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Friends and family package gets positive review from Canadians at World Cup

Soccer Down Under proved to be a great experience for Canadian supporters
Ellie Carpenter of Australia and Jordyn Huitema of Canada vie for the ball during Group B soccer action at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Melbourne, Australia, Monday, July 31, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Scott Barbour

Like many Canadians, Roger and Julie Huitema had hoped Canada’s stay at the FIFA Women’s World Cup would have lasted longer.

For one, daughter Jordyn plays forward for Canada. And two, the Huitemas were in Australia cheering her on.

And while Canada Soccer seemingly has not got much right recently, the governing body’s package for helping friends and family at the tournament has got rave reviews. The Huitemas, who returned to Vancouver on Wednesday en route to their Chilliwack home, said Canada Soccer had done an “amazing job” looking after them.

The friends and family package for the women’s tournament was based on the one used at last year’s men’s World Cup with some tweaks, given Qatar offered different challenges than Australia.

Canada Soccer essentially allotted a certain dollar amount for each player in Australia, to help defray costs for family and friends, as part of its overall player compensation.

Money that wasn’t used went back to the player, Roger Huitema said.

The Huitemas booked their plane tickets early to ensure a good price and were joined on the trip by the parents of midfielder Julia Grosso.

“We’ve travelled with them for years,” said Roger. “Because our girls are tight and have always played together.”

Jordyn and Julia are roommates on the road when rooms have to be shared (the players had separate hotel rooms in Australia).

Others, like the family of Olivia Smith, faced a quick turnaround in making the decision to go to Australia. The teenage forward was a last-minute addition to the roster, after impressing at the pre-tournament camp as a training player.

A Canada Soccer spokesman said some 40 people were part of the friends and family program Down Under, with another 35 travelling on their own while getting help on ticketing and other matters.

Captain Christine Sinclair and fullback Allysha Chapman were among those with a good-sized group cheering them in Australia.

While the Huitemas paid for their flights to and from Australia — that was not part of the program — Canada Soccer used the money allotted to each player to pick up the costs after that, including hotel and the Perth-Melbourne-Perth flights for Canada’s second game against Ireland, according to Roger. The first and third Group B matches, against Nigeria and Australia, were in Melbourne.

The friends and families were picked up at the airport. And while some stayed at Airbnbs, the Huitemas were at the Westin in Melbourne and Perth with others in the travelling party.

At games, the friends and family were placed together, a welcome change from the 2019 tournament.

“It’s so different from France,” said Roger. “When we were in France, Canada Soccer didn’t know we existed. And we didn’t know them either. We knew nobody there. There was no representation, there was nothing.

“In France we got our tickets, but we were everywhere. All over the stadium. Nobody was close. We had literally no information at all from Canada Soccer. So we booked all of our own travel, did all of our own Airbnbs and everything.”

Sitting together this time at games made for some tight bonds among friends and family.

Asked if it’s tense watching a loved one on the pitch, Roger chuckled.

The scoreless draw in the tournament opener against Nigeria, for example, produced a mix of emotions for a father who knows his soccer.

“You can see so much of the game in front of you,” Roger said. “I know the systems that they play. So yes it can be frustrating when I don’t see them high enough up the pitch as a team and attacking as much.”

He recalls Jordyn’s first World Cup game in 2019, a 2-1 loss to the Netherlands in Reims, France.

“I was just so ecstatic and so happy. And then she scored but was offside. We were at the other side of the stadium and I had tears. It was just such a moment.”

While the players were in “a bit of a bubble” at this tournament, there were opportunities to mingle.

After the Nigeria game, for example, there was a gathering with food for the friends and family at the team hotel. Transportation was provided, as it was for a pre-game visit to Canada Soccer House where friends and family were given VIP treatment.

There the Huitemas got to mix with Canadian fans.

“My wife and I, we’re outgoing people,” said Roger. “So I went around … and just introduced myself to the fans and say ‘Thank you for coming. And wow, we appreciate you supporting Canada like you are.’”

Canada Soccer had two dedicated staffers on the ground to help the friends and family, helping book excursions and provide support as needed.

Roger also played organizer, booking tickets for a group to attend the July 29 All Blacks-Wallabies rugby game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. More than 30 people took him up on the offer.

“Those are the type of experiences that, for me, we have to see when we’re in a country, if those opportunities are there. Because the chances of us coming back to Australia for any reason, other than possibly soccer, will be slim,” said Roger.

The Huitemas are veterans when it comes to watching their daughter play. Just 22, the Seattle-based OL Reign striker has already won 67 caps for Canada with 16 goals and six assists.

Jordyn was 13 when she made her debut in the Canadian youth program in 2014 and 15 when she won her first senior cap.

Roger retired on the eve of this World Cup after 24 years as construction manager for a company that handled highrise window systems. His wife retired as a teacher two years ago.

But they still have business concerns, owning a pair of cannabis stores named Dutch Bros. Buds (Roger’s parents came from the Netherlands) in Chilliwack and nearby Rosedale.

Jordyn isn’t the only athlete in the family. Both her older brothers forged their own sports careers.

Brody, 27, was part of the inaugural Vancouver Whitecaps residency program before leaving to attend Duke University on a soccer scholarship as a forward. But two concussions in his senior year — one back training in Vancouver and another in pre-season with Duke when he was hit by a knee on a diving header — ended his soccer career.

Trent, 25, played hockey. A six-foot-eight defenceman, he made the Spokane WHL team as a walk-on and played several seasons with the Chiefs. After being released, he joined the Humboldt Broncos but left the SJHL team before the April 2018 bus crash in rural Saskatchewan that killed 16 and injured 13 others.

“He decided after his year in Humboldt that he didn’t want to go back. He wanted to start his life,” said Roger. “And so he quit hockey the year before the crash. Or he would have been on that bus. It still gives me chills today. He lost a lot of friends.”

Trent became a realtor in Chilliwack but is returning to school to get a computer science degree. Brody is now married and living in Washington, D.C., working in sales.

“He’s a great salesman, for sure,” Roger said proudly.

Jordyn began her pro career in France with Paris Saint-Germain in 2019, leaving in June 2022 to join the NWSL’s OL Reign. She made 71 appearances for PSG in all competitions, scoring nine goals.

Roger is not a fan of the French powerhouse.

“Paris Saint-Germain doesn’t take care of their girls. And you can put that on the record,” he said. “There’s a reason all of them are leaving. The training facilities for the women are horrible. Their weight-rooms are in portables. Their locker-room is in a concrete building, at a recreational pool facility.”

PSG made headlines off the field in November 2021 when midfielder Kheira Hamraoui, after an evening out with teammates, was forced out of a car by two hooded men and beaten around the legs with an iron bar. Roger said his daughter was in a car behind Hamraoui’s but turned off to go to home five minutes before the attack happened.

“It kind of put a bit of a scare into her about what’s happening in Europe and in France,” sad Roger.

Four men were later arrested, as was former PSG player Aminata Diallo.

Jordyn’s move to the Pacific Northwest means the Huitemas can easily make the 215-kilometre drive to see their daughter play.

Living in Chilliwack with three kids in sports, the Huitemas did a lot of driving to sports events. Roger said they were happy to do so, as long as their children were enjoying what they did.

“First and foremost that has to be the key. It really does,” he said. “If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing as a kid and your parents are pushing you there, you’ll get to a certain point and you’ll break. You’ve seen it too many times.”

Both parents played sports with Roger in soccer and Julie in swimming. The two started dating in high school and have been married 28 years.

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