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Ottawa Citizen: Big dreams for budding star


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Bright future, big dreams for budding star: Damien Merette had to make a big decision regarding his future at the age of 11. It appears he made the right one, writes Don Campbell.

Don Campbell

The Ottawa Citizen

1522 words

5 August 2006

Ottawa Citizen


C1 / Front


Copyright © 2006 Ottawa Citizen

Damien Merette spent his early years trying to be the next Mario Lemieux.

By the age of 11, though, his focus changed. Now, with his skates mothballed, the 15-year-old soccer sensation has his sights set on becoming the next Kaka.

It's a career path that initially didn't sit well throughout the Merette household in West Quebec.

Damien's mother, Sueli Rolon, a native of Brazil, didn't mind so much, but his father Marcel, a former teammate of Hall of Famer Michel Goulet with the junior Quebec Remparts, thought it was the end of the world.

"It was a little awkward," Damien says of making a life-altering decision fresh out of atom hockey. "I knew Dad always wanted me to be a hockey player, and I loved hockey. I felt the same way about hockey as I did soccer, but there was just something different. I could play soccer all year long.

"A lot of coaches called the house. Dad asked me plenty of times: 'Are you sure this is what you want? Are you sure?' But I felt like, if I didn't get used to making my own decision, I would get run over all my life."

These days the hockey player-turned-soccer dad chases balls fired wide of the net by the hockey player-turned-soccer player at Nepean City practices and, during games, paces the sidelines just as he might in a cold hockey rink.

Marcel Merette admits he's no soccer expert, though he willingly joins in at the end of practice when coaches ask parents to scrimmage.

"It took me a week to recover," Marcel says with a laugh, adding he can now see the wisdom in his son's choice four years ago. "I was very disappointed when he decided to give (hockey) up. I thought he too young to decide.

"I was a relatively skilled hockey player who had no speed. Damien was a marvelous hockey player. He had speed, too. But my wife and I agreed it was his choice."

That decision is looking like a stroke of genius.

In a nine-month span in the past year, Merette's rise through the soccer ranks has taken fast-tracking to extremes.

He has moved from being a local player with a load of talent to joining an Ottawa Fury youth team to catching the eyes of Ontario team coaches and then onto the national under-15 team, where he made the final list of 18 and was named a co-captain.

"I try and imagine what it is going to feel like, playing for Canada," he says. "You get to represent yourself, your family and your whole country.

"One day at the national team camp, we all decided that, one day, we would win a World Cup for Canada, and that's what we want to do some day.

"Once I decided on soccer, I had big dreams. I want to be the best player and one day win a World Cup for Canada."

Folks around his club team still joke about Merette's first reaction to being told about a week-long national team camp in Vancouver this past spring. His first concern was his club team's tournament in Montreal at the same time.

"The coach had to tell Damien the national team was like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Nepean City club manager Richard Landry says. "That's the kind of kid he is.

"He makes his teammates look good. He has great vision of the entire field and knows where everyone else is."

Landry feels confident Merette is the total package.

The kid, still seven months shy of his 16th birthday, is passionate about soccer and conscious of his abilities, and he has developed a keen awareness of the sacrifices he must make now and in the future to get where he wants to go.

He maintains high marks at Ecole Nicolas Gatineau, a school whose offerings include the Sport Etude program that combines athletics and academics.

On Friday nights, when he could be hanging with friends, or at the movies with a girlfriend, Merette is most often at home, resting for Saturday's game. It's not house rules, it's his own rules.

"Mom and dad just want me happy, and it's not easy juggling school, friends and soccer," he says. "I try and see my friends regularly, but I prefer to stay well rested and play a good game on Saturdays. There's lots of sacrifices, but hopefully they pay off."

The Merette backyard is a mini soccer field. The neighbour's has a hockey rink.

Many great sports stories start in backyards and while Merette spends time in both -- "Yeah, I still got it," he says about being on the neighbour's rink -- the backyard pitch has helped produce some innovative moves.

In uniform, he has creativity that few players possess, the kind coaches just can't teach.

He also understands the importance of being in the right place at the time time when opportunity knocks and he's doing everything it takes to be ready for that moment.

On the field, Merette draws considerable attention from opposing players and it sometimes means getting physical. Sometimes, it even gets nasty, to the point where, if Merette were on the ice, he might take a two-minute penalty to get even. He's a marked man in most games.

"I get that feeling all the time and, more than once, I've thought about retaliating, but I know it would only hurt the team," Merette says. "Sometimes it even gets crazy.

"But, when you think about it, the best way to get vengeance is to get right back up and score a goal and laugh in their face."

His anticipation is amazing, he is always in the middle of what's transpiring on the field, and he plays both ends of the field and deftly moves the ball to teammates, who have to be sharp to read what he's thinking.

His leadership qualities are also apparent. At one point in a recent game, he calmed a teammate who had drawn a yellow card, at another he exhorted teammates to play closer together so they could support each other.

His energy level knows no end, either, with halts only to rest his hands on his hips during stoppages in play. Otherwise, he's in constant motion.

In person, he's engaging, straightforward, confident and easy going.

Mark Hearn has played professionally in Canada and Scotland and has watched Merette's progress.

"He's technically good, tactically aware and athletically strong," Hearn says. "He has a good approach to the game and he is creative.

"He's also a great leader on and off the field, a person who wouldn't ask anyone to do anything he wouldn't do himself."

Hearn realizes everyone has an opinion on what Merette should do in the next few years.

He wants to go to Brazil and play for a club team. He wants to continue representing Canada. Eventually, he wants to try Europe, where the money is.

"The whole (soccer) network is well connected and the scouts will be out," Hearn says. "He will be looked at on an on-going basis.

"You hear of (English star) Wayne Rooney breaking through at 16. More come through at 18, 19, 20, 21, 22. ... There's lots of opportunity, and I think Damien is on track. I have a lot of time for him."

A biography of Merette's idol, Kaka, says "being a creative midfielder in the Brazilian national team has always required extraordinary (soccer) gifts. Kaka's exquisitely elegant footwork and keen eye for goal make him the genuine article. As he matures as a player and adds ever more strings to his bow, commentators argue over who he most resembles, comparing him to such living legends as Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Rai and Zico. Some even feel he is the answer to Brazil's prayers for a new Pele. Whatever the truth may be, one thing is certain: Kaka's star is on the rise, and burning brighter by the day."

Many of those words could, one day, be just as easily used to describe Merette.

- - -

Soccer in the City: A weekly series on the state of soccer in Ottawa. Next Saturday: the city's best young female player.

Photo: Mike Carroccetto, The Ottawa Citizen / Damien Merette is lauded for his approach to soccer, on and off the field. The night before a game, he most often spends his time resting and preparing at home instead of going out.; Colour Photo: Mike Carroccetto, The Ottawa Citizen / Damien Merette made the decision to drop hockey for soccer at the age of 11 and he's since gone on to play at the national level.

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GET IN THERE MERETTE! Great story, I love the pledge to lift a cup for Canada even though he has a connection to another country. Canada has so many obstacles to overcome to one day compete in international soccer. Lack of popularity and understanding of the sport at home. Lack of a national league route to the pros. Lack of national identity and lack of willingness to "sacrifice" your playing career by wearing the maple leaf proudly, and risk never seeing the World Cup firsthand. Sounds like the last one won't be a problem for Merette. I'm sure everyone here wishes him the best of luck in the future!

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