Alma Libre Futbol Club Youth soccer team playing under the team Gorge FC was one of 10 teams competing in the Gothia Cup, the world’s largest youth soccer tournament. This picture shows the team during the opening ceremonies. Submitted

Saanich soccer team has a kick at Gothia Cup

Flight delays. A last-minute victory. Two victories through penalty shoot-outs.

Those were just some of the memories that the players of Alma Libre Futbol Club youth soccer team playing under the team Gorge FC brought home from their trip to Europe last month, where they played in the Gothia Cup, the world’s largest youth soccer tournament held in Gothenburg, Sweden.

“It was an unbelievable experience,” said coach Sergio Duran. “Our goal to create memories for a life time was achieved.”

The team playing in the Boys 14 division was one of the 10 Canadian teams in the tournament that drew 1,759 teams from 82 nations. Overall, it lost in the semi-final of the constellation bracket.

Most of the team along with coaches and players left Europe on July 12. After spending some time in London, team arrived in Gothenburg on day later than anticipated after it had to spend an unplanned night in Frankfurt, Germany, following a flight delay.

The team opened the tournament on Monday July 17, with a 0-2 loss against Swedish team Kungsbacka IF in group play.

Duran said the team’s travel delay tired some players. “This said, the major factor was how nervous they were,” he said. The nature of game itself against also offered surprises. “It was a bit of shock, the level of physicality and speed.”

The game was against Mindset FC from England less than 24 hours later. Nicholas Guilford’s goal with 10 minutes left was enough for victory. “They celebrated like they had won the World Cup,” said Duran of his players, who had received enthusiastic support from their parents as well as locals.

The victory against Mindset FC meant that the next game would decide whether the team would advance to the championship bracket or the constellation round, with the team needing to win a victory over Fagersta Södra IK for advancement.

The pressure was high, perhaps too high. While the team had tons of opportunities to score, hitting the post a couple of times, the game ended in a goalless draw, not enough to advance. “It was a bit of a loss,” said Duran. “Some of [the players] were close to crying.”

But the schedule gave the team little time to recover, as they had to play their first knock-out match in the constellation bracket a few hours later against Södra Sandby IF, who opened the scoring. But this early set back actually encouraged his players to push harder, said Duran.

Jake Robson scored the tying goal off a free-kick and Jonathan Ami bounced a header off a defender following a corner for the winning goal in the dying seconds of the game. “It was pure excitement,” he said.

The Round-of-32 game against Varbergs BoIS FC featured the drama of penalty kicks. Goalie Alex Emery played the role of hero as he saved three opponents’ shots, including the last two, as Saanich scored on the last two penalties to advance 5-4.

“That was a lot of pressure,” said Duran. “They managed it very well. They showed a lot of composure.” They did so again in the Round of 16 when Emery saved three more penalties against Gammelgårdens IF as Saanich won 3-1 on penalties.

With this win, Saanich was three wins away from going to the final of the constellation bracket, a prospect that gained momentum with wins over Latvia’s JDFS Alberts (1-0) and Sweden’s Bollstanäs SK (2-0).

These victories showed the team’s growing confidence, said Duran. The game against Bollstanäs SK especially tested their mental mettle.

While in the same age group, Bollstanäs SK’s players were taller than Saanich’s. But Duran was not going to let this fact get in the way. He told his players that soccer is not about size, but skill — skill which they possessed. The game also featured one of the more inspirational moments for the team. Suffering from a knee injury, Max Muellerleile begged Duran to enter the game as a substitute. Duran relented towards the end of the game and it was Muellerleile who passed the goal for the first and ultimately winning goal in 2-0 victory.

With the victory, the team advanced to the semi-final, which also happened to be its third game of the day. The tired team also confronted an opponent different from previous ones. Whereas most of Saanich’s past opponents played a fast, physical style, their Portuguese opponents Footgeneration FA Algarve played with more finesse in relying on possession to keep the ball away, forcing Saanich to chase the game.

“They dominated the game and played a nice game of football,” said Duran.

At the end of their 2-0 loss, many players were in tears, but the coaching staff around Duran immediately tried to put things into perspective. “We tried to give them the message that what they had accomplished was beyond expectations,” he said.

Outside observers agreed in praising the team’s performance as a first-time participant and many are pushing for a return appearance. “Given the results that we had, we are in a good position to advance these players to next level,” he said.

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