Interview by: Kendra Lee
You were born in Toronto. Describe what it was like growing up there.
I was born and raised in Scarborough. I was born in ’81, so the most I can remember from that time till ’97, which was when I went overseas, was pretty much just based on soccer. I started playing at the age of 5. My parents got me involved in soccer because I was a very energetic kid and I guess they needed something to keep me busy. So in ’86 soccer was, I guess the solution. *laughs* ’86 was a special year too cuz that was when Canada played in their first and only World Cup in Mexico so I think that had a major influence in getting me involved at the time. My dad did play soccer recreationally as a goal keeper and I guess he realized after a couple of years of me playing, I would say around the age of 8 to 9, he spent more time with me helping me develop my skills. From there in ’87 my brother (Jonathan) was born.
At what point did you realize that being a professional was something you wanted to do?
At the age of 13 that was when I was picked up to play for the provincial team for the first time. That was one of the major steps in my childhood playing soccer in Toronto. And when I realized I was probably one of the better players in Ontario at that stage, that’s when I really made that my number one priority. And also the fact that I spent a lot of time, not just helping myself do well, but my brother. Summer holidays was pretty much just based on soccer. We played in the winters, we played for 3, 4 different teams just to keep us busy; in the summers maybe 2 different teams. And then away from the game we would just watch what we could get our hands on. At the time we weren’t exposed to much soccer on TV. It was just Soccer Saturday or maybe a Champions League game. The way it is now, where you have the internet and games every day, that didn’t exist during our time. So we had to put our extra efforts and our time into the game. And if it wasn’t us training with our club teams we trained on our own time.
Were you guys competitive with each other or was it more of a partnership?
It was both. I mean we were very competitive. My brother inspired me to really push myself to do well. I was his example, his idol, so I had to set the standard. I’ve always wanted him to do not just as good as myself but better. So one of the tricks in helping him develop was not having him play his own age. He would always play 2 maybe 3 years older or, at times, train with my team, which was probably 6, 7 years older. So that really helped him mature. And from stories that I used to read from players leaving home and going overseas, they had the decision to leave their hometown and play in Europe, and I realized that Europe was the mecca of soccer and that’s where I wanted myself to be and also my brother. So mentally I really had to prepare him, and also myself, to at some point realize that this was the tool to actually have us make it. Growing up we saw a lot of players form Toronto go overseas, talented players, but they would always come back because they just couldn’t adapt to the lifestyle and they would get homesick. And those were the stories and learning tools I used to prepare ourselves for the moment when we had the chance to go. At some point we knew that we had to take that step. And my [first] experience was going to the States at a young age for provincials or short tournaments with the club teams. My brother had the chance to go, at the age of 10, to Uruguay to play tournaments and whatnot. So that was our early moments in preparing for that long term to play overseas.
So then you did go overseas. How did that come about for you and how did that affect you as a young player?
My first time in Europe was at the age of 14. It was for a tournament at Merseyside. Our club team got invited and we were there for almost 2 weeks. So that was my first taste of Europe. And then my second was in ’96, I had the chance to go to Holland. A buddy of mine was invited to train for Feyenoord, but before that we had a chance to train with a couple of coaches from the Ajax system. They ended up picking him and they pretty much told me things that I needed to work on. I mean, I really wanted to stay and I had a chance, there was a team that was actually interested, Haarlem, they wanted to keep me. But my dad realized it wasn’t the ideal situation for myself at that stage. So I came back home and I had to do well in school to show that I was responsible enough to get that opportunity again. So I got Honour Rolls going into Grade 10. Then I was fortunate enough to have a chance to go back to Europe, this time France. This was through a friend of mine, who knew another contact in Toronto, who had another contact in France, so obviously it was risky. But this time we had to borrow money from friends, put money together to get that plane ticket. That was in ’97. I had the chance to fly over to Marseille and did a 2-week try out which worked in my favour and I ended up staying. So that was the early steps of my European career in ’97.
Was language ever a barrier for you?
