The realities, the challenges, the rewards
By Davie Wong, Sports Editor
Going into the holiday, we’re hitting that time of year where everyone is realizing that they failed their new year’s resolutions. Some goals were too intense, others were more of a dream. One could define a dream as a set of goals that are seemingly impossible, yet we’re always hearing about people making their dreams happen.
What does it take to make your dream come true? Is it sacrifice? Is it dedication? Is it passion? Or is it something else entirely? To really take a look at that, I talked to some pretty special people; those who did make their dream come true.
Ever since their foot touched a ball, Max and Race Williams dreamed of playing professional soccer overseas. They wanted to be like the greats. They wanted to play against the greats. To have their names enshrined in the sport they love. This is the story of how they made at least some of their dreams a reality.
It all started with an opportunity, according to the older Williams brother. “When I was young, my mom found an ID camp that was being held here in Vancouver. Originally, I didn’t want to go, but I ended up going, and a former Manchester United player was there. He scouted me out and asked me to come over to Italy,” Race recalled with a grin on his face.
“I was invited to play in the Genova International School of Soccer [in Italy], and I was invited to play against Serie A, B, and C youth teams. We were playing to show our talents, and to see if any of the teams wanted to pick up any of us. It was my first time away from home, but I didn’t get home sick. I actually really enjoyed the camp. It was soccer, soccer, soccer. Eat, sleep, breath, soccer. I was 15 turning 16 when I left.”
Can you imagine travelling to a foreign country all alone at the age of 15, going on 16? It’s hard to visualize, but it was his reality. When opportunity comes knocking, it’s hard to say no when it could mean getting everything you’ve ever wanted.
Race was candid about his experience. “It was a pretty cool experience. Not many kids around here can say they did that. It was a different culture and different environment over in Italy. It was a different way of playing soccer, too. The regular schedule was get up at 8 a.m., eat, training at 9:30 a.m. What we did depended on the day of the week. Every single day was different. For example, Monday would be fitness training. Tuesday would be attacking and finishing. Wednesday would be something completely different. So on and so on. Around 1 p.m., we’d go back for lunch and a nap. We’d train around 4 p.m. until 8 p.m., when we got dinner and went to bed.”
But for the older Williams, the eye-opener wasn’t the intensity of the camp, it was the reality. “Lots of these kids are signing big contracts now. They grew up in a different environment though. It was make or break. If they didn’t make it, they were likely going to be working in a convenience store or bar. At younger ages, they were much more developed than we were. Some of the kids there were there for the experience. But a lot of them were there because it was going to be their way into a professional youth team. I was of one the kids that aspired to be pro, and didn’t just want to be there to be there.”
Max Williams remembers his experience with the school of soccer a bit differently. To be fair, it was two years after his brother went. “When Race first went to Italy, I really wanted to go too, but I was too young. Eventually, it came around to my turn, and they did bring me to Europe. I flew out to Savona, Italy, where the camp was held that year.
“We’d play around six times a week, pretty much all day. It’d be practices five days, and then a game on Saturday. There would be breakfast in the morning, then training at 9 a.m. Lunch, followed by more training at 3 p.m. And then dinner, and by then we’d all be exhausted so we’d sleep. And it was like that every day.”
The living arrangements at such a camp couldn’t possibly be luxurious, but Max remembered them quite fondly. “We lived in a dorm-like apartment. We shared rooms with three other people, so four total. It was right outside the field, so you wake up and play soccer.”
However, things were not always so cut and dry. Max talked about the reality that one might expect if they went over to a foreign country for an extended period of time. “The first time I went, I was 15 turning 16. The camp was five months, but I was only there for three because I had to go back to school. Living there was tough. I was young, so I missed my family. I was by myself a lot. Obviously you make some friends, but a lot of people spoke Italian. I had some translators, players that could speak both. I was respected because I was good, but if you weren’t good, you got no attention, and no one respected you. It was succeed or fail. If you were good, things were paid for. You’d get taken places. It was all about earning it. It was around 1,500 euros a month if you were okay, so about 2,200 Canadian.”
