'You can sense it': Optimism growing for local soccer season to be salvaged

Adjustments will have to be made due to the COVID-19 shutdown, but there is growing hope that Quebec's youth soccer season can be saved.

Soccer Quebec suggests keeping players two metres apart on the pitch

Vasilios Tiniakos and his teammates had hopes of representing the province at the national finals this season. COVID-19 has thrown everything into doubt. (Submitted by Evan Tiniakos)

Vasilios Tiniakos and his teammates on the U17 Saint-Laurent AAA team had high hopes for the 2020 soccer season with goals that included winning the provincial title and representing Quebec at the national finals this fall.

"It was supposed to start on April 10. So, I'm not even sure that the season is going to occur," Tiniakos said.

All around the province, players like Tiniakos are dealing with the same uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For many of them, sitting at home while weeks of training sessions are cancelled is frustrating.

"To limit the disappointment I've been watching a lot of soccer videos on YouTube," said Arold Ehouabolet, who plays on a U14 team for the NDG Soccer Association (NDGSA).

However, there is growing hope that the local soccer season can be salvaged.

NDGSA president Christian de Serres believes they will get the green light to play soon.

"You can sense it: the government wants the kids to start going out of the house, and so do parents," he said.

Season possible if play starts before mid-June

The local youth soccer season has already lost out on a lot due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In NDG, the association has cancelled its annual Icebreaker Soccer Tournament which typically involves around 60 teams from around the province. De Serres estimates that registration has dropped off about 30 per cent from last year.

The association has already had to lay off one employee and while additional cuts were prevented thanks to government bail out programs de Serres warns more tough decisions are coming.

"We're going to be in trouble whatever happens," he said. "It's going to be difficult to readjust in terms of controlling expenses against influx of money. The people who are going to be hurting the most are going to be our technical team and some of our admin staff."

Arold Ehouabolet and his teammates at the NDG Soccer Association will not get to play in the annual Icebreaker Tournament this year after it was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Remi Ehouabolet)

But for the kids, he sees a light at the end of the tunnel.

"Whenever they give the green light for schools, you betcha they're going to give the green light for sports. That's what we're expecting," de Serres said.

The premier has hinted schools could start to gradually reopen in May, but even if they don't de Serres is optimistic local youth sports like soccer could get the go ahead to return because playing soccer isn't as complicated as reopening a school.

Typically teams would be practising this time of year, going through their final cuts as they prepare to kick off the new season.

"They're going to miss all the April period of getting into a team and starting to practice. That's gone," de Serres said, but added the whole year won't be a wash if they're able to start sometime in June.

He said the league could return with a compressed schedule and the kids could still play out the year with some semblance of normalcy.

Soccer practice at a distance is an option

One option on the table is for the players to come back on the pitch under strict physical-distancing guidelines.

The general manager of Soccer Quebec, Mathieu Chamberland floated the idea in an interview with Radio-Canada last week.

He said players could space out on the field and work on technical skills until they could start playing games safely.

"It can be done, there's so many drills. It will work for physical warm up, physical training," de Serres said about the proposal. "But I wouldn't stretch it. It's going to get boring for the kids to do all summer."

While practices at a distance are far from ideal, players say they'd prefer it to nothing at all.

"It's better than just staying inside the house," Tiniakos said.

Soccer players around the province like 14-year-old Arold Ehouabolet desperately want to play this season, but they say they understand the health crisis is serious. (Submitted by Remi Ehouabolet)

The players desperately want to get back to their teams, but they also realize getting back to the game they love isn't the primary focus at the moment.

"Soccer isn't the top priority in the middle of a health crisis, but I'm still really hoping it gets better and we can play this year," Ehouabolet said.

"The safety and the health of the people is more important than the season so if it were to start at all, June would be fine with me. I'd rather it starts than it doesn't," Tiniakos said.

Until there is a clear path forward, training at home is the only option. Tiniakos said he's running six to seven kilometres per day and hitting the weights in his basement for strength training.

"I'm trying my best to stay in shape. That proves that I really miss the game," Tiniakos said.

"So when I get back out there, I'll be ready."

About the Author

Douglas Gelevan, a national award-winning sports journalist, has been a member of the CBC team since 2010. He is currently the sports journalist for CBC News Montreal.

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