I didn’t really take French seriously in school. *laughs* But I had to really take it seriously on Marseille. Playing with the youth team staying in the Academy everyone spoke French, nobody spoke English, and that’s where I was first forced to learn a language. The three years in Marseille are probably one of my hardest experiences in my entire career because it was like a culture shock. Marseille’s also a special city. There’s a lot of Africans, northern Nigerians, and it’s a pretty rough city. It’s kind of like the Naples of France. But that being said it was also a tough experience because it’s the first time I’m living in a different country for a long time, right. Different culture, different language you have to adapt to, you’re a foreigner, not everyone welcomes you there, so there were some barriers I had to overcome. And I was always reminded on how many talented players from Canada would come home because they were homesick so this was something I felt I had to overcome to actually make it. And also prove to my brother that when it’s his time to come overseas, it’s possible. Everything’s going to be ok. He eventually came to visit me in ’98. He trained with under 13s at Marseille; he was 10 years old. They wanted to keep him but I knew this wasn’t the ideal youth system for someone like him. My parents always wanted to come visit me. I didn’t allow them to because I didn’t want to scare them. But after 3 years of playing at Marseille, it really helped me and my character become stronger and I’ve always told myself, if I could withstand moments like this, I could withstand anything that comes my way in soccer. So I fought through it. In ’99, they told me that they weren’t going to keep me. At that point they realize if you’re going to make the pro team or not and at Marseille they’re known to buy their players. They don’t really have players coming through the youth teams. And they pretty much told me to go back home because I was Canadian and Canadians are not known for soccer so it’s better I go back home and carry on with my life away from football.
Yeah, it was tough but I had it in me to prove many people wrong and also prove to myself that I could make it. So it was a good push.
But then you went to Saarbrucken. How did you find yourself in Germany?
I remember after the time that Marseille had let me go, I got called into the National Team camp, the under 19s, and during that cap I did pretty well and there were scouts there. One of the scouts was somebody from Germany, Saarbrucken, and they were very interested in me. They wanted to fly me down for me to come see the city. I mean I was ready to jump on that before they could even offer anything! I didn’t care what they wanted to offer I was just very happy that there was a team interested! And they had me there with everything that I needed. I had my own place, a car, and I was signed to the reserve team for the first year. And I was ok with that. I figured “Ok, I’ll be playing for a second division team but for their second team as opposed to a top team like Marseille on their reserve team. It was maybe two steps back, one step forward at some point.” And that’s how I looked at it. I did well in my first year there. At the end of my first year, I was invited to the first team. I got called up for the last two games of the season and then the following year I signed my first professional deal in 2001. I was 20. Around that same time I was called up for the Under 20 World Cup team in Argentina. So it was a special moment.
Can you describe how it felt to get the first call up to the National Team?
It was huge! To represent your country at a World Cup at a youth level, I mean it’s every youth players dream! We didn’t do well in the tournament; we finished off without scoring a goal and last in our group. I think that was the problem that most Canadian teams had at that time where they’re just happy to make it. And I think that was a problem that we had. I mean, a very talented team. The amount of players that became pro from that actual squad, there was quite a few of them that have done well in their careers, and it was just unfortunate that we didn’t live up to that potential. But yeah, I mean the experience leading up to that tournament; we were in Chile preparing. Did a couple of games and then later Argentina. It was special. We played against Brazil, played against Iraq, played against Germany. Tough teams but we just weren’t able to put up good results. But obviously the experience was good and I think it’s always a special moment for any Canadian to have that.
You went to Hannover 96 and you were still pretty young. How did you adjust to that level of intensity?
So after my first year of professional at Saarbrucken we were relegated to the third division. A blessing in disguise because a clause in my contract allowed me to become a free agent. So the same season we were going down, one of the teams that were getting promoted to Bundesliga was Hannover. And that worked out for me because my first coach at Saarbrucken that season was fired after 5 games so him and the staff were fired. A new coach comes in from Austria, and I don’t play for almost five months after that. He gets fired. The third coach comes in, Tom Dooley, I played the last part of the season. I’ve done well and it happens to be that the scout of Hannover that same season was my first assistant coach from Saarbrucken. I mean that’s how the game works, and this is all in one season! He kept following me and he was watching me closely. He picked me up that season. And I’m in the Bundesliga, going into my second year as a professional. Everything happened so fast and it was great. During that time too, being a young player it was very rare, and also being Canadian was super rare. But I mean I had great examples to look up to like Stalteri, Kevin McKenna, Owen Hargreaves, the Canadians playing in the Bundesliga at that time were great inspirations for me to be a part of that. And at the age of 21, I made my debut against Nuremburg, came off the bench. The following game, we had a home game against Borussia Dortmund and I had no clue I was starting until our team walked out for the game. The coach tells me “you’re going to start”, playing against one of the European giants at the time and it was a very special moment in my career that I’ll never forget. It was something that I will always cherish. Three years in the Bundesliga, it was great.
And from there you made the jump to Spain.
