Herdman’s patient approach led to Tabla windfall for Canada

Ballou Tabla talks about representing Canada and what it means to him to be wearing the red and white jersey. (Courtesy of Canada Soccer)

Canadian soccer received a major boost this week when Ballou Tabla, one of the most promising prospects in this country, decided to pledge his international allegiance to Canada.

Born in Ivory Coast, Tabla, still only 19, moved here as a child and grew up in Montreal where he played with a local amateur side before eventually signing with the Montreal Impact in MLS.

At the same time, Tabla turned out for Canada’s under-17 and under-20 teams, and was named the Canadian U-17 and U-20 Male Player of the Year in 2014 and 2016. However, he had yet to be capped by the senior team, despite Canadian soccer officials having multiple talks with the attacking midfielder over the past couple of years. The Ivory Coast, his birth nation, also expressed an interest in calling him up, so Tabla’s international future remained up in the air.

That’s no longer the case, and locking up Tabla, who signed with FC Barcelona’s reserve side in January, represents a major get by Canada. Why is this such a big deal? For starters, he’s a talented young player – quick and nimble, he has accelerating speed when the ball is at his feet, and plays with a sense of fearlessness that the Canadian men’s team could desperately needs.

Historically, a lot of players have turned down Canada’s advances when they had other international options, the most notable examples being Owen Hargreaves and Asmir Begovic. But it’s now trending in the other direction, with Tabla joining a growing list of players to represent Canada – a list that includes Junior Hoilett, Scott Arfield, Steven Vitoria and Tesho Akindele.

For John Herdman, who replaced Octavio Zambrano as coach of the Canadian men’s team in January, getting Tabla to commit to Canada is one of the biggest achievements of his tenure. It was the result of a long process and a specific strategy that he put together with his staff. Patience was required, especially after Herdman’s initial approach to Tabla prior to a friendly between Canada and New Zealand in late March was not met with enthusiasm.

“When I started this job, there was a group of players who weren’t invested in Canadian soccer who we targeted. We were very deliberate in building a plan for players in terms of when we would speak to them, who would speak to them and how we would speak to them. Being very deliberate in our approach was the key,” Herdman told Sportsnet.

“We reached out to Ballou and the response wasn’t good. It was pretty clear at that point he was focusing on Barcelona and he was undecided about his international career. He needed more time to focus on the most important thing in his life, his pro career, and not the clutter of the national team and such.”

Herdman gave Tabla space, reaching out to him again prior to the prestigious Toulon youth tournament in late May. Again, Tabla said no, but his interest was piqued. In the last two months, Herdman said he began to have regular conversations and video conference calls with Tabla, explaining his tactical and cultural vision for the national team program in great detail. Zachary Brault-Guillard, another youngster in the Canadian system and a friend of Tabla’s, reached out to him and explained why he should play for the Reds.

In the end, Herdman’s persistent yet detached approach – “We gave him space and didn’t put pressure on him,” Herdman claimed – paid off, and Tabla decided to represent Canada instead of the Ivory Coast. Tabla is expected to be called up for Canada’s Concacaf Nations League qualifying match versus Dominica in Toronto next month.

“It’s been a journey with Ballou. There was no hard sell, there were no bells and whistles in our presentations. Our conversations weren’t about what Canada could do for him, but what he could do for Canada,” Herdman said.

“It was just a drip feed of information and conversations over a period of time. We made video presentations and had him hear from other players because we wanted Ballou to have all the information he needed to make the right decision. But I said to him from the beginning, I’m not going to beg him to come in here. He had to feel this was right for him, because if we force it on him, it’ll never feel right for him.”

Herdman sold Tabla on his vision, but it also helped that Canada will co-host the 2026 FIFA World Cup with the United States and Mexico.

“That played a part, an important part. But speaking to Ballou, I think the deciding factor for him was more about evolving in this environment, that there were better developmental opportunities for him with Canada compared to Ivory Coast and what they could offer him,” Herdman said.

Tabla signed a three-year deal with Barcelona’s reserve team, who plays in Spain’s third division, after a whirlwind stint in MLS. He joined the Montreal Impact’s youth academy in 2012, and played with the Impact’s farm club, FC Montreal, in the second-tier USL. Tabla played one MLS campaign with the Impact, scoring two goals and tallying a pair of assists in 21 games (11 as a starter) in 2017. He became the youngest player in Impact franchise history, at 17 years and 338 days, to play in an MLS game when he debuted last March against the San Jose Earthquakes.

He was considered one of the hottest young products in MLS while with Montreal, and he was being tracked by several big clubs in Europe, including Premier League champions Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City. Eventually, the Impact came to terms with Barcelona B on a transfer deal.

Herdman calls Tabla a dynamic attacking player, and someone who is capable of playing anywhere across the front line.

“He’s a player who has a high tactical IQ and it’s evolving every day. The Ballou we see now is version 1.0. We’ll see a different Ballou in a few years thanks to his development at Barcelona. What we see now is a winger with dribbling ability who can manipulate spaces, who has a proactive mindset, and who is direct in how he plays. At Barca, he’s developing the defensive astuteness will make him a more rounded player,” Herdman explained.

What’s especially promising for Canadian soccer fans is that Herdman isn’t resting on his laurels, and has put together a list of other youngsters who like Tabla could represent other countries, and drafted a specific strategy for each player to convince them to play for Canada.

Herdman didn’t offer any specific names, but hinted that Ferdi Kadioglu is someone who is on his radar. Kadioglu is a 19-year-old Dutch midfielder who recently signed with Turkish side Fenerbahce. He’s played for the Netherlands at youth level, but hasn’t been capped by the Dutch senior team. Kadioglu is eligible to play for Canada because his mother was born here.

“We’ve got a clear strategy for each of [our targets]. Many of them you see mentioned on Canucks Abroad. Some players we’ve already began the process and started to talk to them. It’s all about timing, and understanding where they are in their careers. We’re being more deliberate with when we reach out to them,” Herdman said.

“We’re trying to touch the heart of these players and be clear that there’s so much to achieve in this country, that there’s so much of legacy to leave. If they play for us, they can be pioneers. But we also want to be clear with them that their international career is about service to your country, not about monetary or social media advancement. It’s about how they can lift Canada to a higher level.”


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