Thanks to Winnipeg Fury from the V's board Canada's soccer success story Dan Stinson, Vancouver sun Published: Tuesday, August 08, 2006 Canada may not have qualified for a World Cup tournament since its first, and only, appearance in 1986. That doesn't mean there aren't success stories in the game within the country. Vancouver Selects under-16 boys team is one of them. - - - Five young Lower Mainland soccer players from one team -- the Vancouver Selects -- have been signed by professional clubs in the same year, a situation so unusual that it's believed to be a Canadian record. "It was a fluke," says Selects head coach Jan Giezen, whose son Robbie was among the five who signed youth contracts with pro teams in the Netherlands and Mexico in the last few months. "First of all, to have that many talented players on the same team at the same time happens only once in a lifetime. Then to have all of them wind up with professional teams is unheard of. I've been coaching youth soccer for quite a few years. Nothing like this has happened with me before. I doubt it will happen again." The signings, which put the players on the threshold of what could be long careers in the world's most popular team sport, took place in the months after the Selects won the Canadian under-16 club championship last October in St. John's, N.L. Each of the five players has turned 17 since the national tournament and will combine academic studies with soccer on their new teams. Vancouver winger Alex Martinez is with Atlas, a First Division club in Mexico. Vancouver midfielder Brandon Bonifacio landed with the reserve team of Netherlands First Division club Cambuur-Leeuwarden. Robbie Giezen, a midfielder from North Vancouver, joined West Vancouver winger Michael Nonni and Vancouver defender Marcus Haber with the under-19 team of Netherlands Premier League club FC Groningen. The Selects' success didn't happen by accident. The core of the team was formed at the under-13 level, when the players were promoted from their community clubs to the Selects, who play in the Vancouver Metro Premier League youth division. Martinez joined the Selects after playing youth soccer in Vancouver's Kerrisdale. Bonifacio was promoted from the city's Killarney youth programs. Robbie Giezen played in North Vancouver's Mount Seymour programs. Nonni hails from West Vancouver youth teams, and Haber first played soccer in the Dunbar area. Giulio Bonifacio, Brandon's father, coached the Selects from the under-13 to under-15 levels and served as Jan Giezen's assistant coach with the under-16 team. Brandon Bonifacio, Robbie Giezen and Haber have also played for Canada's under-18 national team. "I was just an interested parent who was willing to help out in any way I could," says Giulio Bonifacio, a 45-year-old Vancouver native. "I certainly can't take all the credit for developing the players. They got a lot of good coaching when they were younger. Guys like [B.C. youth coaches] Bob Poole, Michael Findlay, Frank Ciaccia and Roman Tulis also coached these players at various levels and deserve a lot of credit. "But I honestly think the players themselves were mainly responsible for their development," Bonifacio adds. "They were focused and determined right from the get-go; they really wanted to succeed." Jan Giezen's roots also helped pave the way to the contracts. Giezen is a 53-year-old native of Groningen, a small town in northern Netherlands where he played amateur soccer before immigrating to Canada in 1982. He was one of the first coaches in the Vancouver Whitecaps youth team programs, guiding the Caps under-15 and under-16 boys teams to Northwest Conference championships. Giezen developed contacts with officials at FC Groningen when he lived in the Netherlands and still stays in touch. "Groningen have always been interested in acquiring good young players from around the world, and certainly my connections with the club helped," Giezen says. "But players also have to demonstrate that they are good enough to play for Groningen." So Jan Giezen and Giulio Bonifacio took the Selects to the 16-team Beppe-Viola international youth tournament in Riva del Guarda, Italy, in March. The Selects were an emergency replacement for Canada's under-17 national team, which declined an invitation. The Selects played against some of Italy's best youth teams in the tournament. Although results were close, they failed to win a game. The Selects also travelled to Groningen on their trip. Giezen had arranged an exhibition game against FC Groningen's under-19 team, and the Selects won the match handily, 4-0. Robbie Giezen, Nonni and Haber were signed up by Groningen shortly after the game. Brandon Bonifacio had trials with a few Dutch teams and signed with nearby Cambuur-Leeuwarden. Robbie