VANCOUVER – Not getting a competitive international cap until you’re 25 isn’t unusual.
Not making that appearance for a national team which has largely been devoid of offensive talent in recent years, when you’re a player who has played more than 200 professional games, the bulk of those in England’s top two tiers, is another story.
And that’s the way it’s been for Junior Hoilett, now 25, who until this year, had opted not to represent Canada in international competition.
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After being courted for years, the Brampton, Ont., native finally stepped on the field in a Canada jersey last month in a friendly against Ghana in Washington, D.C. Now, on Friday, against Honduras in a World Cup qualifying match, the Queens Park Rangers winger will play competitively for Canada for the first time.
“I’m excited,” Hoilett told reporters at BC Place after a training session this week. “Can’t wait to play against Honduras with a nice sized crowd.”
As recently as 2012, Hoilett expressed hope to various media outlets that he could one day play for England, given he’s spent the bulk of his time in that country since he moved there at age 13 to play for Blackburn Rovers. At the time, he was a player in his early 20s scoring goals in the Premier League and establishing himself as one of the most prolific dribblers at that level.
For a number of reasons Hoilett’s England dream never happened—the biggest perhaps that after showing early promise with Blackburn, his career has taken a dip. He was also eligible to play for Jamaica as that’s where his father is from.
While the pragmatists among Canada’s supporters will be happy to have Hoilett on board for this qualifying campaign, there will be others skeptical of the player given the cold shoulder he has shown to this country’s national team for years.
Cynicism is something many have come to accept in the professional game, and unfortunately in Canada there’s been a long history of players who could have made a difference with this program who instead opted to play for other countries. Think Owen Hargreaves, who starred for Manchester United. He chose England. More recently, Canada has missed out on Jonathan de Guzman, who opted to play for the Netherlands.
Hoilett is well aware there will be some fans who aren’t thrilled by the return of the prodigal son, but he said he won’t be going out of his way to do anything special to try and change anybody’s mind.
“That’s not what I’m here for,” Hoilett told Sportsnet when asked if he felt he would have to win some people over. “I’m here to help my team and the players achieve a goal for the Canada nation.”
He also didn’t seem to be bothered about the prospect of receiving criticism from the stands if it comes to that.
“Come out and support,” Hoilett answered when asked what he would tell people skeptical about his decision to play for Canada. “That’s what they’re there for. Even if it’s negative feedback, as long as they’re in the crowd and cheering on the team, that’s the main thing I’m worried about.”
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As for Hoilett’s teammates, they seem more concerned about what he’s capable of doing to help Canada get to the next World Cup than about what he has or hasn’t done for the country’s program in the past.
“It’s nice just on a more general basis to have players choosing to play for Canada now instead of other nations,” midfielder Will Johnson said. “That’s a step in the right direction, first and foremost, but then Junior is a special player and someone we’ve wanted to have for a while now.
“It gives us a little something different. I think over the past couple years we’ve been excellent defensively, but you can never have enough guys who like to attack and like to score goals. He’s a special player, so hopefully he brings out the most in our other young players who are special going forward.”
Hoilett’s story is a complicated one, but the reality is that if he plays a key role in helping Canada qualify for a World Cup, all will be forgiven—and probably forgotten.
“We’re all welcoming,” midfielder Atiba Hutchinson offered. “We’re just happy to have him here now. He’s fit in well. This is a good group of guys around him. We’ll be happy to have him on the pitch on Friday.”