By Brendan Shykora
While vacationing in Italy, Vanessa Gilles followed the FIFA Women’s World Cup match between Canada and Cameroon intently. Like many fans back in Canada, she shared in Kadeisha Buchanan’s excitement after the centre back headed home the winning goal of the team’s tournament opener on June 10 – the first electric moment in what is expected to be a deep run into the medal rounds.
But unlike others who watched the game from afar, it’s easy for Gilles to envision herself right there on the pitch. As one of the final cuts for Team Canada, the 22-year-old footballer was a hair’s breadth away from being a part of the opening roster.
For the young centre back who moved to Ottawa from Shanghai as a preteen, there are no hard feelings about being left off the starting roster as she watches Team Canada compete – only showers of praise and admiration for the players and coaches she’s gotten to know of late.
“Kadeisha (Buchanan) is just an incredible athlete,” Gilles told the Sportspage during a phone interview from Italy. “She has pace, she anticipates the game (and) has a lot more technique and awareness.”
“In the next few years I hope to learn from players like Kadeisha, what she’s already learned four years ago when she started playing for Canada.”
Having switched from tennis to soccer at age 15, reaching the cusp of soccer’s highest level this quickly surpasses all expectations. Far from being disappointed at having come so close to the World Cup, Gilles was ecstatic to have received a promising message from Team Canada’s coach along with an invite to a training camp in May.
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“When coach (Kenneth Heiner-Moller) called me in to the May camp he had told me ahead of time, ‘I don’t think you’ll be one of my 23s but we really want you to be in camp,’” Gilles recalled.
“He said to try to learn every step you can, and if anyone gets injured, ‘you’ll be the first one to come up,’ so just focus.”
Gilles says she’ll be ready to step in at a moment’s notice if called upon. “Even now watching the games I’m still focused. If they need me, I’ll be ready.”
For Gilles it’s been a steady year of acclimatizing to the life of a French Division 1 professional player. Currently half way through a two-year contract with Girondins de Bordeaux, she finds herself inspired not only by the level of skill and technique among the players, but also the level of passion within French football culture.
“The French league right now is being televised for every single game and club, which is incredible on its own for women’s soccer,” she emphasized. “You don’t see that really in any other country.”
Gilles is known as a strong physical and vocal presence on the back end, and while her technical game is still raw, she’s great in the air heading the ball. Over the past year at Bordeaux and at training camps with Team Canada, she’s begun to learn some of the subtler details of the professional game.
“At that (May) camp it was just the mannerisms, and how people behave in big games,” Gilles said looking back on her biggest takeaways from training alongside veterans like Christine Sinclair.
For now, Gilles is content to cheer on the Canadian squad she trained with throughout the year, while getting some reprieve during the French league’s brief offseason. But with pre-season just weeks away she won’t be resting long, and having had a sample of the national-team experience, she’s hungry for more.
“I think when you get to that level and you get a taste of it, just like anything else in life, you want it even more,” Gilles said.
“I want to work for the next World Cup, or work for the Olympics … work to get to wherever I know I can be. It’s just a matter of putting your mind to it.”