Derek Cornelius’ goal has always been to play in Europe.
His journey took him to clubs in Russia, Germany and Serbia before signing with the Vancouver Whitecaps in January 2019. Then Whitecaps coach Marc Dos Santos called the left-footed centre back “one of the top young players in a new generation of Canadian talent.”
The 23-year-old Cornelius is continuing his European dream, this time on loan to Greece’s Panetolikos FC from the Whitecaps through December 2022, with an option to make the move permanent.
Located in Agrinio in western Greece and founded in 1926, Panetolikos currently stands eighth in the 14-team top-tier Greek Super League at 3-4-2. Cornelius is joined on the roster by talent from Argentina, Bosnia, Croatia, France, Honduras, Italy, Portugal, Sierra Leon and Uruguay as well as Greece.
“The team has gone through ups and downs,” said Cornelius. “We started off decently well. We got hit by a lot of injuries over the last few weeks or so, so we’re trying to make it work with a lot of new faces in the team, a lot of change of formation — a lot of just different stuff from what we prepared during the pre-season. But that’s the game.”
Cornelius, who has started all but one game since arriving at the Greek club this summer, is one of many new faces, with building chemistry understandably taking time.
“It’s about building relationships and figuring out how we can be successful together,” he said.
Cornelius is currently in camp with 48th-ranked Canada in Edmonton ahead of World Cup qualifiers against No. 45 Costa Rica on Friday and No. 9 Mexico on Nov. 16.
Chemistry in the Canadian team ranks is strong, according to Cornelius.
“You can have as many great players as you want but if you don’t have that chemistry, that feeling of a family, it’s difficult to perform on the field,” he said. “And I think that was the first step that we made as a country. First things first, we need to feel like brothers, we need to feel like a family. And that’s what we’ve done.”
That’s reflected in Canada’s recent results, he believes.
Cornelius said he sees the loan in Greece as a chance to play in Europe and an opportunity to get to a higher level. And with league appearances diminishing each season with the Whitecaps — 17 in 2019, 13 in 2021 and five in 2021 — the MLS club was open to the move.
Cornelius’ contract with the Whitecaps runs through 2022 with a club option for 2023. But he is not looking ahead.
“I’m just going to focus on where I am now, focus on each game at a time because you can’t get too far ahead of yourself.”
One plus of playing in the Greek league is a lot less travel. Panetolikos often travels to games by bus as opposed to MLS “where every game is a plane, sometimes two planes.”
“It’s a different league, with a good competition and good playing level. That’s exactly what I wanted with the move, to challenge myself in different ways” Cornelius said. “Continue growing as a person and as a player. And just trying to reach higher levels and different heights.”
He spent a pre-season with PFC CSKA Moscow in Spain before ultimately starting his European soccer journey first in Germany (VfB Lubeck and VfR Neumunster) and then Serbia (FK Javor-Matis) before returning to Canada with the Whitecaps.
“You can say I’m one that likes different challenges,” said Cornelius. “I like to try and step out of my comfort zone and push myself to different levels and see how far I can go. So those are challenges I’ve all enjoyed and learned a lot from. And there’ll be a lot more to come in the future.”
He is already a leader, having served as co-captain of the Canadian entry at the famed Toulon youth tournament in 2018 — a roster that included Jonathan David, Liam Millar, Noble Okello, Julian Dunn and James Pantemis — and Canada captain at the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament in Mexico this March.
Injuries dogged Cornelius at both events, unfortunately.
A former striker, Cornelius was converted to centre back during his time in Serbia. He showed off his attacking qualities in his lone goal in MLS — a sweet volley in second-half stoppage time to secure Vancouver a 1-1 tie at Sporting Kansas City in May 2019.
“Had to roll back the clock for that one,” he said.
Named 2018 Canadian Youth International Player of the Year, Cornelius earned his first senior cap for Canada in September 2018 in a record-setting 8-0 win over the U.S Virgin islands in CONCACAF Nations League qualifying play.
At the 2019 Gold Cup, he earned recognition on the Best XI for his performance during group play.
But he’s not one to dwell on the past, saying he prefers to focus on the tasks at hand.
Cornelius, who began playing soccer with Ajax Thunder and North York Spartacus, still considers Ajax, Ont., home.
The long Athens to Edmonton flight included a five-hour layover in Toronto that offered a chance for him to have dinner with his family.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 9, 2021.