Bunbury gets wish to contribute to soccer in Canada

Bunbury gets wish to contribute to soccer in Canada

November 7, 2018

Club or country?

Shortly after signing a contract in 1992 with English first division soccer club West Ham United, Alex Bunbury had to make a choice when confronted by then manager Billy Bonds and his assistant Harry Redknapp.

Fearing the striker would miss significant time playing for Canada in 1994 World Cup qualifiers, his English bosses needed an immediate response.

At 22 with two kids and a five-year contract, Bunbury was on top of the world.

“Growing up, we didn’t have much and I thought of all the sacrifices my parents made for us,” the youngest of 13 children who migrated from Guyana in October 1976 told me. “Now here I was having to choose between the comfort zone I was in and the country that gave me so much.”

With Bonds and Redknapp breathing down his neck for an answer, Bunbury blurted out ‘country’ after a few seconds.

One of eight clubs never to have fallen below the second tier of English soccer, West Ham – whose roster once included Geoff Hurst who is the only player to register a hat-trick in a World Cup final and the late Bobby Moore considered one of the sport’s greatest defenders – is a three-time FA (Football Association) Cup winner

Twenty five years later, Bunbury doesn’t regret the decision.

“Everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I didn’t play for the West Ham first team for a while even though I felt I should have been a starter. I was really depressed.”

After six appearances for the English club, Bunbury joined Portuguese side Maritimo for a fee of 50,000 pounds.

Edinho, who represented Brazil in three World Cups and was Maritimo’s manager at the time, extended the offer. The central defender and Bunbury were Toronto Blizzard team mates in 1990.

“When he invited me to come over, I was sort of hesitant at first going to a new country where English wasn’t the first language,” Bunbury said. “But once I got there, I fell in love with the island of Madeira where Cristiano Ronaldo is from.”

In 165 appearances with the club in seven seasons, he scored a club record 59 goals, won the Foreign Player of the Year award in his second year and endeared himself to fans and the local business community that rewarded him with a major soft drink endorsement, making Bunbury the first athlete on the island to be honoured with such a recognition.

Returning to North America in 1999, Bunbury spent two years with the Kansas City Wizards that captured the Major League Soccer (MLS) championship in his final season. Ankle injuries forced him to quit playing at age 33.

His professional career started with the Hamilton Steelers who he represented on 76 occasions in three seasons up until 1987 and scored 28 goals. In 2015, he was inducted into the Hamilton Soccer Hall of Fame.

For Canada, Bunbury was a stellar representative.

He made his senior team debut in 1986, a year after launching his professional career with the Hamilton Steelers for whom he scored 28 goals in 76 games over four seasons before joining the Toronto Blizzard.  In 65 games over 11 years with the national team, Bunbury recorded 16 goals, 11 of them in World Cup qualifiers.

His hat-trick, the first by a Canadian player, in a 1994 World Cup qualifier against Bermuda in Burnaby in November 1992 stands out as his career highlight.

“That was a must-win game for us, but there was extra pressure because there were suggestions that a loss would have sounded the death knell for Canadian soccer,” said the two-time Canadian Soccer Player of the Year who was inducted into the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame in 2006 and named to the all-time Canadian XI men’s team six years later as part of the national soccer association’s centennial celebration. “Bermuda was playing well at the time and I was honoured to be the guy that led the way. That is a moment I will never forget.”

Retired Toronto Police deputy chief Peter Sloly and Bunbury roomed at the 1985 Under-20 World Cup in the Soviet Union.

“We were the cornerstones of that team, but quite different,” said Sloly who is a partner and national security & justice leader at Deloitte. “Alex was laid back playing his music and quietly getting ready for games while I was much more active and stressed out. Though he was one of the younger players on the team, he was heavily relied on not only to score, but create scoring opportunities for others because he had the skill and confidence to hold the ball. I am so proud of Alex who, with Lyndon (Hooper), were the best junior players of my generation.”

For someone whose favourite sport was cricket until he arrived in Montreal where he embraced hockey before playing organized soccer at age 12 and making the Under-16 national team two years later, representing Canada with success was quite an achievement.

While enamoured to have worn the national colours, Bunbury is, however, saddened that he didn’t get the opportunity to contribute to Canadian soccer after retirement.

“Not being called upon to give back is my biggest disappointment,” Canada’s fourth all-time leading scorer noted. “I am so blessed, having accomplished more than I could have ever imagined. I think I have a lot to offer to enhance the sport here.”

Bunbury’s wish has finally being granted.

