Hyping Handsome Bowties

By Benjamin Massey

August 31st, 2017 · No comments

Tony Lewis/FC Edmonton

In a century of international futility Canadian men’s soccer has had more cautionary tales than fairy tales. Hanson Boakai, the 20-year-old former FC Edmonton homegrown phenom, should have been the latter and is now the former.

Having become the youngest player in NASL history and dazzled most prominently against Montreal in the 2014 Voyageurs Cup, Boakai left Edmonton at the end of autumn 2015. For all his talents he had not become a regular starter, but the Eddies made an unsuccessful offer to keep him. He trained with notable European clubs, and in November of that year Duane Rollins called a move to Toronto FC “close to done.” It never got there. Despite many rumours he didn’t land for another eight months and when he did it was after a fall.

Joining Swedish third-division side Landskrona in July 2016, Boakai played less than two hours over four appearances and left in November. Since then he has been the Littlest Hobo. In January he trialed with Albanian champions Skenderbeu but no contract resulted. He trained with Lebanese club Nejmeh and got a kit number and again did not sign. Caronnese, of Italy’s Serie D, announced his signing but didn’t deign to spell his name correctly. Thanks to trouble with his residence paperwork, Boakai allegedly was close to joining CS U Craiova’s second team, which would put him in the Romanian third division. This deal has not closed; until tomorrow he’ll just keep moving on.

It’s not often you say this about a soccer player but he should have stayed in Edmonton, which while not La Liga is surely to Christ not Lebanon. Even under supposedly anti-creative coach Colin Miller, on artificial turf, before indifferent crowds, and burdened by youthful weakness, Boakai won a rep at Clarke Stadium. We clamoured for him to star on the youth teams, where he hardly played but looked good when he did. We insisted Benito Floro give him a look on the senior squad which, technically, happened, Boakai participating in a camp in October 2014. The Edmonton Journal called him a potential “Canadian Messi,” and that is still quoted abroad. After leaving FC Edmonton everyone expected Boakai to ascend the soccer pyramid. The idea that he would go down was unthinkable, yet here we are.

Never write off a kid with talent, but he has more mileage than the US Air Force. If his career winds up a success it’ll be the greatest comeback since the Resurrection. This is a player who has been viewed by dozens of coaches from a multitude of cultures on three continents, and many of them saw something, but not enough to be worth the bother.

What happened? Obviously it isn’t his natural talent that keeps him from sticking in semi-pro Scandinavia. No, I mean that: obviously it isn’t. Did you see this kid, back when he used to play? A world in which, on skill alone, Erik Hurtado prospers and Hanson Boakai can’t get a contract does not exist.

Paperwork hurts him. Boakai was born in the Republic of Guinea and his parents are Liberian. He has played official youth competitions for Canada so presumably his passport is settled, but when trying to get a work permit (not always easy for a Canadian without EU residency), bothersome bureaucratic bologna brought by small-African-village-migrant upbringings can make life even worse. Stars and big clubs can batter through such obstacles with cash and prestige; Serie D teams, and the players they attract, less so.

Then again, Boakai actually did get his contract in semi-pro Sweden, and actually did play, and actually couldn’t get much action. Reportedly, the company which sponsored Boakai’s contract at Landskrona backed out. That sounds bad. FC Edmonton, community-minded but not a soup kitchen, claimed FIFA-mandated compensation for a player they developed, invested in, made the reputation of, and lost. But that’s not unique and not that expensive. So what happened? Well it’s 2017 and this is a thinkpiece so here’s the boilerplate: it was we, the people. We did this to Hanson Boakai. We hyped him up too far. Remember that “Canadian Messi” remark? Boakai himself has referenced it with what can only be called an insufficient level of self-aware irony. What seems like it should be a personal responsibility in fact rests on all our shoulders, for making him what he is.

Of course, upon examination, the theory is ridiculous. First off, what you’d expect from a kid who has been convinced he is God’s gift to cansoc is that he is so secure in his superiority that he dogs it in training, and that is one thing I have not heard about Boakai. He has his foibles but work rate is not one. Indeed, as a little kid who faces frequent abuse from larger veteran pros, his ability to take and avoid a licking was a prominent asset. He was no theoretician, he had put in the work and could handle clumsier adversaries.

