Sam Charron has great expectations for both the future of his team and himself in Paralympic 7-a-side soccer.
Since winning MVP of an international tournament in Barcelona, Spain back in 2012, at the age of just 14, the Ottawa native has carried himself with a certain level of confidence and composure not often seen within athletes of such a young age, Paralympic or Olympic.
“It was an experience that I could never put into words,” said the now 18-year-old. “Barcelona is one of the top soccer tiers you can play at. Just being there, soccer-related, was already a surreal experience, and on top of that you’re playing for your country in Barcelona, Spain.
“MVP is MVP, but we played as a team and won the tournament and that’s pretty much all that matters.”
Such an experience has allowed Charron to continue his success while growing with the rest of Canada’s 7-a-side national men’s soccer team.
“I feel like I need to step up my game to step up everyone else’s game, for my teammates, my country and myself,” said the Canadian. “I will take it upon myself that if I can get better that the whole team can get better.”
Canada currently ranks 10th in the world in 7-aside, and needs to crack the top 8 to potentially qualify for the next Paralympics at Tokyo, in 2020.
Seven-a-side soccer is similar to 11-aside soccer, with a few small, but very significant differences.
Those minor rule changes make all the difference on the field, as 7-a-side is distinctively a faster, more aggressive and physically demanding version of the sport.
“We can throw in like you’re throwing a bowling ball, because some guys obviously cannot throw the ball over their head with both hands,” said Charron. “And we have no offsides.”
The size of the playing field, goal area and net are smaller, and teams are also allowed to make more than three substitutions in a game.
Seven-a-side is played by athletes with cerebral palsy or other neurological disorders. The athletes are classified between FT5 (the most severe) and FT8 (the least severe).
Each team is required to have one FT5 or FT6 player, and a maximum of one FT8 player on the field at a time, making players who fall in the middle classifications that much more important.
Charron is an FT7, meaning that half of his body has been affected by cerebral palsy or a neurological disorder, causing him to walk and run with a limp.
“He’s a big kid, strong kid, and without a doubt the best FT7, in the world maybe, at his age group,” said national team coach Drew Ferguson. “His day is going to come when he becomes a very, very big star.”
Ferguson thinks this program is seeing some of the best young talent coming up through ranks it has ever seen, led by the young phenom.
“I would say, right now, if we took our best under 19 team to the tournament in Europe, we would probably be in the top three or four teams to win everything,” said the former Canadian professional soccer player.
“Their attitudes are top notch. You don’t see them really around on the ground, you just see people that work as hard as they can.
“The attitude of the team is tremendous.”
Charron and his teammates were also able to share very rare experience, playing 7-a-side soccer in front of a home crowd at the 2015 Parapan Am Games in Toronto. Canada finished fourth, losing a heartbreaking bronze medal game to Venezuela 2-1.
“The support was surreal. There’s no other tournament or game that matches that atmosphere,” he said. “That was the biggest crowd we’ve ever seen. I’m hoping that if we ever have tournaments in Canada again in the near future that the fans will come out with even bigger support.”
While Charron, and the rest of his team, were devastated at the outcome, he knew it was time to look at this overall experience as a positive, learn from it, and move on.
“We have a good core group of guys. We’ve got the best pool of players I’ve seen in my time with the team. It’s obviously not what we wanted, not qualifying for Brazil,” said Charron. “But it’s just one more obstacle in the road. We’re just going to keep fighting because with our Canadian spirit, you never know what could happen.”
Charron, along with the rest of the team, will be immediately put to the test this summer at another international 7-a-side tournament in Denmark.
“I’m hoping that we can take the tournament. In the big games that we’ve seen, we haven’t fully exceeded our potential. I know this year, we’re going to exceed that potential.
“We’re going to take Denmark by storm and surprise everyone,” said Charron. “When we’re getting better, the other teams are getting better too. But we’re going to push through and hopefully take this tournament as a team.”
Meanwhile, with most of the summer off after failing to qualify for the Paralympics, Charron plans to use his time wisely, preparing for university and continuing his 7-a-side training.
“I will go as far as I can with this team. I will not leave them in the dust because this team has shaped me into the person I am today,” said Charron.
“If ever something bigger comes along I will take it, but I would want to make sure this team is in the right shape before I leave.
“This is how it’s going to go for now. I’ve got university and this team. I’ll gladly take that step further.”