After playing in the Bundesliga and living in Germany for 5 years, my contract was running out. Another similar story, it’s such a small world…So the time at Hannover, the technical director that was there during my 3 years, his contract was running out at the same time as mine. But I was getting offers from Hamburg, Leverkusen, Tottenham, and then he was told by the club to offer me a new deal but the offers that he was coming in with were very weak. And I was kind of saying, “I want a change of scene. I think it’s time for me to move on.” But then he took me aside and said, “Hey Julian, I’m going back to where I came from.” And that was La Coruna. So I was like, “Listen I would LOVE to play in La Liga!” I followed La Liga growing up in Canada. My favourite team, Barcelona, I’d been following them since ’92 cuz my favourite player at the time was Romario. I was thinking “If I ever get the chance to play in La Liga…I’ve never heard of any Canadians playing in La Liga that I know of, nobody.” So I’ve always wanted to be a part of that. And he was a lot of talk. I didn’t know what to believe at the time. But once he had left and he was able to get in touch with my agent, we didn’t even think twice about the contract. We just said, “Yes, this is it.” So I made the jump to La Liga and it was a whole new world. It was something that I couldn’t believe. I still cannot believe I had that chance to play there for four years. I played against the greatest players. I played with some amazing players. And it was a great experience for myself and it was something that I wish more Canadians could actually enjoy and understand and I think that’s why it’s a great thing to see a guy like Benito in charge of the Men’s National Team. He has a chance to actually share that philosophy and his background to Canadian soccer and you see guys like Samuel Piet who was playing at La Coruna on the second team. We talk almost every day just sharing stories. For me it was paradise. It was probably the best moments of my career.
What was the best moment?
The best moment of Coruna, I would have to say that goal against Real Madrid. It was my first year there and I wasn’t even playing my position. I’m starting as a winger and then *laughs* I score a goal with my left foot too against, at the time, the best keeper in the world. And it was the only goal I scored for La Coruna but it was massive. It was a great thing to experience as a Canadian and I think for me it was definitely one of the biggest highlights of my career. And I wish and I hope that more Canadians get that opportunity, that chance to achieve something at that level.
Did you find that there were many differences across Europe to the systems and environments?
Oh yeah! I’m thankful that I had the chance to start in France and spend most of my early stages as a professional in German because Germany really molded me as a player. If it was the other way around where I started in Spain and went to Germany, I think it would be a lot harder for me to adapt. But because of the German mentality, it could be cold at times, very disciplined, rigid, I think it’s still one of the best places to start the early stages of your pro career. They really prepare you, not just for Germany, but for the rest of the world and if you can survive in Germany you could survive anywhere in Europe. That’s why I think it’s great for any Canadian to be a part of that. I mean most Canadians who have played in Germany for more than 3, 4 years, you can see what type of career they’ve had. And the result of that does not just benefit you as a soccer player but also post career. So Germany helped me a lot and I still follow that league deeply and I highly recommend if any Canadian gets a chance to go there, you have to.
So after you had been in Europe you returned to North America to play for Toronto FC. What experiences stood out to you the most at TFC?
The eye-opener of my experience at TFC was that I realized that football’s a business. I mean I was so lost in just enjoying the game in Spain. In Germany I was young and just learning about the game. But going to TFC at the age of 28 you know I could see a lot of things just clashed with what was happening in Europe before. Europe now is catching on to how it is in North America, the structure of things, how to run a franchise, and it’s a business. You see how the EPL is, how they market the league, the teams, their budgets and TV deals. And that’s the idea and concepts that I learned playing in North America. Realizing that this is no longer just a sport, it’s a business. So that hit me really hard. I mean I had to learn a lot more over the years on how the game is run in North America. And for each team that I played for, the one thing I understood if you want to do well in it, you have to accept the culture. Accepting the culture in France, learning the language. Germany as well, the discipline the mentality, and Spain, and the same goes for MLS. It comes with a culture and it’s up to you to accept it. If you don’t accept it, it could be very difficult for you to perform and to enjoy your time there. So that was something I had to overcome at TFC because I was just so used to something that I had been a part of in Europe for 13, 14 years. And then it’s re-adjusting to this whole mentality of how football is accepted in North America. So it was I think the most challenging for me in North America and that’s why at some point I missed Europe so much. I ended up going back after my time was done in the MLS; and also I have two kids in Germany who I wanted to be close to as well. I mean all in all from what I’ve seen, what the MLS produces and what they’ve done, they’ve done a great job. It’s a phenomenal job. They’ve done so well and exploded at the right time when Europe was going into a recession. So now European clubs are using MLS as an example on how to avoid crisis.
We need to talk about the Canadian National Team. You are the captain and you have been talking about Canadian players this whole time. How do you view your role in Canadian soccer?
