Paul Stalteri made his senior Canadian soccer debut at 19, coming on at the start of the second half of a 1-0 friendly loss to Iran at Toronto’s Varsity stadium.
His 83 other appearances were all starts. And 30 of those were as captain.
Stalteri, who has not played since undergoing two hip surgeries in May and July 2011, formally announced his retirement Wednesday.
“I have no regrets whatsoever,” Stalteri told a media conference call. “I had a fantastic run.”
The 35-year-old fullback leaves as Canada’s most capped men’s player, and with one of its most glittering club pedigrees. Stalteri played overseas for Werder Bremen and Borussia Moenchengladbach in Germany and Tottenham and Fulham in England.
“A great career,” said Vancouver Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi, who was national team coach when Stalteri made his debut on Aug. 17, 1997.
Playing for Werder Bremen, Stalteri was the first Canadian to score in the Bundesliga and remains the only Canadian to have earned a Bundesliga winner’s medal.
Stalteri has almost always answered Canada’s call, from Argentina to Iceland and Libya to South Africa. From 1998 through 2000, for example, he played 25 games in a row for Canada.
On Wednesday, Canadian Soccer Association president Victor Montagliani thanked Stalteri for his “unwavering support” for Canadian soccer.
Stalteri recovered from his hip surgery, returned to training and had hoped to find a new team. But eventually he decided it was time to start a new chapter in his life.
“I feel better than I have in a long time,” he said. “I was just waiting and making sure that the (retirement) announcement came at the right time and not having to, let’s say, go back on an announcement when something else came up.”
He called it both a sad day and one with promise of a new beginning.
Stalteri was twice named Canadian Player of the Year, in 2001 and 2004. He scored seven goals for Canada and played under seven coaches. He played with intensity and a seemingly endless supply of energy.
He was also part of the Canadian team that reached the round of 16 at the 1997 FIFA U-20 World Cup, at the time a breakthrough performance for a Canadian men’s side at a FIFA world championship.
Stalteri’s last outing for Canada was in October 2010 in a friendly with Ukraine. That was his last competitive game, since he had fallen out of favour under a new coach at Moenchengladbach.
He had had an impingement in each hip and surgery was needed to clean out the joint and allow it to move freely and without pain.
His playing career behind him, he has started taking coaching courses with an eye to a new career and is doing some youth coaching already.
On the field, Stalteri matured in public.
In his early days, a stray pass or errant call could lead to hand-flailing, finger-pointing or other histrionics. In 2004, he was ejected from a World Cup qualifying match while injured on the bench. Tossing a water bottle on the field to protest a late goal ultimately led to a four-game ban.
But he grew into his skin, controlling his emotions. And he stood accountable for his actions.
In March 2009, the CSA fired national team manager Dale Mitchell in the wake of an 0-4-2 performance in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
Other players had pointed the finger at Mitchell. But not Stalteri.
“At the end of the World Cup qualifying campaign, as players we can only speak on behalf of what we did, and what we did wasn’t good enough in the six games, particularly the games at home when we lost a total of seven points from three games. ... I think most of us will come to the conclusion that we weren’t good enough ourselves and the only ones to blame are the players,” he said bluntly.
Stalteri said his on-field emotion was always been about “trying to get the best out of my teammates, trying to get the best out of the team and winning games, because that’s the bottom line.”
Stalteri played one year on a soccer scholarship at Clemson University before returning to Canada and joining the Toronto Lynx.
A former striker — he teamed with Dwayne De Rosario up front at the Lynx — he eventually shifted to fullback where his speed and energy served him well on the flank.
After being noticed by a scout from Werder Bremen, he joined the German team in November 1997. He made his first team debut in August 2000 against Cottbus and Kevin McKenna, a future Canadian national team captain himself. They were the first Canadians to play in the top German league.
Stalteri scored in the game and went on to win the Bundesliga and German Cup in 2003-04 with Werder Bremen.
At the end of the 2004-05 season, he signed a four-year contract with Tottenham, eventually moving to Fulham on loan before returning to Germany.
He enjoyed a banner debut season for Spurs, making 33 appearances. But that number fell to 14 the next season. In 2007-08, he made six appearances for Spurs before being loaned out to Fulham where he played weekly in helping the Cottagers avoid the drop.
One of his highlights at Spurs was a dramatic injury-time winner in March 2007 as Tottenham rallied from 2-0 and 3-2 deficits to beat West Ham 4-3.
Stalteri helped Canada win the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup and was named to the all tournament team at the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
He cited the Gold Cup win as a career high with Canada, with a series of World Cup qualifying failures his low.
On the club level, he pointed to the German league and Cup double as a highlight, but also took pride in helping Moenchengladbach and Fulham avoid relegation.