But I think the Americans feel they are so far ahead of us they're not concerned."

Hard sell in the hockey world ...

With the NHL still in lockout mode, what are the chances of a few thousand hockey fans turning their attention to the beautiful game?

"I don't think you are going to change a hockey fan into a soccer fan," said Forrest, who co-presents Sportsnet's English Premiership-based Saturday soccer show.

"But you might get a sports fan who's also a hockey fan who says, 'It's the only thing on TV, let's give it a try.'

"It's a hard sell in the hockey market because hockey is so, so strong over here.

"Our Hockeycentral show is on quite a bit and they get lots of air time, but Soccercentral out-draws them. The ratings have been so good."

Could have been called worse ...

Being called an American was the least of Forrest's worries when he was immersed into Ipswich Town's banter-filled dressing room at the tender age of 16. But somehow he managed to emerge with a relatively tame nickname.

"The first day I showed up, in '84, I was six-foot-five," said Forrest. "I walked into the dressing room and one of the guys went, 'Bloody hell, he's got stacks on,' because I was so tall.

"I was called a lot worse than that, but anything else just didn't stick. Even now, all the people I know over there, they still call me 'Stacks.' "


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