Football has a profound ability to captivate the hearts and souls of millions. For some, even in sleep, it never quite leaves. Countless boys and girls dream of hoisting football’s greatest trophies, wearing their nation’s jersey, or scoring the big goal. A lucky few can say they have gone out and done it.
Although the game’s serial winners seem ever-present in our lives, they are incredibly rare on a grand scale. The average professional [by definition] acquires far less luxury in terms of silverware and plays to much smaller fanfare. For this majority, the goal is to one day hang up the boots and say, “I remember when”. Enter Gabe Gala.
In June of 1989, Gala was born in the eastern Nigerian city of Yola. At a young age, he and his family emigrated to Canada and settled in Brampton, Ontario – a sprawling suburb about half an hour’s drive west of the nation’s largest city, Toronto.
In Canada, football is often seen as the perfect gateway sport for youth. Its affordability and capacity to ease children in to developing physical literacy make it a very attractive option from spring through till late autumn. It is not uncommon to meet players using football as a warm weather fitness outlet. You cannot blame them for having this approach as the country embraced a highly recreational ‘play first, compete second’ model for decades.
Everything changed in 2006 with the birth of Toronto FC. Major League Soccer (MLS) struck an ownership deal with Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE) to bring professional outdoor soccer north of the border for the first time since the collapse of the old North American Soccer League (NASL) in the mid-eighties. In addition to the excitement of having a new top tier sport product in the city, young aspirants like Gala had the professional game within touching distance.
However, to give you a snapshot of the organizational chaos that was about to ensue, the newly formed club hosted open-tryouts with relatively no barriers to entry as a means of filling this soon-to-be roster.
In an excerpt from Canada Soccer’s (the governing body of football in Canada) website, the invite read as follows, “Major League Soccer’s 13th team seeking prospects. Ever wanted to bend it like Beckham or think you’ve got the skills to become the next Pele? Well, here’s your chance to try out for a professional soccer team. Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC is calling on prospective soccer players who think they have the skills to make the cut for a professional soccer team”.
Despite the lackadaisical approach to preparing for life in the big leagues, some hopefuls found themselves in a position brimming with opportunity. It would take a stiff pinching to believe that for a registration fee of $110 + taxes, you would have the chance to showcase yourself in front of the decision makers of a professional football club.
With a footballing CV that featured no more than local recreational club commitments and a stint for his high school team, he suddenly found himself caught up in the professional game under the watchful eye of ex-Celtic and Rangers striker Mo Johnston, the club’s inaugural manager. This period became known as the era of “trader Mo” as nine players were shipped out by the half way point of its first season, but Gala managed to stay on. The campaign ended with 32 different players donning the TFC red in a true case of trial and error.
A second area of acute frustration for many fans came in the form of hosting international club friendlies. The club’s attempts at reaping some added gate revenue turned sour as they steadily became aligned with showcases of inferiority alongside global counterparts. Of those clubs, TFC failed to win in matches against Bolton, Benfica, Aston Villa, Pachuca, Independiente, River Plate, Spurs, Sunderland, Roma and Manchester City.
A loss worth remembering
Looking at the score reports, you may not think any of these matches are worth recounting. But one is worth remembering. The night of August 7, 2009 would be the crowning moment of Gabe Gala’s mixed playing career.
Toronto FC announced a mid-season (*as per the MLS calendar) friendly at home against Real Madrid. It was billed as a glamour match for many reasons. It would be Cristiano Ronaldo’s first pre-season in the Los Blancos strip as well as Kaká’s long awaited debut in all-white. A full strength side took to the pitch in a 4-3-3 featuring stars such as Iker Casillas; Raúl Albiol, Guti, Kaká, Ronaldo, Raul and Karim Benzema.
Gala had featured a mere seven times for Toronto prior to the friendly. No goals. No assists. Statswise, a player of that standing should have no business gracing the pitch with the world’s best.
After coming on as a substitute with his side down 4-0 in the 75th minute, Gala beat out a tackle from World Cup winning full-back Arbeloa to poke home a rebounded shot following a save from Polish keeper Jerzy Dudek. Confetti erupted behind the goal and 22,000-plus fans rejoiced. The match would end 5-1 with Gala getting the lone goal for the home side. That strike did not stage a historic comeback, it made little difference on the pitch, but it will go down as his defining moment in the sport.
Would that iconic moment prove to be the catalyst for the storied career Gala pursued? Sadly, no. Toronto FC’s failure to find stability would last for at least another five seasons. Gala would go on to feature 15 more times for the club, only six as a starter. His strike against los Merengues would be his first and last tally for the Reds. He was waived in late November of 2010 and would find himself playing Canadian semi-pro for the Mississauga Eagles FC – a club that has since folded.
In a 2015 interview, Gala explained his decision to step away from the professional game at a young age as a personal choice fuelled by the amount of politics involved.
He went on to further suggest that, “in professional soccer politics were always going to outweigh talent, I felt it was best for me to move on before I literally went crazy”. That sentiment could act well as a microcosm for much of Canada’s failed attempts to reach footballing relevance.
Today, Gala works as a real estate agent in Toronto with the Right at Home Realty Inc. team. You would be hard pressed to find a realtor with a more interesting ice breaker.