TORONTO â€” Octavio Zambrano watched the 2006 World Cup as a fan, opting to mix in some travelling once his native Ecuador was knocked out by a David Beckham free kick.
He eventually decided on Denmark over Finland and Sweden and ended up in a Copenhagen cafe watching the Ukraine-Italy quarter-final.
It was there he met his wife, a Russian who was at the cafe with friends.
For a man whose soccer journey has taken him around the globe, it was one of his best moves.
The 59-year-old native of Guayaquil, Ecuador, has coached club sides in Colombia, Ecuador, Hungary and Moldova as well as the Los Angeles Galaxy and MetroStars in the early days of Major League Soccer.
He has rolled the dice on more than a few jobs. He was headed to Ukraine when the Moldovan job opening diverted him, for example.
Now he is in charge of Canada.
“I really feel that I’ve been preparing for this job my whole career,” Zambrano told The Canadian Press in an interview prior to his unveiling Friday.
In landing the well-travelled Zambrano as head coach of the men’s national team program, the Canadian Soccer Association has hired a charismatic coach with a bulging Rolodex, a penchant for attacking soccer and an appreciation for young talent.
He will be a stylish addition. With his mature matinee idol looks and tailored suits, Zambrano looks like he walked off the set of “The Sopranos.”
His predecessor, Spaniard Benito Floro, was also a veteran manager with no shortage of charm. Floro knew his stuff and was appreciated by Canadian players hungry for direction, but paid for the latest in a line of failed World Cup qualifying campaigns.
Zambrano will benefit from Floro’s work in finding and developing talent. And given his language skills â€” he is fluent in English and Spanish and can communicate in Italian, Russian and Portuguese â€” he should be able to help sell the sport.
The Canadian women have that in John Herdman. Ranked fourth in the world, they walk the walk and talk the talk.
But the men’s world landscape is vastly different.
Ranked No. 117th in the world and 14th in CONCACAF, the Canadian men are in danger of becoming inconsequential. Success on the field is Job 1 but the men’s team badly needs an advocate.
Herdman often talks of Canadian DNA, referring to his team’s grit. Zambrano says he sees the need for an identity for his teams here.
“I think Canada has not had a true identity as a country â€” of how they want to play,” he said of the Canadian men.
He wants all of his teams to be on the same page when it comes to playing style. “One of my strengths is to be able to put that into one solid soccer pyramid, if you will.”
Zambrano enjoys developing talent and points proudly to success stories like Colombian winger Jose Izquierdo of Club Brugge, winner of Belgium’s Golden Shoe award as top player.
Zambrano had him as an 18-year-old at Colombia’s Deportivo Pereira. Jimmy Medranda, a 23-year-old Colombian defender now at Sporting Kansas City where Zambrano was once an assistant coach, is another find.
“I can tell you examples like that, quite a few, in my career, where I have spotted a kid with talent,” Zambrano said. “And perhaps with the help of others and a little bit of my input, they have reached their potential. I expect to do the same with Canada. That’s one of the things I really want.”
Entertaining, attacking soccer remains his first love. He led Los Angeles to a 24-8-0 record in 1998, when the Galaxy scored an eye-popping 85 goals during the regular season but lost to Chicago in the Western Conference final.
But he is quick to note his Galaxy teams came with a stiff defence â€” Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney and TFC assistants Dan Calichman and Robin Fraser all played in Zambrano’s backline.
“Our team was an attacking team, there’s not doubt about it,” Zambrano said. “We went after the opponent … But we had these studs in the back. If we lost the ball. I had full confidence in the guys in the back.”
For Zambrano, finding the right balance is part of the trick of playing attacking football.
Zambrano was 18 when he left Ecuador for the U.S. and Chapman University. California, where he was a successful youth coach, was his home for a long time and it still holds a special place for him.
But he says he puts down roots quickly.
“In that sense I could be anywhere really and call it my home,” he said.
Budapest is one favourite. “A beautiful city. I was very happy to live there.”
Also Ecuador. “My home.” He spent the last two years in the capital, Quito.
But after living in five countries in 10 years, Zambrano says his wife and five-year-old son have had enough of constant motion.
Zambrano will wield control over all of Canada’s men teams. And he says he is hitting the ground running, having already consulted with national team staff.
While his office will be in Toronto, he expects to travel frequently and says he will probably wait six months or so before deciding on the best place for a home base.
He will travel to Edinburgh to see Canada, with assistant coach Michael Findlay running the show on the sideline, play Scotland next week. Zambrano will take charge of the Canadian under-23 team later this month at a tournament in Qatar.
Zambrano’s first home match will be June 13 in Montreal when Canada faces Curacao as part of its CONCACAF Gold Cup preparation.
Victor Montagliani, president of both the Canadian Soccer Association and CONCACAF, says Zambrano’s contract contains “different options” but runs through the next round of World Cup qualifying (for the 2022 tournament in Qatar).
Italian-based Peruvian Javier Livia has also been hired as an assistant coach along with American-based Egyptian Zak Abdel (goalkeeping coach) and American-based Colombian Norberto Salamanca (fitness coach). Findlay will continue as an assistant coach.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press