May 20, 2024
  • May 20, 2024
CS Saint-Laurent

The Magic Of The Cup

By on May 7, 2024 0 1389 Views

In all the great sports stories, whether fictional or real, the David versus Goliath scenario has often been the one to dream about.

Outsiders will no doubt tell you that they want David to win, even if they think Goliath should – who doesn’t love a good underdog story? In the eyes of the CS Saint-Laurent players, last Thursday’s match was nothing of the sort. Was their team underestimated? Yes. Did they have nothing to lose and everything to prove? Absolutely. But if there’s one thing you can’t take away from the players representing the sixty-four, it’s their confidence; that strength to believe in themselves against all odds. Last Thursday, in their eyes, it was Goliath taking on Goliath.

For the first time in the history of the Canadian Championship, a Ligue 1 Quebec team defeated a Canadian Premier League team. This victory represented more than just making it to the next step in the competition; it spoke for a province, it spoke for a group of young men who had been told “no” on more than one occasion. If you were one of those surprised, you should know that beyond the 90 minutes and the penalty shootout, there’s a story to be told, and it looks like I have made myself the spokeswoman for it. 

CS Saint-Laurent Kosta Maniatis
Photo Credit: Adrien Douaire-Duchesne / Move photography

Why Saint-Laurent? 

Ligue 1 Quebec is made up of eleven teams who, each week, battle it out with a single goal in mind: to finish as champions and qualify for the Canadian championship. During the off-season, it’s not uncommon to see players change clubs in search of new challenges or a motivating project. When Kosta Maniatis decided to leave St-Hubert to join Saint-Laurent, he had no doubt that this was what his young career needed:

“Personally I was looking for a team that could meet my professional demands. A team that trained consistently throughout the week and where we could compete for the championship and win, and ideally a team that allowed me to be in an environment where I could continue to grow and improve,” says the goalkeeper.

While some players chose this club for the ideas of professionalism, others did it for that strong family feeling.

“The year I decided to join Saint-Laurent, I wasn’t even planning to play soccer. I had in mind to work and enjoy my summer, but the person who pushed me to join the team was Wesley; we played futsal together and he told me about the project. I’d never played semi-pro because I didn’t see any concrete follow-up to the commitment that was required, but I went to my first training session where I was able to show my abilities freely and where the coaching staff immediately showed an interest in me. Even then, I said to myself that it would be good to have the chance to show what I was really capable of,” explained Loic Kwemi, who, after his first season in semi-pro, was awarded the Golden Boot and Golden Ball awards.

In the eyes of the players who defend the club’s colours, when you step out onto the pitch with CS Saint-Laurent, you’re playing with your family, alongside your brothers, and that’s a bond that definitely makes them stronger in the face of adversity. 

CS Saint-Laurent Loic Kwemi
Photo Credit: Adrien Douaire-Duchesne / Move photography

A different day, but not that much

It would be fair to assume that, on the eve of playing such an important game, stress levels must have been high, yet it was practically unanimous that the Montrealers were confident and comfortable. The Wanderers Grounds was not an unfamiliar stadium for most of them, who had already faced their U-23 team in the past. Yet it was Obeng Tabi, the player who was most familiar with this environment, who felt the biggest stress.

“When I go back there, I’m really nervous. I knew I was going to be seen differently, as if I wasn’t of the caliber to play in Halifax anymore, that the respect was different. I told myself that to prove I could do it, I had to give it my all on the pitch and make sure I had no regrets,” explained the man who wore the Wanderers jersey in 2022. His teammates knew just how much this match meant to him, but Obeng trusted them and knew that, in the spirit of their pre-season, the squad was exactly where it needed to be.

If Tabi was nervous, it was the opposite for Wesley Wandje, the team captain.

“The only time I felt stressed was five minutes before the game, before I came out of the dressing room. Right from kick-off, the only thing I concentrated on was my teammates and what we had to do. We had prepared so well that no scenario could surprise us, not even penalties.”

