Team Canada soccer player rockets from the tennis courts to the FIFA Women’s World Cup doorstep in a decade
By Dan Plouffe
Of all the young soccer girls who dream of one day representing Canada at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, only 23 get the chance to do it at each global tournament. The percentage of players who have done that after only taking up soccer in Grade 10?
“I’ve personally never seen it before,” says Joé Fournier, the Louis-Riel high school soccer coach who helped facilitate Vanessa Gilles’ dream transition onto the soccer pitch.
Now amongst the final candidates to play for the back-to-back Olympic bronze medallists come this June’s World Cup in France, Gilles’ decision to trade her tennis skirt for soccer shorts at age 15 set in motion quite the journey.
“I just realized tennis wasn’t the sport for me,” reflects Gilles, who moved to Ottawa from Shanghai as a preteen (her father’s career in the hotel business kept her in Asia for most of her first 12 years). “My personality didn’t blend too much with the mentality and the individual sport.”
Gilles first arrived in Louis-Riel’s specialized sports-study program as a top provincial-level tennis player, but the training was “too much” – 12:30-7 p.m. on weekdays, then down to Toronto most Fridays for weekend tournaments.
It was difficult for Gilles to tell her parents she no longer wanted to play a sport they’d invested so much into – both in money and time – but she certainly did want to continue her athletic career. She was drawn to soccer – her older brother’s love, as well as many friends from school, where a high-level soccer program was also conveniently located.
“I was surrounded by soccer, and Joé let me on the team pretty easily,” recounts the now-22-year-old. “Having all my friends at school on the soccer team made it an easy transition.”
She found a number of skills she developed on the court served her well on the pitch, such as spatial awareness, ball vision, movement and footwork.
“I definitely think that helped me a lot in my career, even to this day,” says the centre-back who is adept at adjusting her body position to the ball.
Fournier first thought those tennis attributes would translate well into becoming a goalkeeper.
“Our goalkeeper coach at the time told me after 2 sessions that this girl can be on the provincial team – that’s how good she was,” he recalls, but it wasn’t meant to be.
“Joé would get a little mad when I’d get bored and end up at the other end of the field,” Gilles laughs. “He was convinced I could make it as a keeper, but I said, ‘No, not for me.’ I was a little too impatient.”
When she broke the news to him, Fournier told her, “I’ll never force you to play nets, because I want you to love soccer,’” he details, and the next season Gilles made the team as a defender.
“She was behind the other girls technically, but she was above most of the girls physically, and mentally, she was very, very strong,” adds the 3-time OFSAA-champion coach. “She was a quick learner. Mistakes didn’t phase her. She’d recover very quickly and overcome any obstacles. She was very mature.”
Fournier recommended his budding talent to FC Capital United for club soccer.
“I couldn’t do much with my feet except kick it out of bounds, but I managed to find a club that was willing to take me on as a 15-year-old who couldn’t pass the ball in a straight line,” smiles Gilles, who learned from a “great coach who’s still a very good friend to me now” in Raz El-Asmar, and players like University of Ottawa Gee-Gees 2018 national champion Miranda Smith “who all went on to be great soccer players and have had great careers as well.”
Gilles landed with a club team that earned unprecedented success for an Ottawa team at the time. She was part of a groundbreaking group that won the Ontario Youth Soccer League’s east division in 2013 crown with Cap U, Louis-Riel was a dynasty during her years there, and her teammates also practiced with Parmar Sports Training.
“They all taught me different things in my game, but my favourite memory is just being able to go from one club to another and have each and every group support me through it all,” signals Gilles. “Whether it was a tournament, a game, or going to university, I’ve always had that support behind me.”
Gilles collected a number of trophies and medals – including a 2013 Canada Summer Games bronze – but the biggest prize was simply the love of the game she developed.
“I was fortunate enough to be in that environment and family atmosphere,” underlines Gilles, who also played a summer with West Ottawa in League1 Ontario. “When I go back to Ottawa, we’re still like 18-year-olds playing kick-around. It’s really cool to have.”
