Interview of Sergio Camargo by Nathanael Martin on February 7, 2017.
“I don’t see myself as a very interesting person,” Sergio Camargo said when I mentioned other sources describe him as shy. “People who know me don’t think I’m shy”, he tells me, but he doesn’t like to talk himself up. My sense is that, while Camargo is willing to spend time talking to me, he isn’t convinced that it is worth my time to talk to him (I am quite confident that he is wrong!). Unassuming and calm, Camargo is comfortable in his own skin. Yet, Camargo has met his fair share of hurdles and hard decisions on his road to the professional ranks. Toronto FC signed Camargo on January 11, 2017 as a homegrown player. His story is what many of us believe the Canadian dream should be-the right opportunities for the right person.
Camargo was born in Cúcuta, Colombia on August 16, 1994. He was 4 when he moved with his sister and parents to Canada-his parents were hoping to build a better life and find work, living in North York-a suburb of Toronto. Camargo tells me that he doesn’t “really remember much, I was really young”. A quick google search shows a Colombia that was being bullied fiercely by drug cartels throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Cúcuta was one of the central battlegrounds, and was often a chaotic and unstable place. Canada was the land of opportunity that the Camargo family looked to-and it became exactly that for Sergio Camargo.
After living in North York for 5 years, the Camargo family moved to Newmarket, Ontario. It was there that the seeds of Sergio Camargo’s soccer career were planted. He tells me how, from the window of their apartment, Camargo and his father were able to “see the two soccer fields next to our building and watch them play”. They watched as kids kicked a ball around, playing a game that became a huge part of Camargo’s life in the years to come. “Neither of us knew much about soccer” he says, but that didn’t stop his father from walking over to the field and asking the coach if his son could join in. If the Camargo family hadn’t moved into a building that just happened to be next to a soccer field, Camargo’s life may have run very differently. As it is, playing one season of house league was all it took to catch the eye of a coach from a local rep team. Unionville would prove to be the opportunity Camargo needed to flourish-developing into the creative player that would grow to shine in future years.
The Unionville Milliken Boys Competitive Program is still is run by Filipe Bento, an experienced player and highly qualified coach who holds a CSA-A licence (the highest level attainable). Under Bento, the Unionville program has become well-known as an exceptional development team for young players. Bento has an eye for talent, and quickly saw the abilities and potential of Camargo. Bento mentored Camargo and Unionville benefited as a result, traveling to P.E.I. in 2008 to capture the national title for the U14 division of soccer. Sergio’s play led the way, and his goal finalized the tally at 3-1 for Unionville over British Columbia’s representative, Richmond United.
It is clear from the way Camargo talks about Bento that he remains a fundamental part of Camargo’s soccer upbringing. For a skilled player to break through, it is often necessary for someone to help fate along. For Camargo, that person was Bento. The most striking example of the support that Camargo received from Bento occurred on the Portugal trip. Camargo tells me how “it was actually Coach Bento’s brother who I stayed with” while on trials with Vitória de Guimarães, a top-flight team that often competes with the big three of the Portuguese league. The trials went well and Camargo signed with Guimarães. Unfortunately, this was not to be. When the paperwork was submitted, FIFA disallowed the signing. “I was too young” Camargo says; “The only way I could stay was if I played as an amateur for 6 months, and proved that I could financially do it on my own”. Article 9 of FIFA regulations stipulates that “international transfers of players are only permitted if the player is over the age of 18.” If his entire family moved to Portugal the transfer would be valid, and his parents did offer; but Camargo didn’t feel right about forcing that on his family. He tells me “they had friends and lives, and it wouldn’t be right to make them leave so that I can go pro”. On the other hand, leaving his family behind was not something that he could bring himself to do, so Camargo walked away from the opportunity. This is the first of two monumental decisions in Camargo’s life that led him to where he is now; we will come to the second soon.
As Camargo tells me about Portugal, his tone never changes. There is no indication that he looked back on the events that occurred in Portugal with anything but as a memory. Yet, I find myself thinking about the massive weight this decision must have been at the time. Here is more evidence of Camargo’s self-assurance. I ask him if he ever regretted turning down the opportunity. His answer is clear: “no”, he says- “I know I made the right decision”. It was only a few years later in 2009 when Camargo was accepted into the Toronto FC Academy. Camargo laughs as he describes how he had injured himself the day before the tryouts for the Academy and had to ask Stuart Neely to allow him a later tryout. Thankfully, Camargo’s reputation preceded him, and a few weeks later he was officially accepted into the program.