My role whether I’m a captain or not, I’m an example. I’m a leader. And I always like to portray myself as that leader especially on the pitch through my experiences. I mean, it’s special because it’s not just myself, but there are other leaders out there who have had successful careers; DeRo for example, Atiba Hutchinson, and it was the same case where we looked up to guys like Stalteri, Craig Forrest, Kevin McKenna, Radzinski. These are guys who are also leaders to us and in a way they’ve passed that torch down and now it’s our job to lead by example on the pitch. And for me I cherish every moment I get just to be on that pitch as a leader, whether it’s as captain or not. I cherish every moment I get for any call up just to be a part of that squad. The national team has been a huge passion throughout my career. It’s become such a big importance right now at this point in my career because I’ve seen how the game has evolved and changed from when I started. And now we have professional teams. Now we have stadiums to play in. Now we have fans that follow us. And the growth process is slow, it’s happening but it’s slow and I think that’s just the Canadian culture of being passive. I believe we have the fundamentals and we have the qualities to have our own league if we wanted to. If you look at teams like Honduras and Costa Rica and Panama, they have their own leagues. But there’s no way they have the same type of economy that Canada does. We have one of the best economies of the world and I think we just need to become attractive to that economy. So by becoming attractive we’re going to do well. And if we can start bringing in results at an international level, and at a club level, that will turn heads. And hopefully instead of having 5 professional teams, double that in the next 5 years to 10. So making the World Cup, doing well in the Gold Cup, that’s the platform that we look toward. And for me at this point in my career Canada has become such a huge priority and passion for me it’s a great challenge to accept every call up and better the program to eventually have a league of our own.
What has been the best moment or experience you’ve had with the National Team?
I would say the one moment I could really point to was probably in 2007 the Gold Cup / World Cup campaign. That’s probably one of the best squads I’ve played in. The amount of talent we had, but at the same time we had the unity as well. It was special. We played amazing football. I’ve never felt so free, I’ve never felt so confident knowing that we’re going to win this game. We’re not losing, we’re going to win. And that was the first time I felt that with that squad being part of the Canadian National Team. Before it used to be “ah, we’re playing against this team so there’s a very good chance we’re going to lose.” That whole pessimistic feeling was gone for the first time as a part of the Canadian National Team. It felt very special and it felt like something was happening. It was unfortunate because, well we were robbed in the semi-finals against the US and going to World Cup qualifiers we flopped. It was tough. It was hard to swallow and I think at that point the program became very flat to the point where it plummeted to the worst rankings in the longest while, maybe ever. So we hit rock bottom at that point. After that it was starting from the bottom. And now it’s fresh, but I think that 2007 squad was one of the special moments of my career and I never felt so confident putting on that jersey. I hope to have that feeling at least one more time before hanging up the boots.
You were practicing with Columbus earlier this year, so what pulled you from that and influenced you to join the Fury?
Prior to the trial in Columbus, I was without a team for 8, 9 months. But in between training with different teams, whether it was in Germany or whatnot just to keep fit, I was getting called to the National Team. So I really had to find myself a squad and it was either go to Spain, but obviously the economic crisis was something that I didn’t want to be involved in. Greece was also an option but same case. And I ideally wanted to be close to my kids if possible to play in Europe. So it was a question of me playing in Germany. If it wasn’t Germany I couldn’t imagine myself playing anywhere else other than North America, close to Toronto. And then Ottawa was that option. So I was in touch with Marc a lot even before going to Columbus and I looked at the whole set up of Ottawa. I did my research after talking to Marc as well. For me it just made sense to come here to be a part of another Canadian team. I really liked the stuff I heard from Ottawa. It was very appealing just to be a part of a Canadian team again. I think what I realized being unemployed at the time, the access for Canadian players to be a part of a Canadian team was very difficult. I couldn’t even train with a Canadian team. Even when I was in Toronto at the time, I asked TFC, they wouldn’t even allow that. And it was sad because I was able to go to Germany and train with a couple of German teams, no problem. But as a Canadian to come to Canada and train with a team to keep fit, a professional team, was probably the hardest thing. I think it’s unfortunate and it’s something that needs to be addressed for the future. But then you come to teams like Ottawa and just from what I’ve seen so far with the set up, very impressed. I’m very happy with the decision I’ve made and I really hope I can find myself here more than just one season. A couple of seasons would be great. Ottawa’s on to something very special and in the long term I see Ottawa as an example for other cities to find their way into the NASL or maybe even MLS. This is a great example of what Canadian football could become and it’s great to be a part of.