Other Canadians have become aware of hyper-flattering nicknames and if they haven’t met our hopes (because Canadian soccer players never do unless they are Christine Sinclair) they also haven’t flamed out. Prospects do become tubby and useless in their early 20s and retire young or go to League1 Ontario, but generally the attitude that allows that to happen is incompatible, in today’s competitive fitness-focused world, with becoming a professional in the first place.

Second off, what hype?! Have you walked around Canadian soccer lately? Alphonso Davies, a wunderkind in a bigger media market and at a higher level than Boakai, with a more impressive physique, superior statistics for club and country, and a life story that appeals even more directly to cansoc’s sensitivities, is enormously well-known by diehards from Halifax to Port Hardy. The Canadian Soccer Association ranks him beside Atiba Hutchinson and behind only Christine Sinclair in their advertising.

But among casual fans in Vancouver, people who go to a couple games a year and consider themselves Whitecaps fans but “not like those Southsiders, whoa, my buddy got a couple tickets in their section and we had to stand all game,” it’s not the same. They know him, remember him, but struggle for detail. He is not Connor McDavid. He is a blur on a field whose precocious powers are recognized but not obsessed over. He can walk down the streets here, which a hockey player as average as a Ryan Kesler finds difficult.

Boakai’s hype was below Davies’s. Among civilians he is behind even Jessie Fleming and Deanne Rose in name value. If that much praise ruined him, he was doomed regardless. The sort of love Boakai got would not overwhelm a strong junior hockey player. Soccer is catching on in Canada but it doesn’t come close to attracting the obsessive attention that hockey… Jesus, that curling enjoys in large parts of the country.

Yet we soccer fans possess a strange self-consciousness about openly praising our young men, and for that matter our young women. We can’t get too enthusiastic, because it might all be a dream. Not only in the sense of “Jessie might blow out her knee while playing for UCLA because when has that ever happened HAW HAW,” but there’s an idea that our promotion is part of the problem. We few fanatics convince our kids that they are stars, and the rest is doom.

I do not say that it is impossible for our praise to go to a player’s head. On the contrary, I know that it has happened. But our community’s praise doesn’t get you a good table at a crowded restaurant, let alone freighters of cocaine and women. We hardly exist in the real world. There are people philosophically incapable of sustaining the pressures of professional sport, and if the Voyageurs forum is swelling your head you’re one.

However, there’s a curious flip side. The Internet age has made a commonplace of seemingly-informed profiles provided by nothing more than thorough Googling; hey, this site hosts a couple. But these analyses can be influential. As a former Vancouver Whitecaps fan I remember well the excitement when we found that midfielder Davide Chiumiento was supposedly known—by whom we never discovered—as “the Swiss Ronaldinho.” This was not only fan buzz but got mainstream traction. When Chiumiento arrived in time for the 2010 USSF D2 playoffs he was fat and bored, and his short MLS career was more potential than realization. But we knew that former fans of his had thought he was something special, and were ever-so-slightly but importantly biased in his favour. What’s more, we weren’t wrong: Chiumiento may or may not have been worth it, but he possessed an undeniable spark that made him beautiful in a way that transcended how many points he helped the Whitecaps win. Take them in broad strokes and such fan assessments contain a lot of truth.

Boakai’s “Canadian Messi” title has followed him to Romania. Obviously such plaudits won’t carry a career on but they can make a difference, elevate someone above other unknown trialists. Though Boakai himself may not pan out, if he does it’ll be because some serious club is willing to take a chance on him despite the complications, and Boakai does enough to exploit that chance. We fans are almost impotent in that process. But if our hype convinces some otherwise-indifferent manager to view Hanson’s highlight tape, we could actually do something positive. Just yesterday FC Edmonton announced the signing of midfielder Abraham Dukuly who, they tell us unabashedly, is “a special 1-on-1 player with great instincts that draws comparisons to former Academy graduate and FC Edmonton player Hanson Boakai.” Quite right.

Sometimes good prospects bust. It’s lousy if your team needs them, and ours does. But in Canadian soccer the deficiencies are inborn. The 300 of us who care do not have the power to create them. On the other hand, we can do a minuscule but non-zero amount of good. Do not forfeit the pleasure of promoting a young player you love. If it ruins the kid, he was never going to make it anyway. And it is our positive duty to promote those who we think are worth it, even when we fear we may be wrong.

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