That’s where the two’s stories really split. Max and Race went about their own ways of achieving the dream of playing professional soccer.
Like his younger brother, Race left the Genova International Soccer Camp much earlier than he had anticipated. But unlike his brother, it wasn’t to go back for school.
“Sometime during my first year in Europe, I left the camp and went to England with my agent. I had trials with Notts County, and they told me to come back at the end of the season. I went back home and trained like crazy while going to school.”
With his destiny seemingly tied to Europe, the elder Williams embarked on his second European trip shortly after finishing the school year. “I went back to England later, where I tried out for the Blackburn Rovers. I played super well, and they wanted me back. But we ended up going to Chesterfield, because we worried about my development. The worry was about how much playing time I was going to get. So I went to another team, and it didn’t work out there. I came back home, because the season was going to start and I was without a team.” Without a team, and without a way in, Race Williams came home and went back to school, continually training and playing domestic soccer.
Sensing a need to start back over, Race made his way back to where it all started: soccer school.
“I went back to the Genova International School of Soccer the next year. We played some of the best teams in Italy, and I played out of my mind. I had 8 goals in 10 games, and I had lots of teams looking at me. But before I could sign anything, I had a sports hernia, which left me unable to play. I came home and did rehab for half a year before I could perform at that level again. During rehab, I broke my knee in a skiing accident and I had to take a lot of time off training and playing.”
With that knee injury, there was fear that it had ended his dreams of going pro. But Race never gave up, and fought hard to bring himself back to the level he was at before.
It wasn’t long before he had another chance to make his dream a reality. “I went to Spain next, and I tried out for Hercules FC in Alicante. Over there it was like I was living the dream life. I practically lived on the beach, in an apartment. It was an amazing city. And Spanish style soccer was the best soccer I’ve ever seen in my life. The way they moved the ball, and how quick they were. It was a whole new level. But at the end of the season, they still hadn’t signed me, and I was finishing school up around that time, so I made the choice to go home and finish my schooling and graduate.”
The decision was one he didn’t take lightly, but one he made for his extended future. Upon coming to the conclusion that he wanted to give it one more go, Race decided to change things up this time around. “I wanted to go back, but I wanted to do things differently, so I found a new agent, and I went back to Italy. I ended up playing first team Serie D soccer with Acqui Calcio. It was good quality soccer, and I was playing with actual men, not youth. I played there for four months, and then I went on trial with a team called AC Gozzano. They liked me, and they signed me for the next season. I went home and prepped all summer for the pre-season camp. I played the season, and that was my first full season playing as a ‘pro.’” Just like that, Race had done it. His dream of being payed to play soccer was fulfilled.
But Race is a man of ambition, and AC Gozzano wasn’t where he wanted to be. “As much as I loved playing at Gozzano, I knew I could play at a higher level. So I didn’t re-sign with them. I came home, and waited on trial opportunities. But nothing came. So I went and signed up for college, and here I am.”
Max made the most of his time playing at the Genova International School of Soccer. Even though he left early, the director of the camp offered him a spot at next year’s camp. However, upon returning to the camp, Max was greeted with a pleasant surprise. “They offered me a spot the following year. But this time, I was 17, and they offered me a spot in an U19 squad in Asiago, Italy. We traveled and played against professional teams in Italy, like Serie A teams. I always started when we played. I started over the guys that were older than me.”
But with the upgrade in team status came an upgrade in expectation and training. “We trained hard. If you messed up, they would yell at you. It was ruthless. Making it there in the first place is hard, but once you get there, you have to stand out amongst all the people there competing to be noticed. It was a very competitive environment. If you don’t play well, if you mess up, if you don’t pass, a lot of players are going to hate on you. You get pushed around and bullied, and it wasn’t for everyone. You had to really be strong mentally. You had to be good, and humble. If you go there thinking that you’re better than everyone, and you don’t make an effort to connect with people, you aren’t going to last. It’s a team game.”
