Scenes from a pitch: North Vancouver hosts street soccer championship

Scenes from a pitch: North Vancouver hosts street soccer championship

By Sean Kolenko – North Shore Outlook

Published: May 02, 2012 9:00 AM

Updated: May 03, 2012 2:21 PM

Once the halftime huddle broke, only seven minutes and a competitive Kodiaks squad from Kelowna stood between the Victoria Dreams and victory at the Western Canada Street Soccer Championships.

The out-of-town squad had battled its way through a series of hard-fought matches over the weekend and grimaced through a few injuries to arrive at this point. And the wear and tear showed. Under a knee-high blue sock, Kris Pretula, a gregarious Dreams member, was nursing a swollen ankle. The team’s goalie, Rob Siggers, was playing with a badly beat-up hand.

But they had a ferry ride back to Vancouver Island to deal with all that. All there was time for now was one last cheer — and, maybe, a few competing clichés.

“Don’t leave nothing on the field,” barks Pretula, rallying the troops.

“Don’t leave nothing on the field.”

“Leave everything on the field,” corrects Siggers, joining the huddle.

“Leave everything on the field.”

About-face

As a flushed Natasha Fox, captain of the host North Shore Shields team, sits down under a tent on the sidelines Saturday afternoon, the first thing on her mind is a gulp of water. The second is the stifling defence of the Surrey Nightshift FC.

The Shields had just dropped a 5-1 match to the Surrey group and a nod, albeit begrudgingly, was due.

“We just couldn’t get the ball past them. We were trying to get into the open,” she says, half smiling, dark sunglasses masking her eyes.

“It was tough getting a shot on goal. And their striker — their striker had a powerful kick.”

Growing up with parents in the oil business meant a life abroad for Fox, a native Albertan. As a kid, she learned to play soccer when her parents were working in Libya. When the family moved to England, she spent four years as a member of her boarding school’s soccer team.

But athletics would soon become a thing of the past. Fox walked away from sports in her teens, unsure and unconcerned about whether she’d ever be back.

In her twenties, Fox’s attention, out of necessity, become more and more focused on getting by. She wound up working in the hotel industry, even managing one before being laid off nearly three years ago. She hasn’t worked since.

When the money dried up, so did her ability to live on her own and Fox wound up living in the North Shore Shelter for a year. It was bottom, she admits, and hitting it was tough. But if she hadn’t, she might not have found her feet again.

“I learned to take care of myself at the shelter. I learned strength and determination there,” says Fox.

“And I had this New Year’s resolution three years ago to quit smoking. I kept it. Now I’m an athlete.”

From Blood Alley to Copacabana

It was Patrick Oleman’s cousin Roger that first told him about the Vancouver Street Soccer League. Oleman had never really played the game but he was a pro at hacky sack. How different could it be?

At the time, Oleman was living in the Stanley Hotel, a landmark haunt in the Downtown Eastside’s infamous Blood Alley. He’d been there seven years, struggling with addictions to crystal meth and alcohol.

But this soccer thing sounded pretty cool and he signed up to play for the Portland Hotel FC. That was two years ago.

Since, Oleman’s quit drinking, quit smoking and kicked meth. He’s travelled to Brazil with the 2010 Canadian national street soccer team to compete in the Homeless World Cup, ran his first half-marathon and started his own team, the Woodward’s FC.

At the helm of his own squad, Oleman’s a consummate booster. Not a play goes by without him offering a reassuring word or a direction for the next play. Even after his team dropped the bronze medal game Sunday morning, a panting Oleman smiled proudly.

He likes what he sees.

“It’s the camaraderie. I’ve been going to three or four other teams to help them too,” he says.

“You just got to come out, man.”

The new kid

The Greyhound ride west from Saskatoon was nice until his cousin got off in Edmonton. Then, Lee Adams got lonely.

He was a 21-year-old on his way to a new city. Kicked out of the house by his auntie for drinking too much, Adams hit the coast looking for a blank slate. What he found was much of the same.

For his first year in town, Adams slept in alleys in the West End, content to spend whatever money he had on booze and pot. From time to time he stayed at the Covenant House, torn between the lure of the streets and the comfort of being indoors.

Adams would give in eventually, having been accepted to the Covenant House’s year-long transitional living program, Rights of Passage. He’s been cooking full time at a restaurant downtown and he’s preparing for school in the fall at the Native Education Centre, where he’ll be studying family and community counselling.

It’s a stressful time, though. Money, he says, gets him down.

