'We have an opportunity to unite': Vancouver FC look to tap into history, diversity of local soccer scene
In a long line of firsts, this one promises to be special.
Having now had their first game, first goal and first win under their belts in recent weeks, along with several other key milestones before that, Vancouver FC is getting set to tick the next big milestone for their club this weekend - their first home game, as they get set to welcome Cavalry FC on May 7th to Langley’s Willoughby Community Park.
Having literally been building the stadium up until this week, it’s a huge milestone for the club, as they’ve been able to watch their new home go up piece-by-piece in front of them over the last few months.
Now, it’s finally here, and it’s real. Able to seat approximately 6600 fans, it’s an intimate venue, one similar to Wanderers Grounds in Halifax, with fans able to sit very close to the field no matter where they have a ticket.
Also equipped with a safe standing section behind the goal where their supporters, the Fraser Valley Fanatics, will be able to bring the noise and rig tifos, as well as a beer garden and family fun zone, it should make for quite the atmosphere, too.
Vancouver FC Stadium Update : 2 full days left to complete, site buzzing w/ activity, Eastside "Cabana Club" will have a covered roof and is a wide platform all along top of Grandstand. Perimeter fence close to completion, Food Truck area shown. #VancouverFC #CanPL pic.twitter.com/Anp5HVD4Kn— Leonardo (@Leonard_FC) May 5, 2023
The first soccer-specific stadium of this size in the Greater Vancouver region, it’s hoped that it can become a key hub for the sport in the city, something they’ll now look to prove in this home opener, where over 5000 tickets have been sold as of writing.
There, those fans will be treated to a pretty unique atmosphere, something that head coach Afshin Ghotbi notes should make for a special occasion, one that local soccer fans might not be used to seeing in the region.
“It's very intimate,” Ghotbi noted to OneSoccer this week. “The stands are very close to the pitch, it’s very enclosed and it gives fans a feeling that they are part of a family and that they can actually feel what the player is going through and be very close to the action. I can maybe compare that to like when you go to a music concert, there are concerts where it’s at a big stadium with 70 000 people, and you can barely see the musicians and have to look at the big screen instead, and then you have these concerts that are in intimate arenas with 1000 or 2000 people.”
“I’ve been to both of those, and I love that feeling of intimacy, and the connection you can get between the entertainers and the fans. And I think this stadium has really done justice to that feeling. Plus, from some of the seats you can actually see the mountains around the Vancouver area, so it’s got a beautiful ambiance around it, too and I think the fans will love it.”
While this opener promises to be special, however, the next big challenge for Vancouver will be keeping fans coming once the novelty of being a new team wears off.
A notoriously fickle sports market, it can be tough to run a sports team in the region, as many owners have learned. Certainly, teams like the Whitecaps, Canucks and BC Lions have seen that over the decades, where they’ve experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows as teams.
At the same time, Vancouver FC does have one element they’re looking to lean into - the rich soccer community that exists across Greater Vancouver. From the grassroots level all the way up to the professional game, the region's attachment to the sport spans back decades and even over a century in some cases.
Be it due to the milder west coast climate, which allows kids to play outside all year long (even if that means getting closely acquainted with rain and mud), or the strong immigrant presence in the region, soccer has always had a special place in British Columbia as a whole.
That’s something that goalkeeper and club captain, Callum Irving, can certainly attest to, as a born and raised Vancouverite, one who played games across the region as a kid.
Therefore, for him to be a part of the next chapter of that history? Pretty surreal, and something he’ll certainly enjoy when he leads his team out of the tunnel at their new home for the first time this weekend.
“Yeah, it's super cool, from a young age I grew up pretty much surrounded by football here,” Irving explained. “My dad played soccer at SFU and locally at Dunbar, and I remember looking at his pictures growing up of when he played and reminiscing on that with him. Then, when I played for Marpole, we played against Dunbar and the teams that he used to play against and trained up at SFU, so there are so many connections here for me to the past. For me to now be a part of a new chapter being written, it’s just beyond exciting, and probably something that won’t fully hit me until later down the road.”
“So for right now, I'm just trying to enjoy the moment that we're in, live within it and not get too ahead of myself and just appreciate the fact that I'm here with a lot of great people and a lot of people that are trying to do this the right way. And I think that that's the most important thing, you want to have staying power, and in order to do that you need to go about things the right way. And I think a lot of people have been working really hard for this day, and I'm looking forward to taking part in it.”
"All of us are going to be in those pictures a hundred years from now."— Canadian Premier League (@CPLsoccer) May 5, 2023
On Sunday, @vanfootballclub play their first-ever home game at Willoughby Park at the Langley Events Centre 🏟️
Here's head coach Afshin Ghotbi on the big occasion 🗣️
🎫: https://t.co/LuUIBwYtrX#CanPL pic.twitter.com/XV9vAZswkC
Yet, that just shows how important the sport is to people in this province.
