Moving to Canada to play with the HFX Wanderers FC was “an opportunity of a lifetime” for Akeem Garcia.
But the journey to become one of the best players in the team didn’t come without challenges.
“The transition for me when I just came here was a bit hard because I've never really played on turf before. So, I had to get up to speed with that,” he said.
Garcia’s passion for soccer started in front of the television watching games with his family. He soon joined Arima Ball Masters, the soccer club in his small hometown of Arima in Trinidad.
Andre Rampersad, his fellow countryman and captain of the Wanderers, also started young.
“I first started getting into football at a pretty young age at probably like seven years old. You know, just playing in the street with some friends and … I played with the team at the school.”
Garcia and Rampersad continued following their dreams on the soccer field, but their paths didn’t cross until they played in the same Trinidadian team, FC Santa Rosa, where Rampersad had been playing for five years.
“Me and Akeem weren't really super close friends. I've heard of him. He's heard of me. But we weren't close friends until before we came here.”
The players are now getting ready together for their fourth season with the HFX Wanderers.
“I can see us doing really well in the season, even going on to win it too,” said Rampersad.
Growing with the league
Garcia and Rampersad have been with the Wanderers since the team’s inauguration in 2019. That year also marked the Canadian Premier League’s (CPL) first season.
Garcia scored the team’s first goal ever and finished the CPL season with seven goals under his belt, becoming the top scorer for the team in 2019.
Fan reception of his performance that year is a “memory that will live (with him) for a lifetime,” he said.
Both Rampersad and Garcia were ranked among the top players in the league that year. As the CPL enters its fourth season, things have changed on and off the pitch.
“The league has become harder. … Better players are coming into the league. And the league is getting more exposure,” said Garcia, who is the Wanderer’s striker.
“It's at a high level, and it's definitely growing, and it will keep growing.”
After struggling with injuries in 2021, Garcia said he is ready to bounce back.
“I'm taking care of that and just working hard, … working on my fitness a lot, too. And it's getting better so far. I know what I have to do in order to get back on top again,” he said.
As a midfielder for the Wanderers, Rampersad has played the second highest number of minutes in the entire CPL league in 2021. He’s also had 224 recoveries, the highest number in the league by a significant margin. A recovery is when a player regains possession of the ball after it had been held by the opposing team.
“I enjoy the role for sure. And I'm not the type to like the hype, so I'm just doing it for my team. And that's the main thing for me.
Off the pitch, the friendship between the players has become stronger.
“In a different country playing a professional sport, you look out for each other and then eventually, when we were roommates, then everything just become natural. And now we just laugh at the same things,” said Rampersad.
The two players haven’t been able to find many people in Halifax who come from Trinidad, said Garcia. Without a community in the city, Garcia and Rampersad found themselves missing the people and food from back home.
Being miles away during a pandemic, Garcia could only FaceTime his family as often as he could.
Rampersad learned how to cook some of his favourite dishes.
“A big dish is actually curry and I kind of trained myself to cook it a lot. I try over and over to make it and just keep getting better,” he said.
“I grew up with my grandma and … we would always get home cooked meals and stuff. … I definitely miss that a lot; I miss her.”
Despite the challenges, they are both grateful to play soccer as a career — an option that Rampersad said is not viable for many players in Trinidad.
“The quality of the players, and I always say this, where I'm from, we have a lot of quality. … It's just harder climbing the ladder,” he said.
“In Trinidad, I think maybe most of the times, especially now, … you probably have to get a job to make ends meet with the soccer.”
Helping players feel at home
Although soccer has universal rules, the playing style can vary by country. Even with years of professional soccer under his belt, Garcia needed some time to adapt to the CPL at the beginning.
“Home is a bit more rough, a bit more stronger. But here it's more technical; it’s faster,” said Garcia.
Matt Fegan, the sporting director with the Wanderers, said the team do their best to ensure a smooth start for international players, including pre-negotiating apartments, helping players get a driver’s licence and providing interpreters. They also connected one of their players who has an engineering degree with firms in the city
“The more we can make them feel at home, the easier it is for them to just do their job on the pitch because they're not having to think of other things,” he said.
The club, with the help of an immigration lawyer, also handles the immigration paperwork required to bring the players into Canada. International players require a work permit to play professional soccer.
Although the club could sign multi-year contracts with a player, their immigration status makes renewals “an arduous process.”
“The work permits are usually only issued for either a one year or a two-year term, which means that each off-season, we're dealing with people having to get a visa renewal.”
“Especially with the pandemic, with the border restrictions, it's been a very big challenge,” said Fegan.
Processing delays an issue
Canada’s immigration department has been grappling with a backlog of applications, including work permits, student permits, and permanent residency paperwork, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Wanderers is experiencing the effects of the backlog, which Fegan described as a “huge issue.” Recently, the club faced increased wait times as they tried to obtain work permits for two new players from Brazil and Jamaica.
Some Wanderers players who came to Canada as international students a few years ago are in the process of applying for a permanent residency (PR) card. Like many international students who want to stay in Canada, the players have to go through the complicated bureaucracy of the Canadian immigration system.
Fegan said the players first tried to apply through the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program, now called the Atlantic Immigration Program, which requires applicants to have worked at least 1,560 hours with pay full time or part time. The players found out they hadn’t accumulated enough hours, he said, so they reapplied through another immigration stream.
The players’ applications have been in processing for 13 months. Before the pandemic, processing times for PR applications averaged six months.
“We're not just attracting players to come in and leave. It's actually they're coming in and want to stay here,” said Fegan.
“It's going to take a bit of time but hopefully comes through.”
The Wanderers will also benefit from the players receiving the PR. The CPL, said Fegan, only allows the club to have seven international players at a time.
“If I can convert an international to a domestic player, now I can go and find two more internationals to bring to the region, raise the calibre of the league,” he said.
The Wanderers play their first match of the season against York United FC in Toronto on April 7.