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London Free Press: Canucks Abroad

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Crossing the pond

A number of young players from London and surrounding area hope to hone their skills in the coming year with European teams.

By KATHY RUMLESKI -- London Free Press

European soccer fields are full of international players. London has been represented there in the past and this year some new local players are lacing up.

Fabian Knezevic Jr. has been with Croatian Premier Soccer League's Kamen Ingrad junior team since early May. The former Canadian national development team goalkeeper got the call from Croatia this spring after trying out last year.

Kamen Ingrad, which plays in a new 10,000-seat stadium in Velika, finished seventh out of 12 teams last season.

Knezevic, 17, who was attending St. Thomas Aquinas when he was invited, made great progress under London's Luka Shaqiri when he was younger, his father says.

Two years ago, Knezevic told The Free Press his goal was to play professionally in Europe. There are not many who actually realize that dream, however.

The elder Knezevic is extremely proud of his son.

"We're more than glad to see him there. I have to give credit to my wife (Mary-Ann). She took him to practice all the time."

That included trips to Toronto at 5 a.m. in the middle of winter and games throughout Ontario and the United States.

Knezevik trains with Kamen Ingrad twice a day as the team gets set to start play in July. The junior squad travels with the men's team and plays its own matches.

"He has a really excellent chance to be called up," said Fabian's father, who at 60 still plays soccer in the Middlesex Masters league.

The elder Knezevic says his son's skills have been honed while he works with Ingrad's goalkeeper coach.

Another Londoner heading to a soccer-crazy country shortly is Michael Pereira.

The 16-year-old phenom, who plays with Canada's under-17 team, has signed a contract with 2004 Portuguese champion FC Porto's development team. He leaves for Portugal at the end of July for "a new life."

Pereira was courted by some big-time soccer clubs, including Newcastle and Sporting, and chose Porto because he has relatives nearby.

The player, who speaks Portuguese, also liked the package the team offered. That includes $700 a month as well as expenses, and enrolment in a private international school.

Porto has made a two-year commitment to the centre midfielder -- who also plays for the provincial squad and Martin Painter's London Dynamite -- with an opportunity to renew for two more years.

"When they asked me to stay, I was just in shock," said Pereira, who scored two goals for Canada last month in a 5-0 victory over Haiti.

"I'm starting a new life. I'm nervous . . . scared a little bit.

"I'm leaving behind an amazing life," the Grade 10 CCH student said. "At the beginning, I thought a lot about that. But now I've made up my mind and I'm going over there with the intention of staying for good."

Pereira travelled to Portugal with his family in March. He said Porto officials were impressed with his physical makeup and condition.

Three members of Western Ontario Soccer League's White Eagles will head to Poland this summer for soccer action.

Matt Baca, 21, of St. Thomas will try out next month for Legia Warszawa in the Polish First Division.

The White Eagles 'keeper spent last October and November, playing in intrasquad games and practising with Legia Warszawa, which won the Polish championship and League Cup in 2002.

Baca picked up some pointers and was told what to work on for his next tryout.

"When I went the first time, it was more of a learning experience for me," he said. "Now I've worked on what I need to improve. This time I think my chances are a lot better than last time."

Baca said he also lost some weight over the winter, which has improved his speed and agility.

"I'm a lot quicker than when I was there the first time. I feel more set."

Baca's White Eagles teammate Mark Drapala, 18, is heading to Poland to train with two teams with the hope of catching on.

He'll be paying a visit to First Division team Togr Szczecin and Third Division club Energetyk Gryfino.

Finally, in August, Adrian Majcher, 18, will join an Ontario squad getting set to play in the World Cup of Poland, which attracts Polish teams from around the world.

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