TORONTO – The Canadian men’s team has undergone a transformation under Octavio Zambrano.
Zambrano was installed as the Reds’ new coach in March after the team was officially eliminated from qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup one year ago. Since his arrival, the Ecuadorian-born Zambrano has brought in a number of youngsters, instilled a sense of fearlessness into his players, and has Canada playing an exciting and attacking brand of soccer, as opposed to the defensive style it has used in the past.
The early returns are promising. Canada showed well at this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, putting on a respectable showing before bowing out to Jamaica in the quarter-finals. Alphonso Davies, a 16-year-old midfielder with the Vancouver Whitecaps, was especially impressive, scoring three goals and winning the award for the tournament’s best young player.
While continuing to build for the future, Zambrano has zeroed in on a number of talented prospects who have yet to commit to the national team, foremost among them Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla, an 18-year-old midfielder with the Montreal Impact.
Born in the Ivory Coast, Tabla grew up in Quebec and was only 14 years old when he debuted for the Canadian youth program in 2014. Since then, he’s been named Canada’s male player of the year at both the under-17 and under-20 levels. He also signed an MLS contract with the Impact last December, and has scored two goals in 10 starts this season for Montreal.
Tabla is one of the hottest young products in Canadian soccer, and he is being tracked by several big clubs in Europe, including Premier League champions Chelsea. Such is his talent that it’s only a matter of time before he’s playing in Europe. His international future remains in doubt, though, as he hasn’t made up his mind over who he’ll play for at the senior level: Canada or the Ivory Coast.
Zambrano has chatted with Tabla a number of times since he took over as coach, trying to convince him to represent Canada. Now, the Canadian coach is just playing the waiting game to see what the teenager decides to do.
“Unfortunately with him we’ve suffered a bit of a setback because he’s being courted by some big clubs in Europe, and he is keeping his options open with the Ivory Coast. I have spoken with him and I have expressed my opinion that his best international option is to play for Canada, without any doubt,” Zambrano told Sportsnet.
“And I don’t say that simply as the coach of Canada. Obviously, I have a vested interest in what he decides to do. But If I was an outsider looking in, I would say there’s no way you can compare what the Ivory Coast can do versus what Canada can give him, especially with the 2026 World Cup likely coming here. It’s a no-brainer for me.”
He later added: “He has people around him that are advising him otherwise. It’s the kind of thing that we have to let play out on its own.”
Tabla isn’t the only youngster who has yet to commit to Canada that is on Zambrano’s radar. The Canadian coach has also been in talks with midfielder Bryan Cristante and central defender Ricardo Ferreira.
Cristante, 22, is currently on loan at Serie A club Atalanta from Portuguese outfit Benfica. Although born in northern Italy, Cristante holds a Canadian passport through his father. He’s played for Italy at multiple youth levels, but hasn’t yet received a call-up from the Azzurri.
Ferreira, 24, was born in Mississauga, Ont., and was at one time a member of Toronto FC’s youth academy. He left home as a teenager for Portugal where he joined FC Porto. Ferreira later signed with AC Milan before eventually returning to Portugal, where he’s been with S.C. Braga since 2015.
“These are two players who are definite targets for us. Ferreira is nursing an injury right now, but he’s a very good player. He would be a tremendous addition to our team. I’ve met with him, and he’s said he’s willing and able to [play for Canada] if the conditions are right,” Zambrano revealed.
“Cristante is a player that I think would be a superb addition to our team. He and Ferreira are the types of players that I have targeted from the very beginning.”
Zambrano has been talking to both players for several months, and is hopeful that at least one of them will commit to playing for Canada in the near future.
“There definitely has been [progress], yes. This has been a work in progress. We are making strides, and hopefully before the year ends we will manage to repatriate, if that’s the right word, at least one of them to come to Canada and play for us in 2018,” Zambrano stated.
“What I am finding out is that there is receptiveness on the part of the pro clubs involved, too. That is a very good first step, because without that you just can’t do anything.”