For three weeks in July, Toronto-based Sigma FC assembled a meeting of the minds of some of the top coaches from the most acclaimed youth soccer development academies in Europe, with the singular goal of raising the skill level of young Canadian soccer players.
According to Sigma's technical director Bobby Smyrniotis, the goal of the camps is to bring the European soccer academy experience to Canada, and that means the players arrive knowing the camp is far from just fun and games.
"The most important thing for the players at these camps is that they come to work, they come to get things done," said Smyrniotis. "Don't just show up and come for a good time with your buddies. This is a good opportunity for the players. This is a chance to put themselves out there as a solid group in front of some very influential coaches."
Over the past six years, Smyrniotis has run the camps with the express purpose of showcasing Canadian talent to the likes of coaches from Ajax, Arsenal, Tottenham, Club Brugge, Real Mallorca, among others.
"We want to bring European training to Canada," he says. Players have a chance to work under coaches who do the actual day-to-day training with their European clubs.
"We tell the coaches, bring Club Brugge here for the next week, show us how you do it at AZ Alkmaar," said Smyrniotis. "We want to the kids to know what it is like to train at these clubs like FC Mallorca."
AZ Alkmaar is the latest club to partner with Sigma. AZ, recent Dutch champions, played in the Champions League this year, and the club fast becoming one of the new Dutch powerhouses, a fact attributed their youth academy.
"I came because I wanted to see the level of the football here. I was excited to be here, first time in Canada," said Nick Van Aart, head coach of the U-19 team at AZ Alkmaar. "We showed the kids the philosophy of AZ, and train them like we train in Holland, and teach them the things we do."
Van Aart said that after a few days on the Hershey Centre fields with the Canadian players, one thing was clear. The players wanted to get better.
"There's a good mentality here. If we had this in Holland, we would win more prizes, I think."
Sigma was founded in 2005 after Smyrniotis returned to Canada after serving as a youth coach with Greek super club Olympiakos. While in Greece, he helped Ajax start programs in that country. He forged a bond with the Dutch team that remains to this day. Sigma teams have travelled to Amsterdam and competed and trained with Ajax at its youth academy ever since.
Over the past six years, the relationship has grown to include several Dutch teams, and this year's camp coaches included AZ Alkmaar and the technical director for Sparta Rotterdam, Pascal Jansen.
Henk Mariman, technical director of Club Brugge. Mariman is back for his third year as a camp coach. Mariman is no stranger to Canadian soccer, he has coached national team defender Mike Klukowski who is a member of the Belgian club.
Real Mallorca's Arno Buitenweg, director of soccer schools for the Spanish club, was back as well.
Exposing players to coaches from clubs other than Ajax has been a natural evolution for Sigma.
"We've been varying up the coaches, giving the players a different look and philosophy in the practices and games, even within Holland where we've being doing a lot of work," he said.
Sigma follows the Dutch development model because, as Smyrniotis believes, it is a system that has proven time after time that it produces well-rounded, creative and intelligent soccer players.
"If you look traditionally at the top levels of coaching, at the big international competitions like the World Cup, you see how many Dutch coaches are there, and they are very successful both for the brand of football they play, and their attacking attractive, high pressing style. … I think that is the best way to learn how to play the game. It is the most enjoyable for the players.
"When you look at the youth level, and I am not talking about the past 5 years or 10 years, but consistently, over the last 30 years, they have produced players. Their development system is a machine."
"This is something that we want the players to do (in Canada), because technically they need to be better, and in order to do that, we (coaches) have to be technically better."
According to Smyrniotis, having coaches who are integral members of their home club's development systems at the camp is vital.
"We want to give the kids tactical development, technical development, but at the same time we get the cross-reference information with the coaches," he explained. "The European coaches come with a plan, and the Sigma coaches come with a plan. And we can make ourselves better.
"That's the best part about it, you get the education of the coaches at the same time, that's why it is so enjoyable, that's what makes it better for the players."
A growing component of the Sigma camps is the involvement of NCAA coaches, and this year's coaching roster included Carlo Acquista of Aldelphi University and Ahmad Manning of Siena. Several other U.S. coaches observed the camps to identify players.
The SIGMA International ID Training camp for players U13-U18 ran June 29 to July 3, while the younger ages were scheduled to hit the pitch July 5-9 at the Hershey Center Soccer Complex in Mississauga.
For more information on programs for the coming year, contact Sigma through the web site www.sigma-sports.net