Beyond what he offers on the pitch, Wesley is the perfect captain. He works hard, brings people together, ensures he is a link between the coaching staff and his teammates, and has blind faith in the guys he shares the pitch with: “Before the match, we told ourselves that the most important thing was to stick together. We win together, we lose together and we don’t point the finger at anyone. If you look closely, when they scored the first goal, a few moments later Halifax were still dangerous and Kosta made a great save – that moment was definitely a game-changer. We knew that in a game like that, we couldn’t afford to be down two goals and the very next play, we scored.” 

CS Saint-Laurent Wesley Wandje
Photo Credit: Adrien Douaire-Duchesne / Move photography

When the second half began, the game was 1-1, and if you were watching from your living room like I was, it didn’t feel like Saint-Laurent didn’t deserve to be there. While you’d think that playing in a stadium where you’re not the favourite could have influenced the outcome of the match, a guy like Loic Kwemi had experienced something more impressive just a few weeks earlier:

“It was a high-pressure match with a lot at stake, but not even a month ago I was in Nicaragua, playing for the national futsal team against the host country, trying to qualify for the quarter-finals. We were playing in front of around 10,000 people, the stadium was full, and a game like that gave me experience in dealing with a situation like Thursday.”

In the 65th minute, it was him who gave his team the lead.

“I was excited,” he laughed. “It was a big moment, to be leading in the second half and it was a good feeling to score. I was so excited that I didn’t even think about my celebration, I just went sliding down the middle of the field.”

Although the visitors held on to their lead for quite some time, the fate of the match was decided by a penalty shoot-out, much to the consternation of goalkeeper Kosta Maniatis:

“I’ll be honest, I was a little disappointed that the game was decided by penalties because I knew their second goal was offside and I thought it was crazy for the game to end that way, but I let it go and concentrated on the rest of the game, which was the penalty shootout.” Kosta was ready, the coaching staff had done their homework and he had all the tools to take on the other team’s shooters.

“We followed the game plan and it was very nice to make the save. After making that save, all we had to worry about was scoring the goal, and I’m glad Mamadou was the one to put it in. He’s a great player and a great guy, he really deserves it.”

You’d think that having to go through a penalty shootout to advance to the next round of the Canadian Championship, while being considered an underdog, would have been a stressful moment for Maniatis, but on the contrary. He had visualized a moment like this, the moment when he would make the save that could help his team win. And the fans?

“They were very present, very noisy and tried to distract me, but listen… this is the stage I’ve always wanted to be on, this is the pressure I’ve always wanted to feel. I’m just happy that in a game like this, my first experience has been a positive one.”

One thing’s sure, this Thursday in May will remain engraved in their memories for a long time to come. 

CS Saint-Laurent Obeng Tabi
Photo Credit: Adrien Douaire-Duchesne / Move photography

What if every rejection was motivation

Quebec has a treasure trove of talent, and even though we’ve been talking about it for a long time, more and more eyes are turning to our players. If you take the time to talk to those who play for CS Saint-Laurent, most of them share a common factor driving their motivation: having been told no on several occasions, and wanting to prove that it was a mistake.

Obeng Tabi is honest about his background, having played under Stephen Hart in Halifax and not seeing his option picked up in 2023.

“Nothing is given to you easily, maybe it’s easier for some players, but I’ve come to understand that in the world of soccer it’s more complicated than you would think,” says the man who has been trying to find another opportunity. “I’ve kept working because I know that a good performance against a good team can offer us a new opportunity.”

Obeng doesn’t hide the fact that knowing that the first game would be against Halifax was all the motivation he needed.

“That game was all or nothing. I was disappointed when my option wasn’t taken, and my mistake was to believe that signing my first contract would ensure that I’d stay in the professional world. Soccer’s a cruel world, but I knew I had nothing to lose!”

Meanwhile, Wesley Wandje can’t count on one hand the trials he’s had where he’s been thanked, without being considered.

