USL soccer champs go on African training safari
By BOB MACKIN
DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania: The Vancouver Whitecaps' soccer safari kicked off Friday under sunny skies by the Indian Ocean.
The United Soccer Leagues' First Division champions arrived in Dar es Salaam, the largest city in the East Africa nation, after traveling almost 24 hours from Vancouver, via London, England.
Not since the original 1974-1984 North American Soccer League franchise has a Vancouver soccer squad traveled abroad to train. It's the first trip to Africa for the team, but several players boast connections to the continent.
Montreal-raised striker Charles Gbeke, who scored both goals in last October's championship victory, was born in Ivory Coast.
"We're here to just have a great time, build a chemistry as a team, try to play good football," Gbeke told a news conference attended by more than 40 local journalists. "We're excited, we saw the way you guys welcomed us."
Forward Ansu Toure, who was acquired in the off-season from Miami FC, is from Liberia and now holds United States citizenship.
"I'm happy to be here, happy to be back in Africa," Toure said. "I told a lot of my friends and teammates that Africa is a great continent. I'm very, very happy to be home."
Veteran midfielder and new captain Martin Nash was asked by a local reporter if he was related to Steve Nash, the South African-born, Canadian-raised National Basketball Association star. Nash was also asked why he plays soccer instead of basketball.
"Steve is my older brother, I don't play basketball because he's four inches taller than me," Nash said. "I was a pretty good basketball player, I played a few games for Canada in basketball as well as soccer. I was good, but not that good."
After the Sea Cliff Hotel news conference, the Whitecaps were whisked around the city in a motorcoach with a motorcycle police escort to clear the way through congested streets. The initial training field at the Tanzania Football Federation headquarters, however, was occupied by a local club. The Whitecaps moved to the old national stadium, next to the new 60,000-seat stadium where they will meet the Tanzania national team on March 14.
The Whitecaps' 20-man roster will stay in the land of Mount Kilimanjaro until March 18 and play two of the country's top clubs on March 9 and 12. Besides the games and training sessions, the Whitecaps will hold youth soccer clinics and make goodwill visits to schools. The trip also includes a safari in the Ngorongoro Crater.
Tanzania Football Federation general secretary Frederick Mwakalebela said the Whitecaps' visit is part of a long-term strategy to develop the game and capitalize on South Africa's hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
"Maybe our boys might have outstanding performances, at the end of the day they can be able to sell themselves and be able to go to Europe," Mwakalebela said. "This is going to open the doors not only for the players, but even for our national stadium and other countries to come for 2010 and use our stadium (for training and exhibitions). Which, at the end of the day, is going to increase the national income, tourism and other cultural activities."