The Last Word

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:32 AM ET

Toronto's Jonathan de Guzman is 18 and one of the top 10 teenage soccer players in the world as rated by The Sunday Times in London, England.

Think Sidney Crosby, in spikes.

His brother, Julian de Guzman, is 24 and one season into the footsteps of the legendary Mauro Silva at Spain's Deportiva de la Coruna.

The tale of how two boys -- let alone siblings -- from the centre of the hockey universe could end up swapping sweat with soccer's icons is of Gretzkian proportion.

It includes a father, Bobby, who sees unique talent and sacrifices everything -- including, some might say, sanity -- to mould his sons into pro soccer players.

OVERSHADOWED BROTHER

There is the overshadowed brother, Julian, who nonetheless plays doggedly with more heart than natural talent and ultimately finds a modest place with one of Spain's most celebrated first division teams.

Then, there is Jonathan, the playmaker, the scorer, the kid with the magic feet and explosive shot. He left the family's Scarborough home at age 12, to play in Rotterdam with the Feyenoord youth system. He has charisma like Maradona, the touch of Pele and in his first division debut won the midfield battle against Dutch international Phillip Cocu.

Dutch soccer great Willem Van Hanegem wrote in his weekly column he could be another Zidane. People stop him for autographs.

It began nine years ago when Bobby told Julian good grades at Cardinal Newman high school were his only ticket to Europe.

"He got his name on the honours' role. I had no choice," Bobby says, "so I took our life's savings and used it for hotels and plane tickets to Amsterdam. People thought I was some crazy dad. Who in their right mind takes all their money to play a game in Europe?"

Precisely what his ex-wife, Pauline, thought. "I had a big argument and she'd guilt me about it once in a while," he says. It was just one more price to be paid in a climb up the backroad to fame.

"I wonder about the cost sometimes," Julian says on a phone line from Spain. "My dad was definitely behind us but it was hard for my mother to see her babies go away. I wouldn't say it hurt the family to the point that it was the reason they broke up, but it was hard."

Bobby, from the Phillipines, and Pauline, from Jamaica, came to Canada when each was 10 and Julian says he can't ever remember soccer not being paramount in their lives.

"I played baseball and basketball but my father definitely wanted us to become pros," Julian says. "He had all these tapes he'd take me to watch. He did it with Jonathan, too, but then I took over. Between me and my dad, my brother pretty much didn't even have a childhood. It was pretty much football. It was soccer before school, after school. If we played Nintendo it was only soccer."

Julian, who has played 14 games for Canada's national teams, has one goal this year -- the first by a Canadian in the Spanish League. Jonathan has four goals, 12 assists and, according to a spokesman for the Canadian Soccer Association, "he's an incredible talent. The real deal."

Julian knows superior talent when, like Gretzky's siblings, he's sharing bedrooms with it.

"He plays like a veteran," he says of his younger brother. "Your typical kid, you can look out on the pitch and know what mistakes he's going to make. He doesn't make them ... that's why he's one of the top teenage players in the world."

Too bad the best soccer player ever born in Canada never will play for the nation. The de Guzmans may not exactly be feuding with the Canadian soccer establishment, but they're not feeling the love either.

The roots of disenchantment run deep. Bobby was upset when Julian was injured playing for the national team and he ended up footing the rehab bills.

'A LOT OF POLITICS'

"That was unprofessional," Bobby says, "and through all that there was a big mess with the coaching. Even now there's a lot of politics."

The Canadian Soccer Association wants Jonathan for the world under-20 tournament that will be held in Toronto and other parts of Canada next year. Dale Mitchell, coach of Canada's under-20 team, says "he's a unique talent and he'd definitely make our team better. I've talked ... to let them know we're interested."

It's not happening.

"I know he's been approached," Bobby says. "Definitely he's not participating in any youth tournament. He was already been approached by the under-20 Dutch team and he said no. He's not playing junior."

When Julian made his Canadian team debut he was so ecstatic he said it "felt like I lost my virginity." Jonathan, though, is waiting for a call from the national team of the Netherlands. It is where the prestige, the money, the opportunity lies. It's not like it hasn't happened before.

"There was another kid, Owen Hargreaves, cut from (Canada's) under-17 team and he ended up playing for England. Just goes to show you how incompetent our soccer coaches are over here," Bobby says, critical of their inability to know talent when they see it.

Julian says he'd love to play with his brother but understands why it can't happen.

"I can see there will be (criticism). I know my brother is proud to be Canadian. But you can't forget he's been in Holland since he was 12. He speaks the language fluently. He graduated from school there, drove his first car there. He loves to come home as much as I do, but when it comes to football it's kind of another life."

It is not always an easy life for an outsider in Europe.

Europeans are as protective of soccer as Canadians are with hockey.

"Football can be a lonely sport," Julian says. "The hardest thing in my life were the first three years (in Marseilles). I wasn't French. I didn't speak the language. If you're having success there can be jealousies because you're taking someone else's spot. They (teammates) neglected me."

TURNED AGAINST HIM

It happened to Jonathan, too, with a Feyenoord youth team. "He was captain and they all turned against him. They didn't want some Canadian kid coming in ... Not a lot of 15-year-olds can deal with that, especially a couple thousand miles away from home," Julian says, "but it toughens you."

They may need some toughness when Jonathan picks orange over maple leaf red. The reaction from the Canadian public and media is expected to be harsh.

"Right now he has a $50,000 contract with adidas for unlimited equipment. What do we have (in Canada), some orange juice or McCain stuff? It sounds selfish but career and money-wise in Europe it's far more advanced. Holland goes to the World Cup all the time. Canada's only been there once. There's a lot of other sides that people don't understand. They just look at the patriotic side," Bobby says.

"At 18 he's making more than I'll make in my lifetime. If you get on a European team like England, France or Holland ... we're absolutely talking millions and millions of dollars."

In other words, even if he felt a patriotic tug, Jonathan de Guzman can't afford to come home.

Regrets, even over lost childhoods, come less often now, says Julian. They're playing a game they love, they've travelled from China to Africa to the Caribbean to Russia and they will be millionaires before their 25th birthdays.

"You always question yourself: Did I just throw away my life savings? Did we just waste our time? Because we like to spoil our kids, did I go overboard? When I look back I'm going to say: 'Hell no,' " Bobby says.

"But I've been very lucky.If both of them hadn't been so successful maybe I'd think differently."


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