During the past two years, Vancouverites have demonstrated their immense passion for sports. Through the 2010 Olympic Winter Games and the Canucks playoff run last season, we’ve seen the type of spirit that our city has for their home teams – just as we saw it when the Whitecaps won the NASL Soccer Bowl in 1979.
Whitecaps FC rookie defender Michael Boxall experienced a similar passion for sports back in his home country, but where he comes from, the sport of choice is rugby.
“Coming from New Zealand, it’s in your face all the time,” said the Kiwi, who celebrated his 23rd birthday earlier this month. “So naturally you play it in the school yard and you play it in your backyard with your family and cousins.”
Like anyone from his home land, he keeps close tabs on the revered All Blacks national rugby team – especially as New Zealand prepares to host the 2011 Rugby World Cup next month.
“I wish I could go back to watch, it’s going to be some event,” said Boxall. “There is a lot of pressure on them to win it, similar to the Canucks this past season. We’re the best team in the world, they just have a habit of choking at the wrong time, but I have every confidence that they’ll come through.”
With the popularity of the sport, Boxall was drawn to the rugby field as a youngster. That was until he was persuaded to stop carrying an oval ball and start kicking a round one.
“I played rugby up until I was about 10 or 11, playing with my best friend growing up,” explained Boxall. “Then he switched to soccer and I just wanted to play with him, so I switched to soccer too.”
That decision has clearly worked out well for him.
While he appears timid off the field, the New Zealander’s confidence in his All Blacks is matched only by his quiet confidence in himself. That is undoubtedly a necessity for any professional athlete, but for Boxall, strength of mind has been particularly important.
He first moved to the western hemisphere in 2007, as he was recruited to play college soccer at the University of California in Santa Barbara.
“Before me there were a couple of Kiwis there and the college coach there kept in touch with our national team coaches. They kept that pipeline open and it was the right timing. They needed a player at my position, so I was pretty fortunate.”
After a great college career, Boxall entered the 2011 MLS SuperDraft. However, after three rounds he went unselected.
“It was a pretty disappointing day. I was watching with a couple of friends, but I knew it wasn’t the end of the world.”
It didn’t take long for him to be picked up either, as Whitecaps FC selected him first overall in the following week’s MLS Supplemental Draft. “It worked out better that way,” says Boxall.
He’s enjoyed his rookie season in Vancouver, noting how players such as fellow centre back Jay DeMerit have helped him improve. “It’s not only great to be training with guys who’ve played in the greatest leagues and the greatest tournaments in the world, but just the way they keep chirping in your ear and help you develop as a professional. I can’t speak enough about how influential they’ve been so far.”
That’s not to say that Boxall hasn’t had some incredible soccer experiences of his own. He lists playing at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing among his top memories. He says that playing alongside Blackburn Rovers defender and All Whites national team captain Ryan Nelsen “was huge”, as well as against some top notch stars from Brazil.
“It was great sharing the field with players like Ronaldinho, Alexandre Pato, Lucas and Marcelo because those players are playing for the top teams in the world. To see them go to work in front of so many people was just an experience that I’ll never forget.”
Boxall has brought much of what he’s learned from his rugby days to the soccer pitch. New Zealanders are known for their toughness, and Boxall has demonstrated no differently while becoming a regular starter for the ‘Caps at centre back this season.
He has also brought some of his Kiwi heritage with him off the pitch. As a rookie, he had to perform a song and dance for the veterans during the preseason in Arizona.
“I did the haka and I don’t think too many guys had seen that type of thing before,” he said of the traditional Māori dance, which is performed by the All Blacks before they play. “They didn’t quite know how to take it, but I think it worked out well.”
Just as it always has.