Giezen, Brandon Bonifacio, Nonni and Haber will attend the same school in Groningen, where they are enrolled in international baccalaureate studies. "The boys haven't forgotten about their education," Jan Giezen says. "They left their schools here in B.C. after Grade 11 to join their soccer clubs, but their education is just as high a priority." Michael Nonni's father, Gino, was a star midfielder with Simon Fraser University Clan teams in the mid-1970s. Gino recently returned from Groningen after accompanying Michael on the trip. "It's a very well-organized club," Gino Nonni says. "They have eight people in charge of their under-19 team and help the players every step of the way. I also like Groningen's rule about combining education with soccer. The players have to attend school until age 18. If they don't, they can't play for the team." Cambuur-Leeuwarden general manager Alex Pama predicts Bonifacio will quickly advance from the reserves to the first team. "Cambuur regard him very highly," says Pama. "We signed him after only one training session." Martinez was born in Vancouver, but is of Mexican heritage. He was the first of the five Selects players to sign with a pro club. "Alex had his first trial with Atlas in December and also tried out with some other Mexican teams," says Jan Giezen. "He returned home for Christmas, but was asked by Atlas to return for a second trial in January, and signed after that." Tulis owns and operates the Burnaby-based Roman Tulis European Soccer School of Excellence. A native of Slovakia who immigrated to Canada in 1988, Tulis coached Michael Nonni, Brandon Bonifacio, Haber and Martinez during their fledgling years. "Each has different skills, but they're all very good players," Tulis says. "They're very coachable and hard-working kids, who can go far." The Selects played at the under-18 level this year -- beaten by the Burnaby Royals in a marathon penalty-kicks shootout in the B.C. under-18 championship in July. But Jan Giezen is proud of the team, nevertheless. The Selects have also won Metro League and Coastal Cup titles the past two years, and Giezen also credits goalkeeper Nick Boyd and defenders Liam McCallister and Ricki Sahota for the team's success. "It was a very special group of players," Giezen says. "I feel privileged to have coached them." THE FAB FIVE Vancouver Selects players who have signed with professional teams in the Netherlands and Mexico: BRANDON BONIFACIO, MIDFIELDER Signed with Cambuur-Leeuwarden reserve team, Netherlands. Bonifacio, a 17-year-old Vancouver native, played with Killarney soccer clubs in Vancouver until age 11. He started playing with the Vancouver Selects at 12 as an underage player, continuing with the team to the under-18 level. He has played in B.C. provincial cup final games every year since the under-14 age level. Bonifacio has also played for Vancouver Whitecaps under-14, under-15 and under-16 teams, the B.C. under-17 provincial team, and Canada's under-18 national team. ROBBIE GIEZEN, midfielder Signed with FC Groningen under-19 team, Netherlands. Born in Vancouver, Giezen, 17, played with North Vancouver's Mount Seymour clubs until age 12. Member of under-14, under-15 and under-16 B.C. provincial teams, including the under-16 team that won Canadian all-star championship in 2005. He has participated at Canadian national training centres since the under-15 level and is a member of Canada's under-18 national team. MARCUS HABER, DEFENDER Signed with FC Groningen under-19 team. The 17-year-old Vancouver native played with the city's Dunbar soccer clubs until age 11. Haber also played with the Vancouver Selects as an underage player from the under-14 to under-18 levels. He was a member of the under-14, under-15 and under-16 B.C. provincial teams, including the 2005 team that won the national all-star championship. A former member of Canada's under-17 team, he currently plays for the national under-18 team. ALEX MARTINEZ, WINGER Signed with Atlas under-19 team, Mexico. Martinez, 17, born in Vancouver and played with Kerrisdale youth clubs until age 12. Played for the Vancouver Selects from under-14 through under-18 levels. He was also a member of Whitecaps under-15 and under-16 teams and participated in North American Super Y-League championship tournaments with those sides. MICHAEL NONNI, WINGER Signed with FC Groningen under-19 team. Nonni, 17, played with West Vancouver youth clubs until age 12. He was a member of the Vancouver Selects under-14 through under-18 teams and has played in B.C. provincial finals every year since under-14. He was also a member of the B.C. provincial team that won the national all-star championship in 2005, and has participated in national training centre camps the past two years.