For Jeff Wilson, the Nations Cup was love at first sight and the relationship is as strong as ever decades later.
As a soccer-playing youngster growing up in Richmond, Wilson was mesmerized when he took in the tournament for the very first time in the mid-1980s.
“I was coming here as an eight-or-nine-year-old watching the games. At the time, this was as good of soccer as there was in the Lower Mainland,” he recalled.
“The (NASL version of the) Whitecaps had gone away and the Vancouver 86ers hadn’t taken off yet. So this was really good soccer to me.”
Not only did Wilson eventually play in the tournament when he was 16, he got involved on the organizational side too through the encouragement of his coach and Nations Cup founder — the late Geoff Penniston.
“At the time I was helping run Richmond United at the club level and Geoff approached me because he wanted people involved with new ideas. At the time, there wasn’t even a tournament data base. They were having to phone all the teams and registrations were coming in by fax. There was no website either.”
Fast forward to today, and the Nations Cup is well-established as Western Canada’s leading summer soccer tournament with Wilson heading the organizational committee as president.
The 40th edition kicks off on Friday night with 64 teams battling for ethnic bragging rights in six different divisions. It wraps up with the championship games on Sunday at Hugh Boyd — highlighting by the Open Division Men’s final at 6 p.m.
“In 40 years there have been lots of changes to the tournament, in the soccer community and, of course, here in Richmond as well. It’s been great to be able to keep it in its original location,” Wilson continued.
“We have gone out of our way to be pro-active with the city and they have been as helpful as we hoped they would be. We are now also using all three fields at Minoru and Manoah Steves as well. It’s one positive thing for the city as it spreads it out a bit.”
Wilson now lives in Ladner raising a young family and works downtown. Yet he makes time in his busy life to ensure the tournament in his hometown continues to thrive and evolve.
The News talked to Wilson about where the Nations Cup could be headed in the years ahead as it strives to reflect Vancouver’s ever-expanding ethnic communities.
Adding to the Atmosphere
Championship Sunday at Hugh Boyd is electric with big crowds, the always popular north end beer garden and an assortment of food trucks. There has been talk of adding more attractions in the near future.
“One of the things we really would like to do is more of a cultural feel with music and dance — like Indian drummers and Irish dancers. It would be a great dimension to the tournament.
“We would also would like to have a better reflection with international food as well but we are a little bit bound by city policies and by-laws in regards to licensing. A reflection of the tournament in the food would be great, just increasing that multi-cultural vibe. We have at least gone from flipping burgers to bringing in food trucks.”
On the field
The women’s division was launched a few years ago and has now created enough of a foundation that adding an over 30s division could be happening as soon as 2020. There is also talk of a mid-50s division for men.
More countries have been represented in recent years too.
“You look back at the early years and it was very Western and Eastern European themed. Now there are much more Asian and East Asia countries involved. The last five or six years we have seen Saudi Arabia and Iran coming in. They have been a really nice addition to the tournament and broaden the cultural appeal.”
“We have a waiting list with usually about 12 quality teams and trickles down to 12 altogether. We just need to make sure the teams coming in play at a level we expect. It also keeps teams already in the tournament on their toes.”
40th annual Nations Cup
Group “A” Serbia, Ireland, Iran, Africa.
Group “B” Caribbean, Fiji, India, Portugal.
Group “C” Italy, China, Canada, Scotland.
Group “D” England, Japan, Arabia, Croatia.
Group “A” Canada, China, Africa, Italy.
Group “B” First Nations, India, Ireland, England.
Men’s Over 30
Group “A” Indian, Canada, England, Ireland.
Group “B” Africa, Italy, USA, Serbia.
Group “C” China, Portugal, Caribbean, Scotland.
Men’s Over 38
Group “A” India, Ireland, England, Romania.
Group “B” Canada, China, Africa, Serbia.
Group “C” Germany, Scotland, Fiji, Italy.
Men’s Over 45
Group “A” Fiji, India, China, Scotland.
Group “B” England, Ireland, Germany, Canada.
Men’s Over 52
Group “A” Canada, Scotland, India, China.
Group “B” Serbia, England, First Nations, Ireland.
Championship Sunday at Hugh Boyd
3 p.m. Women’s Open Final (Oval)
3 p.m. Men’s Over 52 Final (school)
4:30 p.m. Men’s Over 30 Final (Oval)
4:30 p.m. Men’s Over 45 Final (school)
4:30 p.m. Men’s Over 38 Final (west)
6 p.m. Men’s Open Final (Oval)