Quietly and without fanfare, one of England’s most recognizable soccer luminaries recently moved to Canada to kick off one of the most important sports programs in this country’s history.
Robin van der Laan was a household name in England during a brilliant playing career, which included the captaincy of Derby County F.C. in the game’s highest division from 1995 through 1998. Van der Laan played against the likes of superstar David Beckham, whom he later coached in skills competitions. He also coached Ronaldinho and Thierry Henry in these same events.
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Now, Van der Laan will try to develop young Canadians into household names.
It’s all part of a brainchild from the deep thinkers at Manchester United, arguably the premier franchise in professional sports. Van der Laan, 38, has been appointed by Manchester United as its director of coaching in Canada. For a few weeks now, he has inconspicuously been preparing his programs in Oakville, Ont., where a colossal, state-of-the-art soccer facility is on the verge of being built and where kids will be groomed by Van der Laan and his expert aides for at least a decade, the length of a megadeal between Man U and the owners of the soon-to-be created facility.
Van der Laan, however, isn’t waiting for the complex to be completed before he launches his program. Starting April 2, in fact, he’ll be working with six- to 18-year-olds at the Oakville Sports Centre. It’ll be a harbinger of big things to come, some of which can be sniffed out by logging onto www.muss.ca, and most of which will not be divulged until an official marketing launch that will outline Man U’s plans for Canada in a few months. Van der Laan also will make himself available to meet the community at the Oakville Sports Centre at 9 a.m. Saturday.
Suffice it to say, however, that Man U intends to expand its international operations in a major way into Canada, just as it has done in recent years in Dubai, Hong Kong and Seattle.
“It’s a good time to come into Canada,” Van der Laan told me yesterday. “There’s been a boost of soccer interest here, with the (under-20) World Cup coming soon and the start of Toronto F.C. I feel like we have to be here for a long time. There’s a hunger in Canada for quality soccer coaching, and we plan to provide it.
“And we’re not an elitist program. We’re not here to create the next Beckham. We’re here to give Canadian children a chance to learn the Manchester United way. If we find gems along the way, that’d be nice.”
It would be. Last time I looked at the world soccer rankings, Canada was not even in the top 100. Van der Laan et al might just fix that.