EDMONTON — Hundreds of boys and girls run into the field house at a recreation centre where 10 small soccer pitches are set up for an end-of-season tournament.
They drop their backpacks, take off their winter jackets and start to play.
Parents — some in sports jerseys and others in hijabs — gather on the sidelines to cheer for their kids.
“This was where they get introduced to the game,” says Anmer Assaf as he watches his eight-year old daughter Nawal. “It’s an amazing rung on the ladder.”
The indoor tournament is part of Free Footie, an after-school soccer league in Edmonton for inner-city kids in Grades 3, 4, 5 and 6 who can’t afford registration fees and equipment, or who can’t get transportation to games.
A spotlight was put on the league after alumnus Alphonso Davies was signed last summer in a record-breaking US$22-million deal that sent him to German Bundesliga giant Bayern Munich from the Vancouver Whitecaps of Major League Soccer.
Davies, who turned 18 in November, played in Free Footie as an elementary school student after his parents moved to Edmonton as refugees.
He is to start playing with Bayern Munich on Jan. 4 and has signed with the team through 2023.
Free Footie founder Tim Adams said Davies’ success has been a shining moment for the program that started with four teams more than a decade ago.
“We received a lot of publicity all around the world,” Adams said in an interview. “We’ve been getting emails and messages weekly from different cities across the country and even around the globe asking, ‘When are you expanding to our city?’
“The main focus has been so far just locking down the future of Edmonton and then using Edmonton to hopefully expand as the blueprint elsewhere.”
With that in mind, Free Footie has added free hockey — a program that saw hundreds of children bused to play street hockey in a public square in the middle of downtown Edmonton during an eight-week period.
“Hockey is such a Canadian game and so many of our kids are coming here as newcomers,” Adams said. “We wanted to give them that first opportunity to play hockey.”
He said hockey is becoming a privileged sport and the idea was to add some diversity and inclusion into the game.
“It doesn’t have to be so complex,” he said. “It can be as simple as giving kids some sticks and a ball and busing them into Churchill Square and watching them have an amazing time.”
The children also had an opportunity to meet Andrew Ference, a former captain of the NHL Edmonton Oilers.
“Suddenly they’re all talking about the Oilers game last night,” said Adams, who noted the kids felt an immediate sense of inclusion after meeting a professional player.
Free Footie plans to add free basketball in January and start the next season of the soccer program, which has grown in the past decade to include 4,000 children playing on 250 teams.
Adams said he wants to take the program to other cities across the country in the coming years.
“Our real hope is to try to expand in 2020 — first in Alberta and then see where we go from that,” he said. “We’d really like to be in Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge.
“Going beyond that, it’s just where the support lends itself.”