Because of that, Vancouver knew that it was important to not forget about that history as they went about constructing the club.
Of course, as a brand new entity in a young league, they wanted to go about things with fresh ideas, but it was always important to recognize that the game has had roots here for a long time, something they looked to tap into whenever possible.
“When we set out to build this brand, we looked at the history of Vancouver, as there's a very rich history of soccer here,” CEO Rob Friend explained this week. “From current players and former players who have played or come through here, fans, clubs that have come and gone. So I think capturing a bit of nostalgia toward the history of the game here (was important).”
“We've really connected with a lot of the former national team players, we launched our legends program to bring national team players into this club and to go to the games, so connecting with the former players has been very important. Then, we’ve been asking questions with historic clubs like Vancouver Columbus and Vancouver Firefighters, as there’s a lot of history at that level, as well as clubs like Coquitlam Metro Ford, and asking the questions of what can we do differently, what are you guys looking for in a professional club, how can we help you guys out from the club side of things?”
“I think it’s really been about being humble and asking questions across the board and the city of what can we do differently, why should people support this new football club, and then from there building, so that’s been our task.”
That’s key, as that history is certainly there, but isn’t always looked at. But outsiders can easily come in, feel it and assimilate themselves in it, only further proving its existence.
Take Ghotbi, for example. Someone who has had the chance to coach at a World Cup, and in countries like Iran, US, South Korea, China and more, he’s seen a lot of different soccer cultures across his time in the sport.
Among what he’s seen, however, he’s been quite impressed with what he’s found, and is excited to see that develop. It’s not all perfect, as there are a lot of factions that exist within the soccer community, but he believes in the potential that’s there, and is excited to see it nurtured.
“I think it's a beautiful question, and I take a lot of pride that wherever I go, I feel like we are ambassadors for the sport and we have a responsibility and a duty to represent the sport in a way that defines the beautiful game,” Ghotbi explained. “And the beautiful game of soccer, starting at a young age, connects people. It’s a very simple game, rolling balls into goals, but it’s one of the games that we believe can be a factor that brings peace to this planet. I believe that this game and our club have an opportunity to unite the football community in BC.”
“Here, you have different groups, different teams at different levels playing, but I feel that it's been disjointed, and it's not connected right now. And I felt that same way about soccer in America for many years, where even to this day we still have organizations operating on islands, playing the game but not understanding what it means to connect and unite and become a force in sports. We are dealing with different sports here, but I think the more united our sport is, the more united all the clubs are, and then we can do justice to the game and popularize the game here much faster.”
But speaking of burgeoning soccer communities, that leads to an important aspect of it - the diversity of that community.
A big part of Vancouver’s soccer culture is that a lot of immigrants have come and become very embedded in it, bringing their own touch to the game. As a result, there’s a rich and diverse flavour to the sport in the province, largely thanks to that influence.
Yet, despite that, that diversity hasn’t always been felt at the top levels, especially not professionally. Therefore, Vancouver knows that will be an incredibly important area to hone in on as they develop their club.
They’ve done that in their roster construction, as they’ve got an incredibly diverse squad ranging from several continents and countries that really represents the diversity of the region, and are now looking to represent that in other ways, too, from the way that they play, to the community outreach they’ve done off the field.
From there, they believe that will allow them to be the community club they've sought to be since day one.
And that all starts with game one, this weekend, as the club opens chapter one in what they hope will be a long and rich connection with the region and its fans.
They’ve got a long road ahead, but this key milestone will provide a celebration of where this journey has gotten to, while providing a reminder of what’s still ahead as they look to capture the imagination of those who love the sport in BC.
“It started in our combines where a lot of young talented players from the community came into tryouts, and their parents and their families came to watch them,” Ghotbi said. “There, I walked around and spoke with a lot of people, and I think one of the most beautiful parts of this area of the world is the diversity. You have so many different nationalities and immigrant families that have moved to this area with their children that have a passion for the game. And they also love Canada and the lifestyle of Canada. So I feel that by going to different communities and playing in front of them, we've created a connection between the players, the brand, the club, and the city.”
“This is going to be the club that resonates through the hearts of Vancouver, not only with soccer fans but sports fans. Hopefully, with our style of play and our results, we can win these fans over and we can help the development of the sport, but also the popularity of it, because I believe Canada is a hidden gem in the football world and in the next of 5 to 10 years, football will be one of the biggest sports in Canada.”
“Vancouver's very multicultural, and we're hoping to see a bunch of different people at our games from all of those different communities within the Lower Mainland,” Irving added. “I think you can see in these different communities that there's a real history of football in some of these countries where people come from, so we want to provide a high-quality football game for them to watch, show them our passion, our commitment and hopefully build a great atmosphere at our stadium and keep people coming back.”
Image Credits: Vancouver FC/Beau Chevalier