The blind soccer teams from Pickering FC and North Mississauga SC hit the road last Sunday for a busy day of activity across Southern Ontario. The teams started the morning at The International Centre in Mississauga for the All-State Soccer Show. It was fantastic to represent blind soccer at this event, the first-time disability soccer of any format has been shown at this annual gathering. After two year of online meet and greets this year fans were finally able to get back to in-person meetings with global icons including Lorenzo Insigne and Christine Sinclair.
Soccability Canada delivered a classroom style presentation on accessible soccer to a small group before leading the players out onto the Bownet Field for a demonstration in dribbling, passing, and shooting techniques for blind soccer. Onlookers were fascinated by the ability on show and just as surprised that they had never heard of blind soccer before.
Wrapping up event #1 by 12:30pm gave us a quick turnaround for lunch on the road to arrive at the iconic Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton by 2pm. The Hamilton event was special for many reasons, the first being the reason why we were all there.
Early in 2022 a young professional footballer based in Finland had reached out to us wanting to know more about the organisation. His name is Luke McConnell and while he ply’s his trade in Finland his roots are firmly in Hamilton. Luke explained that his former teammate and close friend Justin Masotti had passed away in 2017 following a battle with cancer. Luke had not had his hair cut since Justin’s passing, a subtle way to remember and honour Justin’s life and to take him wherever he went. Luke knew that he wanted to do something meaningful when the time came to cut his hair and only he would know when the time was right. We learned that had Justin beaten cancer he knew he would have been blind and that resonated with Luke. Justin was a dedicated soccer player and would have found any way to continue playing the game.
The second reason this event was so special came down to the organisation of the event. Trying to organise an event in a city where neither organiser resides, and with one out of the country means that you need to find a point person who can contact local media and grassroots clubs, recruit volunteers and keep an eye on any local factors such as weather and traffic delays. This is where the McConnell family stepped up in a big way to support their son’s vision, and in particular matriarch Jennifer McConnell. Jenn jumped right on the tasks as they came up, from scheduling TV (CHCH), newspaper (Hamilton Spectator) and radio (Accessible Media Inc) interviews with Luke or rounding up family volunteers to provide support on the day. The McConnell Family really came out in force to make the event a positive one, leaving the players and coaches to focus on the field activities. Canada Soccer generously donated items for a raffle on the day, while an online auction is currently being prepared where supporters can bid for the following items:
- 2022 Forge FC jersey autographed by David Choiniere
- 2022 Vancouver Whitecaps jersey autographed by Ryan Raposo
- Autographed Adidas X Speed Portal FG cleat by Ryan Raposo
- 2022 York United jersey autographed by Michael Petrasso
All proceed will go to further develop accessible soccer programs across Canada.
The third reason this was so special came down to the location and the game day experience that it gave the players. Blind soccer programs in Europe have a growing reputation for unique and historic locations. This image from a tournament in Berlin, Germany is a perfect example in front of the Reichstag building.
Hosting the game in Hamilton meant there was only one choice – the Tim Hortons Field in the heart of Hamilton. The stadium has been home to the Hamilton Ti-Cats of the Canadian Football League since 2014. The Ti-Cats are synonymous with the city and in 2017 the ownership group added Forge FC to their portfolio. Forge FC play in the Canadian Premier League (CPL) and share the same field. For the players from Mississauga and Pickering to experience this location was a unique opportunity. For those with some vision the size of the stadium was jaw-dropping and the acoustics made for a fresh dynamic.
The event saw all players and a couple of new local players join together for a 45-minute training session before playing a game officiated by Ontario Soccer match officials Paul Virdo and Farhad Habibi. The final score ended 5-1 to North Mississauga with all goals (including an own goal) being scored by Fatlum Elshani.
Anyone wanting to support Luke and this special event can donate to his Go Fund Me page and support further accessible soccer programs across the country. Check out the Go Fund Me page here.