More than gold

Canada’s Olympic win could be the start of a new soccer era, if the country seizes its opportunities

M

arisa Colzie knows the moment Team Canada won gold in women’s soccer at the 2020 Summer Olympics will stay seared in her memory.

When Canada beat Sweden 2-1 on penalty kicks, the Saint Mary’s Huskies women’s soccer head coach was at her office, with two projectors showing the game so her five-year-old son and the 20 boys in the university’s football camp could watch.

“They just got so into it, which I just loved,” she recalls. “We were on the edge of our seat for pretty much the whole game … I was crying. It was everything you dream of as a player and as a fan.”

The excitement of the win reminds many of when Canada won gold in men’s hockey at the 2010 Winter Olympics, and raises hopes that soccer is approaching hockey’s enviable national appeal.

“Soccer is such an accessible game at the very bare minimum,” Colzie says. “You need a ball, a piece of grass or space, a gym, really anywhere you can play in a hallway. At the heart of it, it’s the world game, and it’s diverse being able to come together with literally one ball and play. That’s a part of the draw to the game.”

Colzie is originally from Windsor, Ont., but her father was born in Budapest, Hungary, so those European roots brought a love of soccer. When she was seven, she and her brother (two years younger) took up the sport. They played on the same teams for the first few years.

Marisa Colzie

“My experience playing soccer as a child just was just a great time,” she says. ” I had some great coaches and wonderful friends … It is that that sort of team sport mentality, cooperation and working together. It’s the relationships for me that you can build, and using soccer as sort of that tool is why I’m so passionate about it.”

Colzie had to work hard to take her game to the next level as a player because she was from a small town in Ontario. That meant heading south to join NCAA Division 1 team Coastal Carolina, where she enjoyed success as a captain, making the conference’s All-Tournament Team in 2003. Colzie also played in the W-League (a former North American professional league) with the Toronto Inferno, London Gryphons, and Windsor Border Stars.

“That influenced me to stay in the game and get into coaching,” she says. “If the opportunity was there to play, we probably could have maybe pushed for more girls in the game, which had a lot to do with where I was from. The infrastructure then for the Canadian national team is not how it is now. Unless you played in a big hub … you didn’t get looked at.”

Things are different today. “We’re picking out talent from across the country, so I think that is improved vastly,” she says. “(Vanessa) Gilles didn’t go through the typical sort of pathway to the national team. She got herself a pro contract in Europe, did well, got looked out and was brought into a national camp. It’s expanding with regards to where we’re looking and making it more of a full country effort than maybe just the major cities.”

Expanding, but it’s still a small soccer community, that now has a generation’s worth of inspiration.

“We’re all trying to support each other and to push our sport forward,” Colzie says. “This (Olympic win) is such a motivator … It will motivate the next generation of soccer players, male or female: 4.4 million viewers just on CBC alone … It’s about instilling that love for the game. This game did that for a nation.”

Team Canada head coach Bev Priestman says the gold medal win will make a significant impact on the Canadian soccer landscape.

Bev Priestman

“For young kids, they’ve dreamt of moments, and the bronze brought a bit of that to life now, they can dream of being the Olympic champion,” she tells Halifax Magazine in a recent press conference. “For the players, the belief that I felt was missing when I took over is now there. We’ve got to build and capitalize on that.”

The next step is to keep building interest in the sport, particularly after the glow of the Olympics fades.

“There’ll be people who step forward in this country to set beyond a talent system, like an actual professional pathway,” Priestman says. ” Being able to go and watch your heroes play week in, week out, will be critical for the growth of the game.”

Huskies player Jenna Lileikis is one of those rising talents, now finding Olympic inspiration.

“It does inspire me to be like the best player I can be for my university soccer throughout my career and hopefully be able to win a championship someday here,” she says. “If we can get a league here in Canada, I think that would be something I would love to do after I’m done my four or five years (in university) … It hugely motivates me to become a better soccer player to put in all that extra work and do more.”

Lilekis came to Halifax from Foothills, Alta., for her university soccer career. She wanted the opportunity to develop under a coach who fit her playing style and values, someone who’s been a leader in promoting and growing the sport. She found what she was looking for with Colzie.

Like Colzie, Lilekis was fortunate for the opportunities she had growing up in the sport but feels that the women’s game needs more support.

“In general, we lack for women in soccer, of that platform, even here,” she says. “I find women don’t have as many opportunities and don’t always have the support behind them. To go far in soccer and even just like role models like players to look up to, there isn’t a lot, especially in Canada, which I think we lack that.”

While the Canadian Premier League and Major League Soccer have elevated soccer’s exposure in Halifax and across the country, there aren’t equivalent pro opportunities for women.

“You talk to many like young girls, and none of them watch soccer just because they’re like, ‘It’s just men playing,'” Lilekis says. “If there is an opportunity to partner a woman’s team with each of those men’s teams, I think that would be great for the sport and for young girls to have someone to look up to.”

Canada does provide girls with opportunities, she adds. Just not enough.

“We have way more boys registered than girls; that’s partially because we’re advertising towards the boys,” she says. “We are missing a lot of support for girls’ soccer, and the same with opportunities like tournaments.”

Priestman believes the gold medal reflects the value of those opportunities.

“There’s a whole heap of players that have come through a system that we’ve invested in, and the provinces have supported,” she says. “That’s come to fruition now, and we’ve got to make sure that we keep pushing that. We’ve had a development structure now for eight years that has definitely shown … that it worked. Now we’ve just got to evolve it because what I do know is you don’t win again, doing the same thing.”

Ultimately, players and coaches are optimistic that the future is bright for the growth of the women’s sport, not just in the country but also in Halifax.

And Colzie dreams of the day she can don a Halifax jersey. “There’s nothing I would want more than then a professional team in Halifax because I know our soccer community,” she says. “I know they would be supported and backed, and it would be quite an exciting time for sure.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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