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Guest Post – The great big melting pot

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By Rod de Lisle

Meet Tane Foote-Smith. He lives in Hawkes Bay. Foote-Smith is a 16 year old kiwi footballer, aspiring to be a pro, but as confused as a chameleon on a smartie box about his options. But he has plenty. It never used to be that way.

New Zealand football used to exist in an isolated vacuum, it was the distance you see. Our first footballing imports virtually had to weigh anchor, unfurl the sails, and spend six sea-sick months traversing the oceans to get to Auckland and the distinctly un-hallowed turf of  Newmarket Park. When I first kicked a ball in anger, mid- last century, we needed these imports. The rugged farming, bush-clearing founders of his country were better suited to the eggball-chasing and less skilful rugger. Only the poofs played football. (Although call us that and there WOULD be a fight). Consequently we were weren’t very good at soccer, as it was universally known. The national team was full of poms. An ex-business partner of mine was John Houghton a likeable, but tough Scotsman who left Motherwell at a young age and settled in Auckland. He would go on to represent New Zealand 15 times and manage the highly successful Mt Wellington side of the early ‘80’s.

But times have a-changed, thank God. The globe is not only over-heating, it is also rapidly shrinking. And that’s good for home-grown, 100% NZ, real kiwi football.  And great for our kids. Stuff like social media, cheap (and better) tellies and faster air flights mean that you feel like you can reach out and talk to Ronaldo (you can, on Twitter) or pop over to the UK for a few days to watch Scunthorpe United lose to Rotherham (you can, but why would you want to?). And there’s this FIFA playbox thing all the kids are playing.

One of the advantages  of the incredible shrinking world is the availability of options for up-and-coming footballers to ply their trade in other countries. I’ve noticed there’s a footie-go-round kinda thing. Aspiring talent from third world football countries (like New Zealand) can head off to Europe, South American players can land a gig in New Zealand or Australia, European ex-pros can work a little longer by sending their resumes to places exotic and extract another year or two out of their careers. Even the resume has changed. You can get a geeky mate to make a video of your best bits of play for a YouTube clip. Even better than a CV, that.

Colour, language and culture are no bar. The multitude of accents you hear at a typical club!  It could be the nearest we’ve got to the Melting Pot song Blue Mink wrote about. What’s not to like?

Moving countries isn’t too expensive or even too hard, apart from various visa requirements and the like. Where do you go?  The biggest prize is the English Premiership, closely followed by La Liga, (then the Serie A, Bundesliga etc) where players basically win lotto every week by playing the game you and your mates stayed out playing -for free- till it got dark, cos you loved it so much. But, I hear you say, how many will make that level? The answer is very few.

But it’s great for youngsters because of the other options. They can dream of the Premiership but take other paths. You listening Tane? This is where it gets interesting. There are plenty of paths. Yep,  you still have to be talented and have breaks go your way, but its not just luck . The adage, ‘the harder I work, somehow  the luckier I get’ stands true. The lucky hard-working ones get an opportunity to play at a higher level, to travel and broaden their horizons like no generation in history has ever done. Tane Foote-Smith is a fortunate chap to be born this century.

In a kiwi football context, the downside of this churn is that we lose many young players each year, chasing their dreams around the globe. The, far greater, upside is that we get a bunch of inspiring immigrant players boosting our local game and passing on their knowledge and skills. And the youngsters who leave? A fortunate few make it big, but most come back eventually. But they are better, stronger and world-wise players. And our National team have a far wider pool of seasoned professionals to draw from.

The European scene is where traditionally most Kiwi players have headed.  Several from my club, Hamilton Wanderers have done exactly that. Chris Wood and  Marco Rojas landed good contracts, with Wood having played Premiership football with two different clubs. Rojas was signed by Stuggart in the Bundesliga but was hampered by injuries.  Other players go to lower league clubs. Ex-Hamilton Wanderers player  Jamie Woodlock was in the news this week.  He is in the Netherlands, playing professional football for the youth team of a club in the Dutch Eredivisie league, Go Ahead Eagles. He told me.  “I got scouted from the under 17s World Cup qualifiers in Apia, Samoa. I  was looking at trying to sign for a English club but snatched the opportunity when they approached me.”

I’ve had a look at the USA College football scene recently. Tane Foote-Smith would do well to consider this option. It is not the English Premiership or even Europe, but it is a more logical step for many of our players. Many are jumping on an airbus to LA and beyond,  jetting off to chase the dream. I spoke this week to other ex-Wanderers players Elliot Collier, Matt Gibbons and Henry Crayton who have all gone the US college route. I asked each of them how they ended up in the States?

Elliot Collier is at Loyola University, Chicago,  which is consistently ranked among the top universities in the USA.  I spoke to Collier this week in Chicago and asked him how it worked out for him. He said he started the process quite young when he was spotted by coaches as a raw talent. “Hamilton Wanderers provided me the opportunity at the age of 15 to go over to England and trial at West Brom. Through that experience I knew that at that time I wasn’t ready mentally or physically. So after that, I looked into going to the US to play and study at college.”

After Wanderers, Collier moved briefly to Wellington to join the Ole football academy. “And now I’m here ( in Chicago) . I owe Hamilton Wanderers thanks for the opportunities the club provided me and that training environment put me on the path to the USA really.”