After his spell in Italy, Max was given the chance to go to Spain, much like his brother Race. “After the Asiago tour, my agent took me to Spain. I was supposed to try out for Hercules FC, and try to make their youth team. But I ended up in a couple different teams instead.”
From there, Max’s tale takes a bit of a tailspin. “Things weren’t going so well, so I left. I went back to Italy, and tried out for an Italian soccer team. I killed it, and they all wanted me to sign with them, but my agent took me to Milan. He took me to Inter Milan, to play for their youth team, but the timing was off, and Inter weren’t taking trials anymore. I tried out for another team, and they wanted me to sign. But there was some paperwork that needed to be done, and it took too long to get it done. I needed to head back to school, and they still weren’t done processing stuff, so I just went home.”
And just like that, that was it. With his spells in Europe done, and a future looming ahead of him, Max had a few choices. He chose to go back to his roots, and followed in his brother’s footsteps. Max enrolled to Douglas College, and was once again reunited with his brother.
When looking upon their past, both Williams brothers shared a grin. One of happiness, but also maturity. I asked them to really reflect on their experience, and talk about the biggest lessons they learned over in Europe. Race was the faster of the two to answer, having given it plenty of thought already.
“The whole experience was life changing. I was away from home for 8 months, living in Italy, playing soccer for a living. I had my food paid for, I was making money, and there was always a big crowd that came out to watch us. It was crazy. But if you want to make it, it has to be your life. You can’t think about anything else. If you do that, and you’re disciplined, you’ll have a good chance. You have to start off young, too. You’re going to have a lot of obstacles in your way, and a lot of people trying to screw you over, but you just have to overcome that all.”
Max took a little more time contemplating his answer before giving one that oddly echoed his brother’s. (The interviews were done separately, so their answers wouldn’t affect each other.) “Going over to Europe helped me realize how good you really need to be. It helped me understand the work ethic required, the amount of love and passion you have to have for the game. If you want to make it, you have to really want it. Playing against professional teams and players helped me realize how smart you have to be to make it.”
Both also had their fair share of fond memories. When asked to share them, they both had an interesting response. Max’s was more soccer-inspired, highlighting his favourite play.
“I had a give and go with one of my teammates. I passed it to him, he sent it wide, and I blasted a shot from 18 yards out. It went top corner, and it made that super sick swishing sound that the pro nets make, and at the moment, I just felt like a pro.”
Race had the more interesting answer of the two. “I thought the coolest thing about all of this was that I was on transfermarkt.com. A lot of agent and scouts were using the website, and players like Messi and Ronaldo were on the same site. While I was playing with the team, I wasn’t worth anything. But after my first season with the team, I went up 10,000 euros, which was really cool to me.”
I recently check the website, out of curiosity of course, and found that Race was actually worth a lot more than he originally thought. Five times more to be precise. You can find his profile here: www.transfermarkt.com/race-williams/profil/spieler/397397.
While learning about these two’s dreams and amazing tales, it was easy to forget how much they gave up to make it happen. It took a conversation with their father, Brady Williams, to really bring it back into perspective.
Most parents would have a hard time letting their children go overseas to pursue their dreams. For Brady, it was something he was prepared to do since he began training them.
“I believe I had prepared them and it was their dream, so it was important that they attempt it on their own. I was, of course, worried, but I believed in them. I gave them mostly moral support, though. I wanted them to focus on leadership and more so on friendships and having fun.”
The main concern for the head of the Williams family was his sons’ mental and physical health. “Eating properly and staying focused was a big concern. Not speaking the language was also a concern but if a team wants you bad enough they will find a way to communicate.”
Like any dream, it cost the Williams family a fair sum. But according to the senior Williams, it was actually pretty cost efficient. “It really didn’t cost us that much, because they were scouted, and many of the expenses were picked up by the clubs. We usually covered flights and some food. It was actually more expensive having them play here and train in the Whitecaps program.”
Although his children have now returned home, Brady Williams remains certain that his children will find success, no matter what venture they embark in.