During his time with the Academy, Camargo had a number of opportunities to play for the National Team. I ask Camargo what some of the biggest moments in his career have been, and he immediately responds with the opportunity he had to represent Canada at the 2011 U17 World Cup in Mexico. “I only played 2 out of the 3 games, and for only 15 minutes as a sub, but being there was great”. Now with a professional contract, he is determined to use the opportunity as a platform to prove his worth, and hopefully earn his way back to wearing the maple leaf.
In 2013, Camargo departed to play for the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers on a full scholarship. This experience with the Chanticleers would lead Camargo toward the second monumental decision in his career. Camargo had his struggles at the Chanticleers-a Daily Orange article goes into detail about the conflict that Camargo experienced with the club, particularly the leadership. I do not press him on that time, as Camargo tells me that he found the negativity of the article frustrating (which is why I’m not providing you the link-you can find it on your own!). “I hate that article”, he tells me, explaining that, while his time at Coastal Carolina was far from ideal, he does not hold any ill will toward the club or the University. He became “stronger, both on and off the field”, during his time at Coastal. Yet his growth was stunted: the program lacked resources and organization, especially for a player of his calibre. Camargo had an important decision to make: he was on a full scholarship, so leaving meant losing a huge financial support. He was in his third year, and moving to a new school meant entering a team as a senior-the year when most University soccer clubs had established starters.
After talking to his parents and receiving their reassurance, Camargo took the leap. “My parents told me they would help pay for it”, and their support was always something Camargo could rely on. Camargo knew some of the players at Syracuse University prior to school and from his time playing with KW United during the summer. He knew of Syracuse’s excellent soccer program had a great deal of resources and established professionalism. He tells me that “Syracuse definitely improved my chances, they always have players drafted every year”. The players who Camargo knew at Syracuse assured the coach of Camargo’s abilities, and the program welcomed him to play for the final year of University. He was leaving behind the stability of a full scholarship for a program that he had yet to experience. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before Camargo knew he had made the right decision. He was a very successful player at Syracuse, integrating well with his team; not an easy thing to do when arriving senior year. Camargo played in 17 matches, making 13 starts. He tied second on the team in scoring with 11 pts, tied third in goals (4), and was third in assists (3).
His time at Syracuse proved to be the experience that he needed to impress Toronto FC. That, and the benefits of signing a homegrown player, led to January 11th. Camargo tells me that he is optimistic he will make the most of the opportunity. His goal is to become “the player between the midfielders and Giovinco and Altidore”, providing Toronto’s two powerful strikers the service that they need. “Creative” is the word that he uses to describe himself the most, working as a playmaker that can create opportunities for the “big boys” to capitalize on. While admitting “I know this is such a cliché”, Camargo explains that his favourite player is Lionel Messi. “Messi has that explosive creativity that I try to have” Camargo says. I could sense the disappointment that Camargo had felt when, in California’s training camp, he was unable to start filling his desired role in friendlies due to a slight hip tear. Thankfully, Camargo has learned to take setbacks in stride. That calm assurance will help him keep a level head and seize his opportunity when it comes.
That opportunity certainly will come, but it will not be easy for Camargo. Toronto FC is not short on young players with potential, and the central midfield position is becoming crowded with players looking to make their mark. I asked Camargo about some of the players that he has encountered in the past, with whom he is now reuniting. “Are you talking about Jay Chapman?” Camargo’s immediate response. He laughed as he explained how Chapman and he had met many times over the course of the last 10 years. They worked together to represent Canada at the 2011 U17 World Cup, but mostly found themselves playing against each-other. Camargo was quick to explain that Chapman had been one of the first to welcome him to the team, saying that “we are competitive on the field; we don’t bring anything off”. Yet Chapman is certainly one of the players who Camargo will be directly competing with to earn a place with the first team. This competition does not worry Camargo. In fact, he seems to welcome it.
Camargo’s parents and younger brother: an aspiring baseball player, have moved back to Colombia. His sister lives “somewhere in the financial district” of Toronto, and remains a close support. Camargo mentions how his family moving back to Colombia “takes away from the whole home-town thing for Toronto”, but he is working hard to settle into Toronto FC and the city. His family continues to be a big support from afar-but I get the sense that Camargo has the strength of will to persevere even when he doesn’t have that immediate supportive network. This young man has a future in soccer-hopefully for Toronto it is wearing the red that we know and love, but wherever he ends up, his team will be reaping the rewards.