“At the end of the day, it’s important to remember why you play, why you keep pushing and for me, my motivation is my mom. What I’m best at is soccer, and my ultimate goal is to put my mother in the best possible conditions, and I know that one day it will all come together.”

Through closed doors, the number 64 has concrete examples of successful players from his neighborhood, including one of his very good friends, Moise Bombito.

“Seeing him succeed is not only a source of motivation, it’s also a source of pride,” explains Wandje. “Moise is an example and we’re all very happy for him. When he was young, he wasn’t always the best, but everyone has their own path and he managed to find his way and take his opportunity. You never know when you’re going to get a call so you have to be ready at all times and that’s what I understood when I saw his journey.” 

For his part, Kosta Maniatis has also tried his luck with a professional team before. Like the others, he was told that his time had not yet come: “When I was on trial with a CPL team, I was still with St-Hubert and of course I had that phase of disappointment when it didn’t work out, but it quickly shifted to like ‘ok, now I’m gonna show you why you’re wrong’ and that was my mindset.” It was this trigger that encouraged him to join Saint-Laurent, in search of matches that could offer him a bigger stage.

Lastly, Loic Kwemi, who has turned heads more than once in various competitions, is also one of those who have had to navigate through disappointment. He took a while to get serious about soccer, and was told he was a bit old to invest in. While his age is an influential number, the most noticeable factors on the pitch are his number of dribbles, assists, and goals.

“What keeps me motivated is playing with these guys who have become like my brothers. It’s also motivating to be able to show what the players in Quebec are capable of, and for me to show what I can bring to a match. We take these opportunities with open arms,” added the player, who has tried out in the USL and CPL without receiving a concrete offer from either leagues. 

CS Saint-Laurent Nicholas Razzaghi
Photo Credit: Adrien Douaire-Duchesne / Move photography

The Nick Razzaghi effect

As I finish writing this article, I can’t turn a blind eye to the man behind this team’s success, and knowing him, he’ll probably hate the fact that I’m saving the last word for him. I’ve been in the game for years now, and I’ve met some great coaches, Nick being one of them; there’s no doubt about it. I think one of the things I like best about Nick, apart from knowing how to surround himself with a good coaching staff, is that he’s always looking for solutions. He’s humble, hard-working, sincere, and an incredible motivator.

I could have spoken to all the players in this group, one by one, and they would have said the same thing; the preparation for this match couldn’t have been better. Nick Razzaghi not only invests countless hours of his time and energy in this team, which he holds so dear to his heart, but he is also always there to praise the talent of the Quebec players and to compliment the staff he works with. If you wish for an athlete to be offered opportunities to develop at the highest level, I in turn wish that someone somewhere would take the time to lay eyes on Nick and offer him the chance to prove that his achievement last Thursday was no fluke.

Rejections and closed doors aren’t the only source of motivation fueling the CS Saint-Laurent players; they know they’re representing their province and want to make sure that the spotlight turns not just on them, but on Ligue 1 Quebec at large.

“Being a semi-pro team playing a pro team is the perfect showcase to prove that Quebec is full of talent, and that motivates us 2,000%. The social media and what people were saying about us, the analysts who were putting Halifax up against Toronto before the game was even played, it’s small things like that that make us realize just how little we were even considered,” concludes Wesley, who turns 24 today.

He takes the time to add that he and his teammates have felt the sincere support of their fellow Quebecers, those they usually compete against united behind them to give them the strength they need to take the next step.

“I think it’s one of the rare years when all the clubs were behind us. I’d like to thank them for their support, they believed in us and thought we could get a result; it’s really heart-warming. We were playing for ourselves, but for them too!”

CS Saint-Laurent takes on Toronto FC tomorrow evening, Wednesday May 8, at 7:00 PM at Complexe sportif Claude-Robillard. You can support the players of the sixty-four by purchasing tickets here.

Header Image Photo Credit: Adrien Douaire-Duchesne / Move photography

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