A lot of ink has been spilt over the years about the tale of Junior Hoilett. The themes surrounding this character are familiar to any follower of the Canadian men’s national team: yearning, hope, betrayal, infamy. Rarely has a Canadian soccer tale featuring these facets transformed into what many felt last night: redemption.
Junior Hoilett’s talents have never been a mystery to Canadian soccer supporters. He is one of only a handful of Canadian-born and trained players to have appeared in what some consider to be the finest footballing exhibition in the world, the English Premier League. His appearance on our screens on sleep-deprived weekend mornings electrified us. We dared to hope that his addition to the national team would be the accelerant needed to return Canada to The Hex, and perhaps beyond. If he came, the theory went, maybe Jonathan de Guzman would be convinced to ditch this mad idea of joining up with the Netherlands and ride shotgun with his buddy Junior (the opposite was also posited). But he never came.
The emotional arc that supporters traveled in this matter has been natural and predictable. When a person hopes for something, and ascribes aspirations to those hopes only to have them dashed, anger and resentment take their place. What made Junior’s case stand out was the uncertainty and dearth of answers. He never said he wouldn’t play for Canada, he simply left the possibility hanging in the air, along with his other option of Jamaica and maybe even England. An entire World Cup cycle came and went (qualification for Brazil 2014), and still Hoilett was silent. The anger and resentment came, but the hope was never fully dashed, which for some made it worse.
Many chose in turn to give up on him, and others like him, and not speak of them. Others were outright hostile to the prospect of his return. There were those that still hoped he would eventually come. No matter where you stood in this spectrum, last week you were forced to face up to the fact that he was joining up with Canada for their friendly last night against Ghana. All those emotions were going to have to be squared with your past proclamations. Tesho Akindele’s brief flirtation with the American program was the only recent instance where a significant player with “better” options had chosen to play for Canada, and so was our only reference point. Tesho was mostly embraced with open arms – would Junior?
We still don’t know the answer to that question, but yesterday’s first cap for the Brampton native provided some hints as to how this will play out. He was the standout player of the match against a talented Ghanaian team, landing like a meteorite into the Canadian team and creating shockwaves. Every time he was on the ball he seemed to make something happen. Ghana had no answer for him, and the left side of the Canadian offence was electric. Reaction on Twitter was excitement – the resentment seemed to be receding somewhat with each Hoilett run into the opposing half. Over on the Voyageurs internet forum, a 72-page comment thread started in 2011 titled “The Importance of Jr. Hoilett” appeared to be turning positive during and following the 1-1 draw against Ghana. The redemption turn to this tale is taking place and is already in full swing.
Canada’s goal came from a Marcel de Jong wonder strike in the 29th minute. No Ghanaian stepped up to challenge the Sporting KC fullback on his 35-yard missile into the top corner. It will now doubt go straight onto de Jong’s career highlights DVD, and should be remembered for a long time by Canada’s supporters, despite the fact no one saw it live due to a historically poor web stream of the match (you can watch it here).
Ghana’s equalizer was the result of a successful counter-attack and a surgically precise passing move by Jordan Ayew. The Aston Villa man received the ball with his back to goal and, once he drew defenders to him, split the defence with a pinpoint pass to send Albert Adomah in alone on goal, an opportunity the Middlesbrough man did not squander.
Hoilett has sucked the oxygen out of most of this column, but it’s important to note that Canada as a whole looked sharp last night. Their passing was precise, players seemed to know where their teammates were without looking (despite so many new faces in the squad), and it was one of the prettiest displays put on by this team in a long time. Canada were unlucky not to find the back of the net more than once, as Ghanaian keeper Brimah Razak kept flying through the air to block quality attempts.
Wandrille Lefèvre, Charlie Trafford, Kianz Froese, Fraser Aird and Marco Bustos all earned their first caps for Canada, and all acquitted themselves nicely. Lefèvre in particular was a beast on defence, squashing more Ghana attacks than could be counted. Benito Floro will have no choice but to consider the Impact defender for the November World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and El Salvador once he reviews tape of the match (Floro was in Sandy, Utah, managing the U-23 Olympic team that fell 2-0 to the USA). Lucas Cavallini, returning to the squad for the first time since that night in San Pedro Sula, had a few shining moments in the Ghana end of the field, the highlight being a backheel pass on the touchline that went on to create a key chance on goal for Tosaint Ricketts which Razak deftly parried.
All in all it was an emotional, satisfying night for Canadian supporters of the national team. Canada managed a confident draw against the 25th ranked team in the world (according to FIFA). The present, rather than the future, is looking bright for once, which is going to take a bit of time for fans to wrap their head around. Onto qualifying we go!