Soccer has long been mythologized as a game of the people. All you need, the fantasy goes, is a pair of shoes, a dusty field and a ball to play the world's game.
Visions of kids playing for hours, slowly transforming their skills into what would make them legends from the streets - rags to riches and all that - is a nice story but not really one that can be told within the modern context of the game.
The beautiful game has become horrendously expensive. Where soccer was once a refuge for Canadian families to put their kids when they couldn't afford hockey, today it is a place where top academies charge top dollar.
And, as it is in hockey, you have to play at those elite levels to get noticed. Scholarships are available at some of those centres, but usually they're only given to the very best and brightest. They do very little to reach out to the poorest centres of Canadian communities and help transform wayward youth.
Program targets unprivileged youth
One program in Toronto is seeking to change that. Football For All (FFA)
is a non-profit organization that is funded completely by the Salvation Army in Sweden. The program, which works with the Toronto Youth Development and Umbro, targets unprivileged and troubled youth and aims to give them a leg up in not only life, but in football.
"Soccer in Canada is too often a business," said Adrian Johansson, founder of FFA. "It's about making money from kids playing, or charging kids to come to your academy, or developing talent with these kids to sell them on to bigger clubs.
"I'm not trying to criticize those programs, they do what they do. The reality is though that you pay to play. If you don't pay, you don't play. And that's leaving a number of very talented, but perhaps less fortunate kids behind."
One of those kids was Esi Ghasemi. At 16-years-old, he knew he wanted to play soccer professionally but his family neither had the financial resources nor the know-how to connect him to such a life. FFA stepped in and not only provided the financial support for training and travel, but the social support to give him a direction. Today, at 20, Ghasemi finds himself on a professional contract with FC Gute, a second division club out of Sweden.
"It's not easy for anyone to get a professional tryout, or a professional contract with a club, especially being from Canada, as other countries don't always look at our country as being a professional soccer nation," Ghasemi explained.
"FFA gave me that. I couldn't really afford to play with a big academy. And I wasn't really the best kid in school, or the smartest kid. I saw soccer as a way to get away from the problems in my life. But when I was around 14 or 15, I started hanging around with the wrong crowd, making bad decisions and it landed me in trouble with the police.
"It was tough on my parents to see me doing such stuff. I always had a dream in my head that I could be a professional player but I didn't know where to start and it was frustrating. In some ways it's what led me down that other path"
Ghasemi's step-father, Sam Orfanakos, remembers what it was like to see him struggle to find his way.
"He was a teenager without a lot of motivation. He didn't have any kind of direction. Soccer was something he always played. And during that time he even let that all fall away, not playing for a good chunk of time," Orfanakos said. "He found this organization and the possibility of playing soccer in Europe became more of a reality. They showed him how to get there."
The FFA program, which costs the organization around $12,000 a year per player, identifies kids who have the potential to one day play professionally, but either come from a rough background or whose families don't have the means to support their goals.
FFA pays for their training, for their flight if they earn a trial, and the Swedish Salvation Army helps to house them and get them use to their new community. Unlike other soccer development programs, FFA do not collect any transfer fees or receive any money if a player becomes successful.
And for clubs in Sweden, like FC Gute, one of the first teams to sign on with the program and where Ghasemi now plies his trade, it's more than just a way to find undiscovered talent.
"We wanted to do something good for young players in Canada. We know that some of these players that may come are not the best players right now but we believe they can develop into great young professionals - not just as soccer players but as human beings," FC Gute director Morten Berger said.
More Canadians heading to Sweden
FC Gute, where players like Swedish international Alexander Gerndt got his start, will welcome two more Canadian players from the FFA program this summer. Mark Bacolcol and Alexander Ryan, both from Regent Park in Toronto, will make the jump overseas to Sweden on youth contracts at the end of July.
"We work with them away from the field as well as on it," Berger said. "We're building young men, not just soccer players. But we believe this type of project with FFA could be very successful and expanded to other centres and other clubs, which is why we got involved."
For Ghasemi, who started his contract with FC Gute in February, it's all a little surreal.
"I train four days a week with the club. Our games are on weekends. I'm doing well and have already scored a few times, so I think our coaches are quite happy with my performance. But I still look around sometimes and think about how far I've come from where I was just four years ago."
As much as anything, the transformation of this young man, who had a troubled youth, can be seen in how he concluded the interview. Ghasemi spent nearly 10 minutes thanking everyone from his mom for her continual support, to his step dad for waking him up early, to God for creating football, and obviously to the FFA for its support. If it had been an Academy Awards speech, they would have flashed the lights and started the music when he was only half way through.
Soccer may not be affordable to all anymore, but for this young man and others like him, programs like the FFA are taking the dream of playing professionally out of the pocketbook and putting it back on to the feet of players.
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