“Football,” mused Matt Durrans, “is kind of like a roller-coaster. It’s a lot of ups and downs. One week you can be playing and score a goal, and then the next week, you get injured or the coach decides to hold you out or make a tactical change, and you feel like you don’t belong there anymore.
“You’ve got to just kind of enjoy the moment, enjoy the process and trust the process.”
To take his analogy a bit further, the 22-year-old Durrans is finally off the kiddie coasters and riding the big ones. The Vancouver native signed his first professional soccer contract in August with the storied TSV 1860 Munich, and made his pro debut in a Dec. 12 match against SV Waldhof Mannheim.
There are many stories of Canadians succeeding abroad, but few have a tale of perseverance like Durrans. He and his parents uprooted their lives in West Van seven years ago to move to Germany for what they saw as a Grand Family Adventure, one expected to only last a couple years, at most.
He had been playing in the Whitecaps’ residency system, but the idea of going abroad held appeal on numerous levels, but especially for his development.
“The level of football education that he is getting at 1860 Munich, and in Germany is second to none. It’s sort of like going to Harvard or Oxford or Cambridge,” said his dad, Richard. “It’s a totally different level of professionalism and training here. It’s tough to be an elite soccer player coming through Canada. Maybe it’s a little easier today, I don’t know.
“If you want to be a professional soccer player, what do you do? Certainly seven years ago there was only one answer, and that was to go to Europe. And maybe that’s still the answer, which is a shame.”
When the Durrans departed for Germany, Matt didn’t speak a word of German, the only language his soccer coaches communicated in. He was never sure who or what his teammates in the locker-rooms were talking about. A slight, long-haired youngster, he stood out as decidedly non-German on the field with his fellow players in the TSV U-17 team, but his foot skills spoke enough for him.
“It was not an easy year, for sure,” he said. “I had to walk in and establish myself as sort of a foreigner, not only coming from another country in Europe, rather coming from a completely different continent.
“There’s a lot of cultural barriers and the language … that was a big, big deal. It was seven years ago, so a lot of the emotion and stuff I forget, but I know from my mom and my dad, that they recognized it was difficult for me.
“I know everyone says this sort of thing: ‘Without my parents, it wouldn’t been possible,’ but in my situation, it would literally not have been possible. The things that they’ve done for me and sacrificed for me is something that still motivates me to this day.”
This season sees Munich (8-6-4) in third place halfway through the 3. Liga season, with a massive game against second-place Ingolstadt kicking off the second half on Monday. The top two teams will be promoted to the 2. Bundesliga, the second tier of German football, and one of the most competitive leagues in the world.
Durrans started his development with 1860’s U-17 team, and stayed there until graduating school. Then it was on to Deisenhofen’s U-19 team and a stint with VfR Garching before returning to 1860’s second team. More hard work and development led to a promotion to the first team and his first pro contract.
The Grand Adventure continued for his parents (Richard and Sandra), too. They’ve split their time between Germany and Vancouver the past four years, are fast friends with the owners of the hotel where they stayed the first two months in Germany, and kept the apartment they first rented and filled with Ikea furniture in anticipation of a short stay.
“(Matt) is a very resilient guy, but I think a lot of the reason why (some) young sports guys don’t make it is not because they don’t have the talent, it’s because their support systems are not providing them what they need,” said Richard Durrans.
He’s also received support from elsewhere. Durrans was quick and effusive in his praise of 1860 coach Michael Köllner and his assistant Oliver Beer for their role in his development, as well as director of sport Günther Gorenzel’s vision for the team. Erik Altmann of Isar Sports Management has stepped in for his primary agent, Vancouverite Dylan Hughes, whose visits have been curtailed by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
It was Hughes, who was then a youth coach at 1860, who gave Durrans his first opportunity in 2013. His father, Gareth, was friends with Richard Durrans, as both were youth coaches in West Vancouver. Matt and Richard flew to Germany for a 10-day trial, and after a few days on snow-covered pitches, the 1860 staff was impressed enough to offer Durrans a spot in their academy. Hughes, who played in Europe himself, and Altmann are as much family as they are representation.
They’ve helped Durrans navigate the stark differences in German soccer — and culture — which are sometimes indistinguishable. Tactics are more important than the technical skills. And the direct, blunt, manner in which coaching is offered is distinctly un-Canadian.
“That’s one of the biggest things, whether you’re the most talented kid from Brazil or America or Canada or wherever you are, it doesn’t matter, as long as you are tactically sound. That’s a big, big deal for them,” said Durrans. “You have to know your position, know how to press, how to defend, even as a striker … that’s worth a lot to the German coaches and the way they play football.
“Oliver Beer is someone who’s really helped me develop. He goes out of his way to help young players even though, especially in Germany at the professional level, it’s not like all nicey-nicey, ‘Hey we’re all buddies here.’
“There’s a lot of emotion in training and in games. People aren’t like, ‘Oh yeah, you should play the ball this way,’ they’re like, ‘You should play the f***ing ball like this.’ They say it straight to your face. That’s one of the things how we operate as people in Canada versus here. It’s so different. It’s crazy.”
His former coaches at Deisenhofen and Garching have all spoke highly of Durrans’ potential and work ethic, and his continued ascent might just hinge on timing.
But the latest stop on the Grand Adventure is a major waypoint for Durrans and his family. COVID has meant no visits, and dad Richard watched his debut on a livestream.
When Durrans signed his first contract, there were no hugs, just an emotional pan-continental phone call.
“We talked on the phone, and we were both in tears because this is a journey that’s happened over seven years. He’s always wanted to be a professional footballer ever since he was seven or eight years old,” he said.
“Of course you want the good things for your kids and you want your kids’ dreams to come true and this was definitely a dream.”
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