The recent news that the FIFA men’s World Cup will be coming to Canada in 2026, as part of a joint bid alongside Mexico and the United States, has excited Canadian soccer fans, who may get a chance to see our national men’s team play. Traditionally, host nations get a spot in the tournament, though the decision about 2026 has yet to be made.
Only once – in 1986 – has the men’s national team taken part in soccer’s biggest jamboree, and it went home with its tail between its legs then, losing all three games without scoring a goal. But with the emergence of young stars such as Vancouver Whitecaps teenager Alphonso Davies and Brampton’s Liam Miller, currently working his way up the ranks at Liverpool FC of the English Premier League, there is genuine hope for the future.
And even younger players are feeding off the excitement that the World Cup, held once every four years, ignites about the game.
Here members of some of Canada’s youth soccer clubs talk about their World Cup idols, the players that have inspired them along their soccer journeys.
A 12-year-old midfielder for Winnipeg South End United, Nicolas is rooting for Spain to win, but despite its recent pedigree (Spain won the 2010 World Cup, as well as the 2008 and 2012 European Championship), he thinks five-time champions Brazil will be making it six come July 15.
However, his World Cup idol plays for a team that featured in just its third World Cup finals. But Egyptian star Mohamed Salah’s pedigree was proven this year when he set a goal-scoring record for Liverpool in leading the team to the Champions League final.
“I like Salah,” Nicolas says. “He just leads everyone; he’s an amazingly talented player, good with the ball, great personality and he’s not the best, but he helped his team get to the World Cup.”
He says he looks up to Mr. Salah for more than just his skill with a ball. As someone who is looking to make a career out of the game, Nicolas says watching how hard Mr. Salah has worked to establish himself at a legendary club like Liverpool can only inspire Canadian kids like himself, particularly those looking to get a soccer scholarship in the future.
Away from the pitch, he says, Mr. Salah inspires him to “think hard and work well because it’s not just soccer to get a scholarship, but it’s also school. You’ve got to work hard in school to get a scholarship.”
MADALYNN & JUNIPER IBBITT-GATTI
While Madalynn doesn’t have much interest in the men’s World Cup – she looks up to Canadian women’s star Desiree Scott – her twin sister, Juniper, has picked out one of the biggest stars in the tournament: Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Portuguese captain certainly led from the front in his team’s opening game, scoring a hat trick against reigning European champion Spain.
That ability is what separates him from many of his peers on the pitch, and also what caught the eye of Juniper, who captains her team at Winnipeg South End United.
“Leading the team and how he organizes everything” is what the 13-year-old says she admires.
But while she will be rooting for Japan to win the tournament, owing to family members based in the Far East, she also admires one more thing about Mr. Ronaldo, almost as famous for ripping his shirt off as he is for his soccer skills.
“He’s good off the field, stays organized and healthy and keeps his mind fit,” she says.
Like Nicolas, the 10-year-old Gatineau native is an affirmed fan of Liverpool and Egypt star Mohamad Salah.
After getting into soccer because of his dad Andrew’s passion for the game, Ferris will be following Egypt as well as England, his country of birth.
As an attacking midfielder or winger who has been playing for only two or three years at Soccer Chelsea, in Chelsea, Que., Ferris looks up to Mr. Salah, partly because of the similarities between their playing positions.
But there’s more to it than that.
“Off the field he seems like a pretty nice guy and on the field he’s not like a selfish player, he’s a team player and he’s always trying to help the team,” he says, adding that he thinks if he continues the form he’s shown all season with Liverpool, he might just take Egypt to the World Cup final.
JESSICA PITIRRI AND BURLINGTON YOUTH SOCCER CLUB
A straw poll at Burlington Youth Soccer Club was almost unanimous in its World Cup idol pick: Lionel Messi. The Argentine and FC Barcelona star has won almost everything there is to win in the game of soccer – except for the World Cup. After losing in the final four years ago, the five-time world player of the year will be looking to go one better, and will have quite the cheering squad behind him from southwest Ontario.
Jessica Pitirri, 10, sums it up simply: “I like Messi because he has good moves and co-ordination and a great shot.”
However, Noah Toperczer and his twin brother, Ethan, who both play for the club’s under-11 side, have an even more compelling reason: “Most of my relatives are from Argentina and I know Messi is the best player in the world,” Noah says.
As a central defender for Kelowna United FC, Noah Kroeker has chosen his counterpart for both Chelsea FC and the English national team, Gary Cahill, as his World Cup idol.
While playing for his favourite club in the English Premier League has certainly helped Noah's affection for Mr. Cahill, he says it’s his vocal approach to leadership that has him watching his every move, with the hope of duplicating his approach on the playing fields of Kelowna.
“He knows how to play clean but effective soccer at pace, and watching him is a real treat,” the 16-year-old says. “I’m striving toward being a better soccer player just like Gary, and watching him is helping me to achieve that goal.”
Noah has big dreams, and having played soccer almost his entire life, he appreciates the way that the sport gives him and others the chance to aspire to something great.
“Every time I step on that field, I just feel at home,” he says. “Soccer is meant to be a fun sport to play that is easily accessible to loads of people and can give people jobs, and make their wildest dreams come true.”