‘The sport is growing across Canada’: UBCO Heat coach Dante Zanatta excited to see Kelowna host CPL on Tour match
Canadian Premier League

For over a decade, Dante Zanatta has been a central figure in the soccer community in Kelowna.

As the head coach of the men’s team at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, and also having served as the Technical Director of Kelowna United for 12 years, he has been on touchlines and in the stands for countless local matches.

On Sunday, however, he will get to experience something unique. The city’s Apple Bowl Stadium will host a CPL regular season match between Vancouver FC and Cavalry FC, a chance for the Kelowna footy community to experience professional soccer in their city.

It is the first edition of the Canadian Premier League’s CPL on Tour series, which will stage competitive matches at neutral sites across Canada in coming seasons.

“I think it’s a great testament to the work that the CPL has done, in wanting to bring games to different regions,” said Zanatta. “It will showcase the level of play…and hopefully it spurs on some kids to come out and maybe want to take that step and put the time and effort into reaching those levels of play.”

Zanatta has been playing an important role in helping young players in British Columbia do just that for over two decades, originally in Victoria. He first joined UBCO ahead of the 2011-12 season and has been in Kelowna ever since.

“They came and got me,” said Zanatta. “I was actually working for the BC Soccer Association, and living in Victoria, and I came up here to do some work previously, and they were looking for the university coach to go to Canada West and look after a club. So it was a great opportunity to coach at the highest level at that time, and I’ve been very happy with it.”

In Kelowna he has experienced what has been happening across the country in recent years, a significant increase in interest in the sport as Canada begins to make a name for itself globally in soccer. The region now has almost 7,000 players, most of whom are teenagers or younger.

“I think the sport is growing across Canada with the CPL and MLS, and the way our national team is progressing,” said Zanatta. “There’s always been an abundance of kids playing recreationally, but now it’s nice that you see more and more clubs in the professional ranks starting academies and giving kids the opportunity to play at a higher level. It only supports the University programs going forward.”

One such player was Jeevin Kang, a Vancouver Whitecaps academy player who had appeared for the Canadian youth national teams. Kang would go on to play five seasons under Zanatta at UBCO. Nowadays, he is the Director of Football at Vancouver FC, and played a key role in recruiting several local players this off-season to return home to play for the Eagles.

UBCO Men’s Soccer Team Roster 2017. Dante Zanatta (middle row, far left) and Jeevin Kang (bottom row, middle, #8)

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“I’ve known Jeevin since he was like 12, 13, playing in the provincial program and Whitecaps residency,” said Zanatta. “It’s wonderful, and I’m glad he’s involved and has put the effort to bring the game here. You need more people like that who are putting in time to help grow the game in Canada.”

Zanatta says he sees that playing out across the province’s CPL teams, especially with former Canadian men’s national team players Rob Friend and Josh Simpson who are club presidents of Vancouver FC and Pacific FC respectively.

“For Rob and Josh, Josh actually played for me when I was in Victoria, to come back into the country and put their money behind things is always beneficial, because I think that’s been one of our issues in the country, just not having the financial support to get things off the ground…it’s good to see people give back to the sport,” said Zanatta.

It is another significant connection, however, that has Zanatta keeping an especially close eye on the Canadian Premier League this season. After eight years playing in Scotland, his son Dario recently returned to Canada to play for Pacific FC near their hometown of Victoria.

“I’m a little bit choked that Pacific isn’t playing Vancouver here, I mean that would have been wonderful,” said Zanatta. “It’s good to have him back in the country, it gives us an opportunity to go home to Victoria and watch him more often, instead of just the one trip to Europe. I think, as you see in the league this year, guys like Kris Twardek as well have come back. And I think the level of play has increased and players who’d gone away are now looking to come back, because the level of the league has taken strides forward.”

Dario was seven when, in 2004, he sat in the stands at Royal Athletic Park in Victoria and watched his father coach a Pacific Coast League all-star team against Scottish side Hearts as part of the 2004 Pacific International Soccer Series. Eleven years later, the younger Zanatta would sign with Hearts in the Scottish Premiership, kicking off his professional soccer career.

“To develop the passion and the love of the sport, you’ve got to be exposed to it,” said Dante Zanatta. “Being exposed to the sport at the highest level that our country right now, hopefully, it spurs kids to get involved, to put the time and effort and dedication needed to get to those levels of play, be it through University for a couple years, and then the step up to the CPL, or even further. I think the CPL is growing and if games like this, going to different areas, can spur more kids to get involved and put the time and effort in to reach their dreams, that’s always a good cause.”

Friends to Rivals, Dario Zanatta, son of Dante Zanatta, and Jeevin Kang after BC Derby match between VFC and PFC

Zanatta is hoping that Sunday’s match is a vital step in professional soccer coming to Kelowna in the form of a CPL team in the near future. He believes that geographically, population-wise wise and with the increase in popularity of youth and adult soccer. Most importantly, however, it would give the province’s young players another outlet to reach their dreams.

“Is there an abundance of really good young players out there? Yeah, but I think you need more environments for them to be in a professional structure in ages 13, 14 and 16, like they have in Vancouver, Pacific, or the Whitecaps residency, to provide the level of play for kids to be challenged on a more ongoing basis,” said Zanatta. “And I think the more we can develop that in BC, the better the development and the opportunities will be for our players.”

Sunday’s CPL on Tour match in Kelowna will be another opportunity to celebrate how far the sport has come in the province, and the work that individuals like Zanatta have been putting in for it to reach that level.