OLIVA, Spain – It’s been one of the best individual seasons in Canadian national team goalkeeper Kenny Stamatopoulos' career, but it comes in the aftermath of immense tragedy.
Stamatopoulos, who played 12 games with Toronto FC in 2007, has been at AIK in Sweden since 2011 and more often than not has been the backup.
That all changed in May when he got a call from a teammate telling him that the starter, 32-year-old Ivan Turina, had been found dead. The Croatian had a congenital heart problem, and unexpectedly died in his sleep and was found by his wife the next morning.
Stamatopoulos thought he was being told a tasteless joke. He wasn’t.
“There were a lot of tears and just silence,” Stamatopoulos told MLSsoccer.com from national team camp here near Valencia as Canada prepared for their second friendly against Mauritania on Tuesday (11:30 am ET).
“It’s not something you can easily talk about. And when you did talk about it, it’s like, ‘I can’t believe this happened.’ This is just a dream. You can’t really comprehend that from one day to the other things can switch so quickly and it’s just a lot of sadness.”
More than a teammate, Stamatopoulos also lost a friend. The two goalkeepers were friendly rivals as both wanted to be the starter of the team. But their battle remained on the field.
Off the field, both players were in a similar scenario. Turina was Croatian and, like Stamatopoulos, was away from his country with a very young family. That isolation brought the two families together.
“My wife and I are by ourselves in Sweden with our kids and he’s in the same scenario," Stamatopolous explained, "so our wives hung out quite a bit together. He had two kids. I have two kids so we hung out quite a bit.”
As a tribute to their fallen teammate, Turina’s spot in the locker room remains empty. Turina’s squad number was 27 and in every game since the tragedy, the AIK fans sing a tribute in the 27th minute.
In the aftermath, AIK have responded well on the field and sit in third place in the Allsvenskan table with Stamatopoulos stepping into the starting role. The team is just four points back of first place with eight games left in the season.
“I think in the back of our minds, we do want to win it for him,” said Stamatopoulos. “He contributed a lot to the club and to the fans and to the whole organization, so I think we want to win it more for him and in respect to him than anything.”