Atlético Ottawa and key partners bring soccer to the children of Odawa Native Friendship Centre

As part of Soccerlude 2024, Atlético Ottawa officially launched Atleti Equal Access, an initiative which aims to break down barriers to accessing the Beautiful Game at all levels. One of the inaugural programs under the Equal Access umbrella started this year, with free soccer practice brought to children from the Odawa Native Friendship Centre.

The relationship between Atlético Ottawa and the Odawa Native Friendship Centre dates back well over a year, when Canada’s Indigenous women’s soccer team captain, Victoria Marchand, visited Atlético Ottawa in 2022. Marchand, a Canadian Gold Medal winner from the 2017 World Indigenous Games, was born in Gatineau and generously took time out of her schedule to visit TD Place and speak with then-Club Captain Drew Beckie about the barriers faced by the local indigenous community to accessing sport.

Marchand moved across the country soon after, travelling to British Columbia to pursue her professional soccer career. She left with an introduction to Sheridon Baptiste, the Healthy Living Coordinator at Odawa Native Friendship Centre. Last season, Atlético invited a group of 50 community members associated with the centre to a match in order to experience the best live sporting atmosphere in Ottawa, and this year Atlético was able to take it one step further – thanks to the program’s fantastic partners.

Atlético has teamed up with St. Anthony Soccer Club (one of the valued members of the ‘Powered by Atlético’ system in place in Ottawa) to provide a winter curriculum of free-to-play Introduction to the Fundamentals of Soccer practice at their clubhouse for 20 kids from the Odawa Native Friendship Centre. Not only have fees for the field been waived for participants, but program partners SAF Performance and FITNTX have also stepped in to provide high-quality training focussing on physical literacy as much as kicking a soccer ball.

This teaches them the fundamentals of soccer,” explained Ibrahim Soukary, Founder of SAF Performance. “Before they’ve even touched the ball they are treating the sport like an athlete would. Learning how to move your body, and how to make physical movements come first. And then from there, we teach them all the technical movements. This lays the foundation for them to be better prepared, to become better athletes and better soccer players.” 

Three weeks into the program, Ibrahim and Mo Elcheikh Ali of FITNTX have taken the group through various mobility training exercises, before getting them on the ball and ending the sessions with big smiles and short matches as the group is split into teams. For Ibrahim, giving back in this manner is natural as he comes “from a community that needs support from outside sources to give me better opportunities” to grow both as “an athlete and as an individual”.

Mo (right) giving instructions as the group is put through their paces (Credit: Chris Hue / Atlético Ottawa)

Making the group feel like a team striving towards the same goal as a unit, is another of the program’s objectives. To facilitate this, jerseys have been made up thanks to program partner Régimbal which showcases the Odawa Native Friendship Centre’s logo front and centre. These were handed out last weekend, much to the joy of one participant in particular – a young girl named Grace who wasn’t put off despite a robust ball-to-face encounter in her first session.

“Grace loves trying different sports and different things,” explained Monica, Garce’s Mum. “She’s dipped her toes in a couple of different things and she’s loving soccer. Grace was very excited about getting team shirts as she loved the idea of looking and feeling like a team. These shirts, in particular, the second she put it on she ran to me and said ‘Is this indigenous?’ and I could see the pride in her eyes. They are a hit for sure!”

Monica, like many of the parents, has been impressed with the level of coaching Ibrahim, Mo and Bruce Hartill (of both Atlético and St. Anthony’s) have been providing. It’s clear to see that “everything they are doing they are working hard to make sure the kids are doing it properly so that as they practice and develop they will have those positive habits in the sport”. The quality of the program is paramount, but access is the priority. Being able to offer the curriculum free of charge is a “huge part of the appeal” according to Garce’s number one fan.

Grace takes on dribbling exercise as Mo (left) supervises in the background. (Credit: Chris Hue / Atlético Ottawa)

Five weeks remain on the program this winter, with eyes on continuing to offer a place for access and development to the children of the Odawa Native Friendship Centre and beyond. Atlético Ottawa is continuously seeking community partners to help bring these programs to life and if you’re interested in taking part, you can contact Thomas Stockting, Community Development Manager by filling out the form found here.

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