Change may be inevitable, but there’s also something to be said for tradition.
So while Nations Cup chair Jeff Wilson and his team of organizers continue to subtly introduce amendments to an event many recognize as the premier men’s and women’s soccer tournament in Western Canada, the structure remains relatively unchanged from when the tournament debuted 36 years ago.
With kickoff of the 2015 edition set for Friday evening, Wilson says this year is even more status quo than recent years, including last year when four teams were added to each of the men’s over-30 and over-38 divisions.
On the heels of the recent FIFA Women’s World Cup, and the final played at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, interest in female soccer has never been greater. That is reflected in the Nations Cup as well, where following Team Caribbean’s 3-1 victory over Italy in the 2014 final, no longer are perennial favourites Ireland and Canada the only teams to top the field. And as a result, the foundation of the division has never been more solid.
“I don’t think there’s much doubt that the World Cup has heightened the enthusiasm for soccer with an international falir,” Wilson says. “We tend to see that reflected in our tournamenet whenever it’s a world cup year—men’s or women’s. Let’s hope some of that enthusiasm carries over to this weekend.”
Wilson acknowledges there was a time, not long ago, when some colleagues suggested the tournament drop the women’s division. Not only did Ireland and Canada dominate the field, but attracting more than four teams each year was a struggle.
“We wanted to see it through, believing that young girls 16 and 17 years old were familiar with the Nations Cup and wanting to be part of it,” Wilson says.
This year organizers had to turn down applications from two teams leaving the field at a solid and competitive eight.
“It’s a good sign to see the demand to participate quite strong. I hope it’s a sign we can solidify things going forward, just like we did with the over-30 and over-38 men’s divisions,” Wilson says.
In each division, including the open and over-45 men’s divisions, the quality of play is continually increasing. Wilson says there are many reasons, but notably better coaching and more commitment by the athletes themselves. He also believes greater exposure to high-level soccer on an international scale has had a positive influence.
“I can remember when I was growing up in the ‘80s you were pretty hard pressed to see a premier football match of any consequence on TV,” he says. “I can remember it being a really big deal to catch a Man U game. Now the ability for young people to see the best of the best at their fingertips, or live in person, is something we didn’t have 20 or 30 years ago.”
Clive Clarke, who will be back to coach Team Caribbean in the women’s division, expects his squad to be competitive in its quest to defend its Nations Cup title. He says it will be a challenge with many players who participated last year away on school trips, but he’ll be able to look to at least five players from the Richmond Red Hots club he guided to the under-18 provincial girls’ title a couple of years ago including his daughter Summer and last year’s MVP Alyssa Graeme.
“Regardless, it’s going to be a very challenging group,” Clarke says. “Ireland is always strong and the one to defeat ever year, and Canada is another tough opponent.”
Participating in the Nations Cup, or even simply cheering from the sidelines, has always generated a great sense of pride. But now the players and teams are tasked more than ever with the need to prepare for the tournament well in advance. Typically that means determining where their strengths and weaknesses are through a series of friendlies one or two months prior to stepping onto the Nations Cup pitch.
Wilson says better preparation among the teams has also led to even more parity in each of the divisions. And that’s made picking favourites even more of a challenge as well.
“You can always list a few perennial favourites, but you really never know,” he says.
•Ireland is the defending champion in the men’s open division. Richmond’s Luke O’Shea was the story of last year’s final when the Richmond keeper, prior to his final year at the University of B.C., served up an MVP performance to earn The Richmond Review Trophy as the tournament’s most outstanding player in backstopping Team Ireland to a 1-0 win over India. Stu Walters was solid on the backline to earn best defender honours.
“It’s pretty sweet,” O’Shea admitted afterwards, especially considering Ireland fielded a young team that was considered by most pundits to be rebuilding.
Goals were hard to come by in the men’s over-30, over-38 and over-45 divisions as well as Portugal outscored Italy 1-0, Indian topped Fiji 2-0 and Fiji outscored Ireland 2-0 respectively. Scotland blanked China 3-0 in the over-52 division.
In all, 62 teams will vie for bragging rights in the six divisions at this year’s tournament which begins Friday and continues all day Saturday and Sunday at Hugh Boyd Park and Minoru parks. A few matches will also be played at the Manoah Steves Elementary School field.
For more information, including a complete schedule of tournament matches, visit thenationscup.com.
Nations Cup notes
•The 36th Nations Cup soccer tournament kicks off Friday evening and continues through Sunday. Games are at Hugh Boyd and Minoru parks, with a few at Manoah Steves Elementary School.
•All finals will be played Sunday at Hugh Boyd Park, as follows:
•Women’s open division—3 p.m.
•Men’s over-45 division—3 p.m.
•Men’s over-30 division
•Men’s over-52 division—4:30 p.m.
•Men’s over-38 division—4:30 p.m.
•Men’s open division—6 p.m.
•Countries represented are: Canada, Italy, Scotland, Fiji, Serbia, England, Saudi Arabia, Ireland, China, USA, Croatia, Portugal, Africa, Caribbean, India, Germany, Iran and Romania.
•Admission to all matches is free.