This year, the UEFA Champions League has a Canadian feel, although it’s pretty easy to miss.
Canadian international goalkeeper Milan Borjan became the first Canuck since 2007 (Lars Hirschfield, Rosenborg) to appear in a match of the biggest and richest club soccer tournament in the world.
The 26-year-old was born in Knin, Yugoslavia (part of present-day Croatia) and moved to Hamilton, Ont. when he was a teenager.
Borjan has played with the Canadian senior men’s team 19 times, most recently in a 3-1 victory over Jamaica.
For the majority of his career, he has bounced around small-time European sides in Serbia, Turkey and Romania, but on Friday, September 12th, Borjan got the biggest break of his professional career.
He was signed by Ludogorets Razgrad, a Bulgarian side which recently qualified for the UEFA Champions League group stage in dramatic fashion.
However, the team had a gaping hole at goalkeeper. Starter Vladislav Stoyanov and backup Ivan Cvorovic were each suspended for separate incidents. So, they phoned up Turkish club Savasspor and signed Borjan.
He was given the assignment of starting in goal to face English giants, Liverpool F.C. at Anfield. Talk about pressure.
Borjan did pretty well for himself, keeping the game scoreless for 82 minutes, thanks in part to a spectacular stop in the 53rd minute. But there was nothing he could do about Mario Balotelli turning and firing a shot passed him from close range.
Miraculously, the Bulgarian minnow tied the game in extra time, setting up what would be a massive upset.
But Borjan made a mistake only two minutes later as he came off his line and tripped up midfielder Fabio Borini in the box, giving up a penalty. Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard calmly placed the ball in the bottom corner to get the win for LFC.
Milan Borjan held his own in that game, but his future with Ludogorets is now uncertain. The club now has four goalkeepers on their roster and he would be battling with Cvorovic for the backup spot.
I am unaware of the suspension situations of the two other goalies, but I’d expect at least one of them to be back in action when Ludogorets plays Real Madrid on October 1st.
Regardless of what happens next for Borjan, it was a proud moment for Canadian soccer, in a time when there’s not much to be proud about. The men’s squad has won only one of their last 17 games, dating back to October 2012.
However, the team did recently gain two spots in the FIFA World Rankings, going from 122nd to 120th.
Raising in the international rankings and a player appearing in the biggest club tournament in the world – is this a sign of a rebound for the Canadian men; albeit long and drawn out?
Probably not, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.