About three years ago as then president Victor Montagliani (he’s now the head of the Confederation of North, Central American & Caribbean Associations of Football (CONCACAF) special guest at a game in Vancouver, he learnt about plans to start the Canadian Premier League (CPL). A few months later, he received a call from an executive asking if he would be part of the new league expected to begin play in April 2019.

He accepted without hesitation.

As league ambassador and trials head coach, Bunbury oversaw open cross-country tryouts that attracted over 1,000 participants in Halifax, Montreal, Hamilton, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary and Victoria from September 20 to November 6.

Halifax, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Victoria, Hamilton, York and possibly Quebec will field teams.

Bunbury and the other coaches are encouraged by the quality of players who attended the trials.

“We saw some exceptional talent and the bar kept rising as we moved from city to city,” he said.” Canada has always had exceptional players. The problem is when kids are about 17 and 18, they have no place to go. The MLS franchises in Canada aren’t accommodating them and it’s very difficult for them to break into the European circuit. That is why I purchased a club in Portugal because I wanted to give young player an opportunity to go into an environment that will help them develop.”

Last year, Bunbury and his business partner Rajat Opal, the president and chief executive officer of Gazoo Mobile, made a significant investment in Sociedade União 1º de Dezembro which is a Portuguese club.

“This club is in the third division and players aren’t going to make a ton of money,” he said. “It’s not about making money. Instead, it’s about developing and showcasing yourself. This is where top clubs come to see those talented players, some of whom may end up being loaned. The players at our club get four meals daily, accommodation and a monthly stipend. All they have to do is just show up for daily practice sessions and weekend games. We believe we have a great platform with an academy and infrastructure to help players grow.”

Guyanese players Trayon Bobb, Colin Nelson and Brandon Beresford, who was born in the United States, are at the club on one-year contracts.

Bunbury, who returned to Guyana in January 2016 for the first time in 39 years, is ready and excited to give back to his birth country. Following consultations with the government, the Alex Bunbury Sports & Academics Academy was assigned a plot of land in a rural area for the construction of a state-of-the art multipurpose sport and educational facility

“At the moment, I am in the process of working to secure investment for this project,” he pointed out. “It’s going to be a soccer stadium with other facilities around it and we are hoping that teams from the CPL, Europe and the United States will consider it as a venue for their pre-season training.”

Though soccer consumes most of his time, Bunbury enjoys listening & dancing to R & B music, playing golf and reading (the bible is his favourite book).

He also treasures family time.

In Montreal at the end of September for the CPL tryouts, Bunbury relished the quality time spent with family members, including his mom, Doreen, who turned 93 while he was there. His father, Harry, died of kidney complications at age 78 two decades ago while his sister Evetta Thomas and brother Morrell “Bumbo” Bunbury passed away in a three-week span in early 2016 in Houston and New York respectively.

His four children are his pride and joy.

Kylie is an accomplished actress, Teal represented the United States at the Under-23 and senior levels and is a midfielder with the New England Revolution of the MLS, Logan is an aspiring singer/songwriter and Mataeo plays soccer at the youth level.

“For all that I have accomplished in soccer, they are the icing on the cake,” the divorced father said.

Eight years ago, Bunbury encouraged Teal, who has dual nationality, to follow in his footsteps by playing for Canada.

“I told Stephen Hart (the former national coach) that he was special and Teal was brought into the junior team,” he recalled. “He didn’t get to play much and he didn’t like it. Our son went to Akron and won the College Players of the Year and I told him not to make any promises in any interview he did. A journalist caught him off guard and he said, Of course’, when asked if he would play for Canada because that is his birth country. He was speaking from the heart and in the moment that time.”

Teal was intrigued when then American coach Bob Bradley reached out, inviting him to join the U.S squad.

“He looked at that and figured it was an opportunity play in the World Cup for the United States,” said Bunbury. “When he came to me saying he wanted to represent the United States, I told him if that is what he wanted, I would support him. I also reminded him that the Canadian media would come after him because he reneged on his commitment to play for Canada. He agreed and I further advised him not to disrespect the fans when he played in Canada. I told him not to celebrate if he scored a goal.”

In his first game in Canada in April 2011, Teal – who was roundly booed -- showed emotional restraint after scoring twice for Kansas City in a 3-3 tie with the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Though Minnesota, where he has coached and developed young players, has been his home for nearly 20 years, Bunbury hasn’t ruled out the possibility of returning to Canada.

Expected to play a major role in the CPL, he will have to spend a lot of time here.

“I will have to relocate, but I will be going back and forth as my children are in Minnesota,” Bunbury said. “Canada means the world to me and I wouldn’t have any problem coming back and spending more time than I have in the past.”

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