A young Canadian footballer playing for Slavia Prague? They're the sort of stories we just have to know more about at IBWM. Mark Smith meets Niall Cousens on our behalf.
Teams in Eastern Europe are beginning to look further afield for their next potential star striker or defensive linchpin. While the youth academies of Barcelona and Ajax are notorious for a production of talented footballers, most teams have to rely on an extensive and connected scouting network.
Slavia Prague are no different. Back in the summer of 2009 Slavia gave a young Canadian footballer a two-week trial - 3 days and 2 goals later Niall Cousens signed a two year professional contract with the Czech side.
I recently caught up with Niall to talk about everything from flat hunting in the Czech Republic to Canada’s chances of qualifying for the next World Cup (which Niall seems very optimistic about). Having spent time on loan at Czech second division side Hlucin this year, he is now waiting for a chance in the Slavia first team to start to make his mark in European football.
People don't necessarily associate a youth spent in Canada with a desire to be a footballer - did you always wanted to be a player?
I've been playing football since I was four years old. I started off playing with my older brother on a team that our father coached. I was playing two years above my age group and continued like this for this first 10 years of my career.
I've wanted to be a footballer ever since I can remember. I remember getting a soccer ball for my birthday when I was very young and kicking it around wherever I went. My whole family loves football and I was raised playing and watching it.
Did you look to certain players or teams for inspiration? Do you still?
In the very early days my favourite players were David Beckham and Roberto Carlos. I was in awe at how much power Carlos had in his shots and at how much swerve and accuracy Beckham could generate on his.
I grew up supporting Manchester United and still do to this day. My dad was a big United fan when I was growing up so my admiration for them was instilled when I was very young.
It does have to be said how much respect I have for Barcelona. Even though I don't think it would be right to call myself a "fan", the way they play football is brilliant.
When and how did your move to Europe come about?
I used to train with the “Roman Tulis European Soccer School of Excellence” from the age of nine years old in Canada - Roman was the best coach I have ever worked with. He was originally from Slovakia and had connections at Slavia Praha, so he arranged a two-week trial for me at Slavia, I impressed and scored two goals in a friendly game, that’s when the club asked me to stay on and join them.
It’s been my goal for a very long time to play professionally for a club in Europe, so I was obviously thrilled at the prospect of signing a pro contract with Slavia Praha.
What are the differences between football in Europe and North America
I can't even compare football in Europe with the soccer in North America. Everything about the game is different. The speed, physicality, tactics, intensity and passion are at a much higher level in Europe. North Americans have baseball, hockey, basketball, soccer and American football, so the interest and commitment is definitely more spread about. In Europe, football is life.
Have you had to change any aspect of you game since moving to Europe?
I've had to change many aspects of my game and I think that will be a very common theme throughout my career, always changing, always trying to improve and be better. It took some time to get used to the way the game is played here.
The referees are definitely more lenient in Europe than they are in North America which allows for much more and much harder contact. The speed of the game and intensity in which it's played were probably the biggest changes I had to make.
Given the popularity of football in Europe, do you ever think it will reach similar levels in Canada and USA?
I do believe that football can become as popular in North America as it is in Europe. Most people are surprised to hear what a highly participated sport soccer is in North America and its' popularity is only growing. Achieving the same level of quality as Europe will be very difficult and may take some time.
The USA has done a fantastic job observing and learning from European football. They have changed the way they develop their players which has led to some great results in their international play. Fifa rankings will confirm that Canada has been slower than the USA in buying into the "European way", but we're slowly improving, seeing more of our young players playing overseas and having more European coaches working with our homegrown talent.
Canada’s success in hockey has shown that we are capable of being the best in international competition and that we can create successful systems for our young athletes. There is no reason, in my opinion, why we shouldn't be able to duplicate the same success we have on the rink and translate it to on the pitch.
How are you settling into Czech life?
I've been in the Czech Republic for a year and a half now. The toughest part of being overseas is the homesickness. I greatly underestimated how difficult it would be to leave all my family, friends, and home. It was very difficult in the beginning as I couldn't speak or understand any Czech, but it has slowly grown easier as I have started to learn the language.
There were a few English-speaking players at Slavia who really helped me out a lot in the early stages and made things easier on me. I get on great with all the guys and they did a great job of making me feel part of the team from early on.
Finding a flat to live in during my spell at Hlucin was tricky; the first one we viewed was a tiny depressing little flat. But luckily we got some help from a lady at the hotel we stayed in, she spoke good English and helped finding a decent flat in the area!
You were loaned to Czech second division side Hlucin recently, how did you find the experience of first team football?
Moving to Hlucin was a very good decision for me. Not only did I get to play 2nd division, first team football, but I also met some great players and coaches. I really enjoyed the intensity and atmosphere of the 2nd division. The drumming and chanting fans make it that much more fun to play football. I'm looking forward to experiencing that on even bigger stages in the future.
Which players at Slavia do you get along with best, and why?
Like I said earlier, I get on great with all the guys. Obviously, it's easier for me to interact with the English-speaking players and guys like Jakub Hajek, Paprciak Matej, Lubko Chovan, and Semilk Lahcim have been great friends to me since my arrival. I'd have to say my best buddy in Slavia is Filip Duranski. Since my first day with Slavia, Tukki (nickname), who was captain of the team, made me feel like I was at home and told me if I needed anything, he was the guy to come to. Since then our relationship has only strengthened, we have great chemistry on the field and he feels like a brother from another mother.
Given Slavia Praha's current troubles, are you hopeful of getting some time in the first team?
Obviously the season hasn't gone great for us so far but I'm quite confident we'll have a strong second half of the season. As for my involvement, I would love to get a shot in with the first team and help out in any way I could. I definitely think I'm capable and just have to wait for my chance.
You can follow Niall on twitter here or check out his web site here
If you would like to read more from Mark, please visit the excellent Play Waved On and follow @play_waved_on on twitter.