“It’s the biggest worry I have,” says Adams, taking a drag of his cigarette, head down.

“That why soccer’s so much fun. It’s stress relief. You just kick the ball.”

And like that, Adams butts out his smoke, hops up and descends the bleachers. He’s got warmups to get to and, hopefully, a trophy to win.

“I think we [the Covenant House team] got a good chance. We’re playing well together,” he says.

“I’m really excited about this tournament. It would be great to have you in our cheering section.”

Saved

Cam Rourke hasn’t seen Sandra Vasquez, a former outreach worker with the North Shore branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, in a few years. That’ll happen when one party, as Vasquez did, moves to San Francisco.

Memories, though, have a way of defying distance. There are more than 1,500 kilometres between North Van and San Francisco and she’s the first person Rourke mentions when opening up about his past.

“That lady’s an angel to me. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her,” he says.

“And a lot of hard work.”

The pair first met when Rourke was living in Mosquito Creek — his second home while on the streets, after living in parkades for a few months —  addicted to crack and drinking “a boatload of beer.” He had worked on garbage trucks and for various renovation companies in his past, but getting high had gotten the better of him.

With his money blown, a spot under a bridge was all he had.

The road to homelessness is a quick one, a fall few can grasp even in mid-flight. But the way out can prove more difficult. Even after Vasquez began helping Rourke, it was a struggle to leave the streets. It took him two stints at the North Shore Shelter before he gave up the grind and accepted a new path.

Smartening up, he laughs, takes commitment.

Soccer has proven a much simpler investment. One afternoon at the library, Charles MacGregor, coach of the North Shore Shields, asked Rourke if he wanted to come to a practice and kick the ball around. He took him up on it.

“I bothered you at the library,” says MacGregor, walking by.

Rourke smiles.

“It just blossomed from there. Charles had me coaching this weekend, helping lead. It’s just great to be involved in something that’s good for you,” he says.

“Get out, move around, be in a group of people.”

Crunch time

The opening half of the championship match had been an up-and-down affair with both Kelowna and Victoria having their share of opportunities to break the game open.

Street soccer is an offensive game, as the field of play is only 30 metres wide and 20 metres long, with each team required to keep a striker in the offensive zone at all times. But none of that seemed to matter here, with the score sitting at a mere 1-0 with one half left to play.

The second half offered much the same as the first. Victoria nearly took a 2-0 lead with a beautiful chance minutes into the frame, but Kelowna’s goalkeeper came up with a huge stop to keep it a one-goal match.

As the clock ticked, tensions built. Calls for the ref to notice alleged penalties grew as possession of the ball became more and more vital. But as championship matches should go, they played on.

And just like that, there were 15 seconds, seven seconds, five seconds left to play. When the final whistle blew, the score was still 1-0.

Having left everything on the field, The Victoria Dreams, bumped and bruised, were champs.

Street soccer’s on- and off-field benefits

The reason the Vancouver Street Soccer League has grown as it has — from a single team in the Downtown Eastside in 2008 to nine today, including a North Shore squad — is simple, says league president Dr. Alan Bates: “It’s so fun.”

As a psychiatry resident at the University of B.C., Bates is accustomed to looking for ways to help people with a myriad of troubles. Yet Bates says the improvements he’s watched players enjoy since getting involved with street soccer rivals anything he’s seen in the clinical realm.

“A lot of the results I see in street soccer are better than if I had seen people in my office as a doctor,” says Bates.

“Just making friends and social contacts are huge. That’s an enormous thing for mental health. If I could prescribe friends, I would.”

After last year’s Western Canada championships, Bates was involved in a study that aimed to quantify some of the improvements street soccer brought to participants’ lives.

Of 60 players interviewed, 15 had found some kind of employment and some reported to have quit drinking and smoking marijuana. A decrease in conflicts with police was also found, as was an increase in contacts with medical supports. Many, added Bates, said they had improved confidence and fitness as well.

Another study will be done this year to update the previous data. UBC has just pledged $40,000 to the project.

Vancouver Street Soccer is affiliated with Street Soccer Canada, the national street soccer body that each year sends an eight-player men’s and women’s team to the Homeless World Cup.

This year’s Homeless World Cup will be held in Mexico City from Oct. 6-14. Once the Canadian teams are selected, each will be tasked with fundraising to get to the tournament.

For more local, national and international information on street soccer, visit vancouverstreetsoccer.com, streetsoccercanada.org, or homelessworldcup.org.

skolenko@northshoreoutlook.com
twitter.com/seankolenko