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WHEN OPPORTUNITY COMES KNOCKING The Tale of Neymar Jr’s Five

Written by: Vanessa Kezwer, Photos courtesy Ryerson Rams men's soccer

It was a crisp July morning. The gloom of the grey patchwork of clouds spilled through the aircraft windows and into the cramped cabin. Though the sky was listless, the plane was lively with discussion. Six sets of eyes exchanged glances during a pause in conversation, looks of awe plastered on their faces as reality began to sink in.

“Guys, are we really going to Brazil? Like, did this really happen?”

Yes, they were and yes, it did.

When three Ryerson University alumni and four current members of the Ryerson Rams men’s soccer team joined forces last April to compete in Neymar Jr’s Five, a five-a-side soccer tournament, they had no expectations of winning anything. Four months and two qualifying tournament victories later, – including a sudden death tiebreak win at the Canadian national qualifier – the group was destined for Brazil, representing Canada at the Neymar Jr’s Five World Final.

“For us to win that [national] tournament and qualify for the World tournament was an unbelievable experience,” said Ryerson assistant men’s soccer coach Kasy Kiarash.

Kiarash, who played professionally in Europe and in the United States before entering the realm of coaching, was a last-minute injury replacement for team Migos – and a reluctant one at that.

“When [Josh Kohn] asked me if I want[ed] to go to this pretty serious tournament, my answer was no. I said can you get somebody else,” said Kiarash.

“When he told me that some of our players were on the team, that got me interested because now I get to see them up close, I get to actually be in the game with them and maybe try to influence them in a way you really can’t as a coach.”

Third year varsity defender Mohamad Abdallah received an eleventh hour invitation to join teammates Raheem Rose and Abdallah El-Chanti on team Migos as well. Despite having an exam the day after the Toronto qualifier for which he needed to study, Abdallah opted to join the squad and play. Former Ryerson student Behnam Nasseri and varsity alumni Robert Galati and Josh Kohn rounded out the team. Kohn, however, didn’t participate in Brazil as he was in Israel competing at the Maccabiah Games.

Fifty-three countries gathered at the Instituto Projeto Neymar Jr. in Praia Grande on July 7. After a rocky first match resulting in a loss to United Arab Emirates, Migos defeated the 2016 World Final runner-up, the Netherlands, and proceeded to win the next three games, ultimately finishing first in their group. Despite losing to a feisty Egypt team in the quarter-finals the next day, the players were pleased with their showing for Canada.

“That was our goal for the tournament, to put Canada on the map and finish first in our group, and we accomplished one of our goals,” said Kiarash. “It was a really proud moment.”

In representing Canada, ironically after he retired, Kiarash also fulfilled a childhood goal. Akin to Kiarash, mid-fielder Raheem Rose was honoured to have the opportunity to represent the red and white, especially alongside teammates who he calls his brothers.

“Honestly it was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. Not many people are able to represent their country in such a competition or at all,” said Rose.

Though he enjoyed his time on the pitch at the event, Kiarash enjoyed his time off it even more.

“What was really fun for me was the moments where we weren’t playing soccer and all the different countries were in one hotel and we had free time […] to get to know each other,” said Kiarash.

“We connected with the Brazilians, the Egyptians and it was so fun getting to speak soccer to them, as I call it. You don’t understand Portuguese but you understand body language and laughing and joking.”

After moving from Iran to Canada at a young age and speaking zero English, Kiarash is no stranger to the unifying power of sport.

“Sport really connected me with friends and it allowed me to meet new people, learn the language, and really feel welcomed doing something I was good at,” said Kiarash.
“On a black and white level, [soccer is] just a bunch of guys running after a ball but it’s so much bigger than that and it’s been able to bring so many people together and create so many relationships.”

Mohamad Abdallah, a native of Lebanon who grew up playing soccer in the streets, developed a close bond with members of the Brazilian team who he still communicates with today.

“I would go to their hotel room and they would have their Google Translate on. They would talk in Portuguese and the Google Translate would translate in English and then I would laugh. Then they’d get [my] translation and they would laugh. It was funny,” said Abdallah.

Reflecting on his decision back in April to say yes to an opportunity he desperately wanted, and tried to turn down, Kiarash now sees the serendipity of that moment.

“It was by far one of the best experiences of my life and Josh Kohn, who asked me to come and do it always looks at me and says ‘you’re welcome’ now because it was an absolutely amazing experience that I would have never expected,” said Kiarash, the passion oozing from his voice.

When asked about the potential for Migos to reunite in 2018 for a second go at the Neymar Jr’s Five championship title, Kiarash wasn’t too fond of the idea but hinted to the fact that no door is ever closed.

“I told them if they’re going to join the tournament again next year, they’re going to have to look for another striker,” he said.

“But you never know.”

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