Mattie Gibbons has been over there for several years. Currently situated in Seattle, Gibbons says “I played for the University of New Mexico but graduated last year.  I got a good job through a connection from my college coach, working full-time & doing the odd training with the Seattle University Men’s soccer team to keep my fitness.  I am a ‘Technical Recruiter’ for a staffing agency, H10 Capital. We work with the likes of Amazon & Microsoft to fill their employment needs.”

Nate Winkel who started the Ole Academy down in Wellington was Gibbons’ catalyst. “He brought a team over to USA, we played some college semi pro teams and  I was scouted by college coaches from that tour.” Other options were there. “I did look into heading to Wales to play with a youth academy  when I was 17, but after hearing about the US University options, with scholarships for athletes, it was a pretty easy decision. Was offered an athletic scholarship from a top soccer program and the rest is history. Easily the best four years of my life, football wise and socially.”

Henry Crayton is playing at Hofstra University in New York. He told me “I always wanted to play college soccer. I went from Wanderers straight to America at the end of high school. I got a Division 1 college soccer scholarship by contacting US coaches towards the end of year 13. I chose Hofstra University because they gave me the best offer and were in New York which is a great location. Last year we won the CAA championship and were a top 25 ranked team in the nation and we are currently ranked top in our conference and 28th in the country so far this season.” Crayton  adds, “Without the Wanderers environment I definitely would not have been able to make this happen.”

So are clubs like Wanderers leaking their lifeblood overseas? I think there is no doubt that loss of players can be detrimental, but why would you want to stop it happening? Wanderers, like most New Zealand clubs, should be proud that they are developing great kiwis  with work ethics and ambition. Why would we want to hinder that? And many do come back, better players and more mature, to our club.  Gibbons promised me he’ll be back, am holding you to that, Mattie! Michael Built is another who has tasted English pro life and is back at Wanderers, coaching the National league youth team, a real asset to the club.

It’s not just the young men departing our shores. More under the radar, but significant, are the numbers of female footballers who head to the States. As Enzo Giordani says, “It seems like half the NRFL disappears to the US every year.” He pinpoints a potential problem. “A lot of the time they are playing age group football for NZ but once they go they often stop getting called up. Is that a conscious decision that playing on a college scholarship is better for them in the long run than playing for their country?” Probably.

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I got talking to ex-All White and local lawyer, Che Bunce, who runs the highly regarded  Waikato University Football Academy, WUFA.  Che’s experience and playing credentials are second to none, being capped  29 times for the All Whites and enjoyed an overseas career in places as far flung as Iceland, Denmark  and Ireland. He is familiar with the American College scene having taken a WUFA team to Hawaii and a couple of other states  last year and has several key contacts over there. He plans to do the same again next April.

Bunce supports my positive view of the American option. He says “With WUFA, our philosophy is we give players the option of pursuing academics and football in tandem here and in the United States. I initially set up the academy in 2013 to provide the opportunity here in New Zealand so players didn’t have to go overseas to train in a full-time environment. We have been pretty successful in our first four years with a number of players from WUFA playing in the national league (ASB premiership), Australian state league and making New Zealand futsal sides.”

He singles out Alfie Rogers, another ex Wanderers and WUFA lad. “He’s going to a world club champs with Auckland city FC.”

So what about the WUFA players tour? “We realised that we couldn’t offer everything here, such as the American lifestyle and travel for example, so we have branched out to help players go to the states,  hence the tour/recruitment package.  The ultimate goal is to give players a choice to travel abroad or stay here whilst still pursuing their football dreams.”

I mentioned Enzo’s comment about the women.  He replies. “Yes, USA women’s college football on the rise, we actually tried to open up a women’s WUFA (we continue each year) but haven’t quite had the same interest as the blokes.” C’mon ladies!

Bunce says there are Australian agencies who charge a pretty penny  to set up kiwi teenagers with American Colleges but they tend to be of a fairly hands-off nature, mainly putting CV’s and the like together. “Our offer is to actually take the kids on a four match tour of selected American universities where there are talent spotters and coaches getting to see our lads in action.”

Bunce adds that his tour also consist of pre-tour training and education sessions. But actually going there is the key. “And at a lower price than the Australian academies charge”.

I promised to give him a plug, so here it is. More info on  WUFA football tour of the states here.  Bunce is also holding a information meeting at the Waikato university this Thursday so feel free to give him a call on 0212366044.

So for the youngsters, our children, Tane Foote-Smith, is it worth it?   My answer would be in my personal observations of my (sadly non-football playing) daughter’s, who have both travelled extensively and worked overseas. They both have come back, more worldly, more grateful that we live in such a great country and most importantly, a desire to make something out themselves. Worth it? You betcha!

And ok, I admit it, Tane Foote-Smith is fictional, like a FIFA 17 avatar. But if he existed, what a great time to be alive!

[Rod de Lisle is the Hamilton Wanderers first team manager (in the UK that means coach, here it means dog’s body) and a Leicester City former tragic who may be tragic again depending on how they go this season.]

Categories: Other Football Topics

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Enzo Giordani

A grassroots football enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent club on earth - A.S. Roma. More info (including e-mail address) can be found here: https://in-the-back-of-the.net/about/

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