It should not come as a surprise that Forge FC star Tristan Borges is the first CPL player to be transferred to a European club.
Borges, after all, is coming off a stellar 2019 campaign in which he won the Golden Boot as the league’s top scorer, was named the Player of the Year and Best Canadian Under-21 Player, and lifted the North Star Shield.
Borges’ move to Belgian club Oud-Heverlee Leuven (known as OHL) was just reward for a breakout campaign for the 21-year-old native of Toronto.
But how did OHL set their sights on Borges? Was he keen to return to Europe after playing in the Netherlands from 2016-18 for SC Heerenveen’s under-21 team? Did coach Bobby Smyrniotis want to sell him? And how will Forge fill the gaping hole in their roster left by Borges?
Forge FC general manager Costa Smyrniotis spoke to CanPL.ca about how this historic transfer unfolded.
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How did the transfer for Tristan Borges come about?
Costa Smyrniotis: Before you look at the deal for Borges, you need to take a step back in terms of the creation of the CPL. One of the strong mandates that this league needed to be established upon was providing the opportunity to players, providing those quality professional environments, and providing them the chance for quality playing time and providing them quality exposure. If you can do that in a proper manner, than bigger opportunities for players will follow.
As the season went on, and we were doing well and the players were doing well, and there was attention being paid to us, not just in the country, but outside of Canada and in other parts of the world. People wanted to find out more about us and our players, including Tristan. It’s small world, the football world, and questions started being asked, and we started getting interest from clubs, and one thing leads to another, and here we are today.
So, it sounds like you were always committed to trying to sell him in order to get him to the next level of his career, rather than try to keep him. Fair to say?
Costa Smyrniotis: That’s how we always looked at it. Even Bobby has said that until you get to Real Madrid or FC Barcelona, there’s always somewhere bigger you can go, and there’s always a step up. Smart clubs figure out where they fit in the football landscape, and organize themselves as such. That’s the case here at Forge.
We have a coach who has a proven track record of working with young, Canadian talent and providing them with the opportunity to develop their skills and make the move to the next level in their careers. Our owner (Bob Young) is somebody who whole-heartedly believes in our approach and our long-term vision.
Ultimately, what we’re trying to provide is something we didn’t have for Canadians before the CPL came along. A player like Tristan Borges didn’t have a chance just to get out on the field and play 20 games, and play meaningful minutes. That’s what held soccer in this country back, and I think the CPL has helped change that. Players like Tristan – and I think there’ll be many more like him across the league in the next few years – will get the chance to play at a quality level in a demanding league, and get the exposure they need to move on to bigger and better things.
Did the deal with OHL happen fairly recently, or had it been in the works for some time?
Costa Smyrniotis: It kinda unfolded over the year; it was the general game-plan since Tristan returned from the Netherlands and signed with Forge to be in a situation like this where he’d be sold. As teams south of the border and teams from around the globe started paying attention, then they started knocking on our door and started asking questions about his availability, and over time they became more serious.
OHL is fighting to earn promotion to the Belgian topflight. Did that expedite matters for them?
Costa Smyrniotis: I think so. They’re a serious club. It’s a well-backed club, under the same ownership as Leicester City and they have a same model. Belgium is a tremendous market for good, young players. It’s a market where players are challenged at a very high level. They’re given a chance at a young age to show what they can do.
They have aspirations of becoming one of the top teams in Belgium, and they’re on an upward trajectory in taking that next step, and Borges is young and hungry, and looking to build himself up and establish himself after a great year in the CPL, so it was a bit of perfect storm for both sides.
So, he’ll be able to play for them right away and help them in their promotion push?
Costa Smyrniotis: Yes, he’ll be eligible to play for them right away. They really wanted him now because then it would ensure he’d be able to take part in the final stretch of games leading into the playoffs, and gives him a bit of a running start into next season.
Where does Borges’ departure leave Forge going into the 2020 CPL season?
Costa Smyrniotis: Well, it’s a chance for someone else to step up. The DNA of this club, 100 per cent, is to work with good young players and get them to the next level. So, with Tristan gone, we have to have the next player who is ready to fill the hole left by him. We have a great group of players, a tremendous staff and a great organization overall, so Tristan isn’t going to be a one-off. We want this to be continuous stream of guys coming through the system and moving on.
Nobody would want to lose a player like Tristan, who is at a young age and has an upward trajectory and getting called into the Canadian national team. But if you want to play in the global game, and want to start being in that conversation, then these are the types of opportunities you have to execute on, and then ensure that your club is on a good footing.
What about Borges? How does he feel about leaving Forge and heading to Belgium to start a new chapter in his career?
Costa Smyrniotis: He has a good head on his shoulders. He came to Forge with a great attitude, and while he’s excited about going back to Europe, and I think he’s leaving a piece of himself here. I’m sure if we asked him to stay another year at Forge he wouldn’t have any issues with it. But he’s super ecstatic about this move. There were offers from [other teams], too. With a player like that, that’s to be expected. It was just a matter of determining what was the right time, and what was the right club for him. OHL ticked all the boxes.