More than 18 months after joining the Canadian Premier League, Atletico Ottawa finally gets to play at home Saturday.
Atletico hosts HFX Wanderers FC at TD Place Stadium, the latest stop on an expansion journey that has seen the Atletico Madrid-owned side spend time in Charlottetown, Winnipeg and Spain.
“It’s been a long time, coming, for sure,” said assistant coach Ajay Khabra, who played for Atletico last season.
“We’ve been living from hotel to hotel pretty much for the last couple of months,” added Atletico captain Milovan Kapor. “Just trying our best to stay focused and keep the process of improving our game and getting the team to gel every single day, through each match, as much as possible.
“That process is still ongoing and hopefully this weekend we can put on a show for all the fans that come out.”
Atletico reported Friday morning that fewer than 400 tickets from the 12,000 allowed by local health and government authorities remained. The club has made it easy for fans to attend, offering a “Pay What You Want” approach to tickets. People could choose to pay $5, $10 and so on up to $50 — or chose to pay nothing, with a four free-ticket maximum.
The club said about 50 per cent of the tickets went to those who chose the free option. Fans will have to wear masks inside the stadium, except when eating or drinking.
Tickets normally range from $15 for a youth to $45 for adults in regular seats and $60 per person in the club section, including taxes and fees.
CPL teams returned to their home markets late last month after all eight clubs started the season playing out of Winnipeg under a protective COVID-19 bubble.
Atletico remains a second-year work in progress. At 2-7-1, the club is at the bottom of the league, has lost its last three and is winless in five (0-4-1).
Kapor believes playing at home can only help revitalize the side.
“It’s been a long wait. I know everybody’s excited to get on the pitch and be in front of the fans. Thankfully we’ll have the fans cheering for us and not booing us like the last few games away.”
Kapor is no stranger to travel.
Before joining Ottawa, the 30-year-old centre back from Toronto played in Uzbekistan (Buxoro FK), Belarus (FK Gomel), Israel (Hapoel Hadera FC) and Slovakia (FC ViOn Zlate Moravce and Dukla Banska Bystrica FK).
Kapor who has Canadian and Serbian citizenship, truly is a man of the world. He speaks English, Serbian, Russian, Slovakian, Spanish and “a little bit of French.”
“To be fair I’ve been to a lot of different countries and when you’re someone new, you try to adapt as quick as possible and learning the language is probably one of the first priorities,” he said.
Back home on a break, Kapor found himself stranded in Canada when the pandemic started early last year. Unable to get back to his team in Uzbekistan, he signed with Ottawa just before last summer’s Island Games in Charlottetown.
His wife Lucia remains in Slovakia where Kapor started his pro career and met her. They have been together six years and married for two.
Kapor’s journey back to Slovakia to rejoin his wife in time for the birth of their son Leontije, known as Leo, after last season was an ordeal. He flew to Warsaw and then the Czech Republic before taking a train to Slovakia, making it just in time.
The family is slated to join him in Ottawa next month.
The team has gone to Madrid in advance of both its CPL seasons, taking advantage of Atletico Madrid’s wealth of resources.
The 2020 visit was less than a week, cut short by the pandemic with Canada closing its borders. This year’s stay was extended, as the start to the CPL season kept on getting delayed. The team, which had seen a lot of turnover from its truncated inaugural 2-3-2 campaign in Charlottetown, eventually spent two months in Spain.
“It was an experience that no one will ever forget,” said Kapor. “Just because it was for two months and we focused solely on football.”
Khabra saw the glass half-full when it came to the extended stay away from home.
“It is a challenge. But you can also take it as a pretty cool experience where you’re able to visit a lot of places, be spontaneous and not bored, I guess, in one location.”
A native of Edmonton, Khabra played for the University of Alberta Golden Bears and FC Edmonton in the CPL’s inaugural 2019 season before joining Ottawa.
He’s happy to be able to finally put down some roots in the Canadian capital with the club helping him find a place.
“Sports are stressful,” he said. “You need to get away from things and that’s pretty tough to do when you don’t have a home and a place to go and get your mind off things. This has really helped us the last couple of weeks, however long we’ve been here.”
Released after the 2020 season, Khabra had planned to go back to school to work towards a career as a sports therapist. He already has a degree in biology.
But Atletico brought him back as an assistant to head coach Mista, whose full name is Miguel Angel Ferrer Martínez.
“For me this was the opportunity of a lifetime,” said the 26-year-old Khabra. “I knew I wanted to get back into the game at some point. And for me, I guess it was a good time and a great opportunity.”
Kapor says Atletico, whose parent team also owns a major stake in Mexico’s Atletico San Luis, has done the players and staff proud during the uncertain times of the pandemic.
There are four Spaniards on Atletico’s roster.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 13, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press