Rise resumes abroad
Gilles’ next step after high school was to the University of Cincinnati for NCAA soccer, which offered her a full athletic scholarship. It wasn’t the most obvious soccer destination, but Gilles wanted to study in the criminal justice program – amongst top-5 in U.S., she notes.
The Bearcats player graduated with a near-perfect GPA, and was again grateful to experience a positive, supportive atmosphere that made her want to continue playing after her 4 years of college.
The next destination was an even more unlikely soccer stop.
“Cyprus was the only team that offered, and I wasn’t going to say no,” says Gilles, whose Apollon Ladies FC team frequently won games by double-digits – not ideal for a developing defender, but her “little soccer vacation in paradise” did lead to an offer to join the top women’s league in France the next season with Bordeaux.
“Maybe I eat a few too many baguettes and croissants, but I can’t complain – about the food or the weather,” smiles Gilles, who finds her current opponents aren’t as “gritty” as North American players, but “they’re so technical and tactically aware.”
“Everyone lives, breathes, eats football from a young age,” highlights Gilles, who faces off with Canadian teammates Kadeisha Buchanan (Lyon) and midfielder Ashley Lawrence (Paris-St-Germain) in the French league. “You see how much they’ve grown being there for 2-3 years and being part of that culture and adding to their toolbox.”
Cracking Team Canada
Gilles’ first experience in international soccer came with France’s national team – possible because her father’s family has French roots – when she appeared in a friendly against Belgium.
“Two months later, Canada called me and gave me a chance to come out, so I obviously leaped on that,” recounts Gilles, who joined the team for a January camp in Spain. “I was shocked when I got the call. I obviously wasn’t expecting it in any way, and it came right before Christmas, so it was a great early Christmas gift.”
It’s unusual for a player to emerge onto the senior women’s team without having ever participated in a prior camp for younger age groups, but Gilles’ path does not fit the mould.
“For me, I always took it one step at a time,” she indicates. “I always knew that I wanted to hopefully make a camp one day. I didn’t think it would be at 22. I didn’t think it would be at 25 or any age, I wasn’t really expecting it at a certain time. It was a faraway goal, and I was just focused on one day at a time. It’s probably the big thing that helped me in my career.”
Team Canada assembled again for the Feb. 25-Mar. 7 Algarve Cup, but this time Gilles wasn’t selected. That made the invite to Canada’s most recent Mar. 31-Apr. 10 camp a little unexpected given that it was the second-to-last one before the World Cup.
“I was surprised the first time, and just as surprised this time. It was a good surprise. Being at the camp before the World Cup, it was really cool to get the invite and see where the team is at going into the World Cup,” highlights Gilles, whose team won 1-0 and 2-1 in matches against England and Nigeria, though she didn’t get called onto the pitch for either friendly in Europe. “Seeing how they performed against England, it was really, really cool to be there and to see it from the inside.”
Canada’s final pre-World Cup camp will be held back in Ontario, with a send-off match against Mexico set for May 18 in Toronto. Gilles hopes she’ll be there, and get the chance to play at France 2019, but she isn’t counting her chickens.
“Obviously every girl would love to,” Gilles underlines. “The fact that there are so many at that level is great for Canada to have a bigger player pool than we might have had before years ago. I think that’s a testament to how much soccer in Canada is improving.
“One step at a time and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
Gilles’ progression certainly bodes well for future opportunities with Team Canada if not within the current cycle. She says “staying motivated and determined” and “not getting discouraged along the way” are the key assets that have allowed her to keep rising.
“I didn’t make the U17s or the U20s, but I still had the hope that maybe I could make the next one,” highlights Gilles, who derives motivation in tough times from her supporters back home and now abroad. “Probably the big thing that helped me in my career was not getting discouraged along the way about not getting a call, or having to go to Cyprus instead of a better league.
“It was just about enjoying the experience you have at hand and knowing that if you work hard enough, everything will work out and things will come your way.”