MLSsoccer.com continues its look back at the stars, personalities and cult heroes who made Major League Soccer what it is today. Our fourth annual “What Ever Happened To..." series rolls on with a non-MLS player, but one whose story may have affected the fate of the Canadian national team: onetime Canada sensation Tam Nsaliwa. (Check out more from the series here.)
Where He Was Then
In his ideal world, Tam Nsaliwa would have spent the last decade alongside his old teammates Atiba Hutchinson, Julian de Guzman and Dwayne De Rosario, leading a golden generation for the Canadian men’s national team that may well have enjoyed more success on the international stage with him in the lineup.
Instead, a series of unfortunate events conspired to create one of the most dramatic cases of missed potential in memory for Canadian soccer.
Nsaliwa has more than a dozen caps for Canada, including key roles at the 2001 Confederations Cup and 2002 Gold Cup.
The Malawi-born Nsaliwa was a rising star at the turn of the century, playing for Canada at the 2001 Confederations Cup as a 19-year-old kid out of his adopted hometown, Edmonton. But his commitment to representing his country created issues at his club teams, first at FC Nürnburg, then at SSV Jahn Regensburg.
When Canada switched managers in the middle of the decade, Nsaliwa’s call-ups to the national team started drying up. The situation came to a head in 2007, when he became eligible for German citizenship after six years of playing and living in the country.
A European Union passport would mean more job opportunities in his club career, but dual citizenship would have required special intervention from officials that, ultimately, didn’t happen.
So he gave up his Canadian citizenship, believing at the time he may still be able to play for Canada going forward – but that wasn’t the case, as he found out when Canada’s new head coach, Dale Mitchell, tried bringing him aboard for 2010 World Cup qualifying.
Nsaliwa and the Canadian Soccer Association spent years trying to rectify the situation, but to no avail – he found himself unable to represent Canada in FIFA competitions ever again.
Where He Is Now
Nsaliwa's club career has taken him through Germany, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and Greece, where he played alongside former FIFA World Player of the Year Rivaldo at AEK Athens.
(Argiris Makris/Sports In Time)
Now 32 years old, Nsaliwa is still playing professionally in Europe – he landed last year at Bucaspor in the Turkish second division, where he counts current CanMNT forward Tosaint Ricketts among his teammates.
That's the latest stop in a decade that saw him bounce from Germany to Greece, Norway and Denmark, and included an acrimonious failed signing with Real Betis in Spain in 2010 that left him contemplating retirement.
During his years representing Canada, he found that joining the national team provided a welcome release from the pressures and isolation of living and playing abroad, and a chance to reconnect with old friends. Without that release, the tension was nearly unbearable.
“I was literally at an absolute low in my football career when this transfer to Spain, to Betis, didn’t work out,” he tells MLSsoccer.com by phone from Turkey.
"Great athlete, good technique, quiet off the park. I always felt he could have gone on and become a mainstay in the team for years to come.
"His case was a good example of the struggles that Canadian players face regarding club vs. country – players put under pressure by their clubs."
– Jason deVos, former Canadian national team captain and teammate
On this occasion, however, fate threw Nsaliwa a lifeline.
“My girlfriend, her brother, they were making music,” he explains. “They would try to write lyrics … and would ask for my help, so I would give them the help that I could.”
Soon, he found the music pouring out of him, and released his first hip-hop mix tape, entitled Beats and Burgers, in 2012. Last year, he put out his first full-length album, entitled YEG to the World, a play on the three-letter code of Edmonton International Airport. It’s one of the ways Nsaliwa shows pride in his hometown, and it’s right in line with the approach taken by one of his musical inspirations.
“I’m more than happy to say I’m a Drake fan. I don’t understand all the people that throw hate at him because for me, he’s an incredible artist,” says Nsaliwa, who also counts A Tribe Called Quest, Jay-Z and Nas among his influences.
“Hip hop, it’s such a brash genre of music, it’s always been about being proud of what you are.”
Last year, Nsaliwa released a music video for the song “Brand New” that features not only award-winning Canadian rapper Choclair, but also a guest appearance from former Canadian teammate Hutchinson (watch it here).
And that cameo is just the beginning.
“I went to visit the national team in London when they were there [for a friendly against Australia last October],” he explains. “We shot some scenes for a video, so you’re going to see most of the players are in the video in about a year’s time.”
The song is called “Alright,” and the video will also feature shoots in Vancouver, Athens and one more location, and will serve as a way for Nsaliwa to show that he’s come to terms with the wild roller-coaster ride that has his career has been.
Nsaliwa put out his first full-length album, YEG to the World, last October. The title is a play on the three-letter code for Edmonton International Airport, a shout-out to his hometown. "[Hip-hop has] always been about being proud of what you are," he says.
(Courtesy of Tam Nsaliwa)
“I’m proud about what I’ve been able to achieve, and I’m moving on,” he says. “This video is showing all these different places I’ve been in, being with all these people I know well, I consider friends and then showing some highlights that I’ve had throughout my career, things I can be proud of. I can’t wait to put it out.”
Even so, there is clearly a part of him that would love to get back out on the field with Canada. In a perfect world, if Les Rouges came calling, would he accept?
“Oh hell yeah, of course,” he says. “I’ve definitely come to a point in my life where I accept the choices I’ve made, and I know why I made them. … But that does not change the fact that I still would love to represent the team, I’d still love to go play with those guys that I grew up with.”
For now, though, Nsaliwa is beginning to think about what his post-playing future will hold – he’s fully aware that the music industry in general is “not that profitable” – and believes there’s a good chance he’ll settle back down in Edmonton.
“Wherever I end up, I’m content with the type of life that I have,” he says. “I’m comfortable with the thought of retiring and finding something else to do in life besides football.”