Vassallo's dream stays on course
If there's a road that leads to success, no matter how obscure, rest assured it will be travelled by someone looking to fulfil a dream.
Anthony Vassallo is an 18-year-old Londoner who made headlines four years ago when he became the youngest player in the Canadian Professional Soccer League.
He was 14 and made his debut with London City.
You don't have to be a resident genius to know his goal in life is to become a professional soccer player. But for Canadians, that goal is as attainable as winning the lottery. It takes not only talent to get noticed but luck to get outside the limited confines of a nation with athletic priorities that are anything but soccer.
That's why determination and a willingness to take a road less travelled is a necessity to further a soccer career.
Vassallo is on that road. At 14 he was playing with London City. At 15 he was offered a tryout with Birkirkara, a professional team in Malta. At 16, he returned to Malta to sign an amateur contract with Birkirkara's youth and reserve side.
His grandparents live on Gozo, a small island just off Malta. He lived with them for a year but having to take a boat on a daily basis to train was difficult. He moved to Birkirkara, the biggest city in Malta. He lived with another young player but he has since moved to play elsewhere. Now Vassallo lives with a group of Canadian students.
The unknown can prove a great adventure, but letting a 16-year-old go to live in another country can be excruciating.
"The day we took him to the airport was very hard," said his father Cam. "I didn't want to send him but he wanted to go. To get a chance to play you have to do it."
It's been a steady progression for the attacking midfielder. In June, Vassallo made his debut with the Maltese under-18 team. In September, he was with the under-20s.
Yesterday he left for Israel to play in the under-19 European Cup qualifiers.
Win or lose, this is the type of competition young soccer players find rarely if they remain in Canada.
"It will be a good chance to play at a high calibre and be noticed," said Vassallo from Malta.
Vassallo plays for Birkirkara's youth side. He says Birkirkara's main team doesn't use many young players, preferring -- like many wealthy big league sides -- to purchase older players to be successful. But he's hoping the exposure will bring him other opportunities.
There is a tendency to discount the value of playing in a small country like Malta.
Located in the Mediterranean Sea, it is the smallest European Union nation in population and area. But it has an extensive professional soccer system that has developed players for other professional leagues. Malta has played the Canadian national team twice and won both meetings.
Vassallo's Maltese adventure has so far provided everything he's needed. He goes to school at the equivalent of a junior college and is absorbed in the world of soccer.
"They are a lot more serious about football here than in Canada," said Vassallo. "People talk soccer all the time. . . . It's a good atmosphere. They play a very defensive game to get results but Maltese teams play in all the major competitions."
Vassallo has the enthusiasm and the bravery of youth on his side. Leaving friends and family behind to live in a small country is a small price to pay to eventually make his dream of playing professional soccer a reality.
Whatever success Vassallo has will offer hope to others looking to do the same thing.
"Of course, I want to play somewhere else," he said. "Many players in Malta are a little old fashioned. They want to stay here and play here and not take any risks. I want to move on, take some risks. I want to play in a higher professional league."
No matter where that road less travelled leads.