This week, MLSsoccer.com kicks off its fourth annual "What Ever Happened To..." series, a look back at the stars, personalities and cult heroes who made Major League Soccer what it is today. We begin with former Toronto, Montreal and Canadian national team goal machine Ali Gerba.
Where He Was Then
Those agonizing goalscoring problems Canada have been suffering for more than a year weren’t an issue when Ali Gerba suited up for Les Rouges. In 31 men's national team appearances from 2005 to 2011, his strike rate was elite: a goal every other game.
Yet Gerba never settled during his club career. After a short-lived stint with the Miami Fusion as a 19-year-old, he called three North American second-division teams home before heading to Sweden in 2005. Spells in Norway, Denmark, Germany and England led to a return to MLS in 2009 with Toronto FC. It lasted less than a year and just 11 appearances, and Gerba publicly blasted the club in the aftermath.
The MLS-bound Montreal Impact then signed the big forward, but his 15 goals in 29 league games weren't enough to convince Jesse Marsch ahead of their inaugural top-flight season in 2012. Under contract for that season, but off the MLS roster and reportedly unable to come to financial terms with the Impact on an early release, Gerba simply, but not always quietly, let his contract run out.
Where He Is Now
LAVAL, Québec – He hasn’t played professionally in two years, but Gerba still longs for respect on and off the soccer field. And not just for him.
“Players from here aren’t always well treated abroad,” Gerba sighs, lamenting what he feels is widespread under-appreciation for himself and his countrymen on the world soccer stage. Sure, he readily acknowledges Canada’s troubling underachievement at the men’s level. But he has his own ideas on how to fix it, and he’s putting them into action.
Off the field since late 2011, the 32-year-old isn’t ready to call it quits just yet. Should the right opportunity crop up, he says, he’d even entertain the far-fetched idea of wearing the Canadian jersey again.
“In his good moments, you felt that he was – fittingly for a Cameroon-born player – like a lion. He was hungry. He wanted to score goals with his powerful drives. He was aggressive, and he was intimidating for an opponent.
"When he’s on your side, it’s comforting; he’s going to draw the opponent’s attention. When he’s against you, you know that he can hurt you. He's a dangerous animal.”
– Patrick Leduc, RDS analyst and former teammate with Montreal and Canada
“As with the Army, when they call you, you show up,” he says.
That sense of belonging and pride, the Cameroon-born Gerba feels, helps explain his free-scoring ways for his adopted country. He wants to spread it through youth development.
When he welcomes MLSsoccer.com at his suburban Montreal office, Gerba looks fit and happy. Not 24 hours have passed since the town council of Saint-Georges-de-Beauce approved an agreement with Gerba and his business partners: They plan to build, next to the town’s public college, a soccer complex which would house their player development academy.
The setting is not random in the least: located 65 miles from Québec City and 30 miles from the United States border, Saint-Georges is the largest city in Beauce, an area of Québec that appeals to Gerba for two main reasons: 1) It’s among the safest for youth in the province; and 2) it’s renowned for its entrepreneurial spirit. Its people are outspokenly proud of this. Gerba wants his future pupils to show similar boldness.
“Our players will have a winning mentality,” Gerba says. “They’ll give their best. They’ll show pride.”
“Pride” is sprinkled in Gerba’s discourse, likely because of the disrespect he feels Canadian players were treated with for not hailing from a “soccer nation.”
“But the pride to be Canadian has to be there,” he insists. “In Europe, I saw different styles of play, all the differences between the different countries and styles. I want to bring this all here. … I’ve been thinking about this for 10 years. We have to show that we, too, can succeed.”
It starts with what our youth is offered, Gerba says. The academies set up by the MLS clubs – including his hometown Impact, of whom he remains a fan despite the 2012 contract dispute – are promising, but Gerba thinks that too many Canadian players still must relocate to fulfill their potential.
“There’s no room for egos: We all want to help the players here, and we’re all working for the kids,” he says, careful not to aim shots at Canada's soccer establishment. "We also want to make people proud. It’s not about Ali Gerbas, the Impacts or TFCs. Everyone wants the same end product: better athletes and better recognition for our country on the international stage.”
For a chance to train at the academy with “great” coaches (Gerba keeps mum about whom they might be), try-outs will be open to boys and girls aged 14 and older, mainly from Québec and Canada but also from elsewhere – the campus infrastructures, Gerba points out, could accommodate multiple languages.
“It’s been great to see the whole town support the project,” he says. “They’ve got teams in other sports, they’ve got the Tour de Beauce in cycling. I only poured fuel on the fire they already have within.”
Gerba’s project now only requires Quebec provincial government approval. Concretely, it means that, 10 years and millions of dollars later, construction work could start this spring.
He hopes to host a grand opening this fall. Even if the Army calls before then.