Twenty-six years after welcoming eight children to his first training session at Goodwood Park, Dion La Foucade, one of the country’s most respected youth football coaches, has made a life changing decision to close his La Foucade Soccer Clinic to pick up a coaching job in the United States. La Foucade who started from the humble camp located between his home in Carenage and his alma mater, St Anthony’s College before growing into a household name, finally parted with thousands of students, parents, friends and colleagues, ahead of his voyage for Boulder, Colorado, on Tuesday, for a stay of at least three years. The new role for the popular benign disciplinarian is to lecture and grade the 350-400 coaches responsible for the thousands of young charges at Colorado’s largest football academy, FC Boulder, a feeder for MLS club Colorado Rapids. His job description - director of coaching education, also dictates a focus on the professional and scientific development of the club’s coaches and players.
The opportunity to become an instructor at Boulder stemmed from a number of La Foucade’s trips to conduct camps and seminars in the state, as well as his accommodation of a Boulder team in T&T late last year which shaped an even closer relationship. La Foucade was subsequently on the receiving end of dozens of letters of appreciation from both the parents and their child footballers, who returned to the United States with countless stories to tell. Perhaps La Foucade’s regimen of humility and excellence, together with Boulder’s eye-opening visit to T&T and their self-effacing friendly football match with the Youth Training Centre during their stay, was a strong indication of Coach Dion’s understanding of holistic youth development. Many have eagerly awaited his official arrival at Boulder, but many more back home remain stunned by his decision to close up shop after nearly three decades as an icon of Goodwood Park. La Foucade acknowledged it was a difficult choice to make, particularly for the children, but an important one for both him and his country’s growth in football. He said not many have been understanding, but he understood that.
Apart from the major climatic difference, it may not be a tough transition for La Foucade, who is anything but a shy person. But, he will miss his family and close friends, the players and parents, all of whom he has developed a relationship with through his clinic. He made sure to mention: “I will also miss the Trini foods.” “More so”, La Foucade added, “I’ll miss seeing them develop into well rounded disciplined citizens of our country.” La Foucade estimates that over 25,000 boys and girls have passed through his clinic through the years. That number includes those who attended holiday camps, which he has hosted as many as three times in 12 months, in between his regular clinic sessions. His camps have attracted youth coaches from some of the biggest names in club football including, but limited to, Manchester United, AC Milan, Internazionale, Liverpool and Birmingham City. All of the camps, according to La Foucade was an opportunity to expand in his standard as a youth coach and to motivate and bring joy to his football fanatics. However, he could not recall a camp from which he made a profit. “The camp would cost on average $350,000, and I didn’t make it back but they were a big investment. I loved the joy it brought to the children, hearing that they had the time of their lives,” he said.
Now, at 43 years of age, his investments have reaped rewards, both directly and indirectly. Needless to say, La Foucade’s resume could make many an academy owner take notice. Among his qualifications, La Foucade is equipped with licences from Fifa, Concacaf, CFU, UEFA, the Brazilian Football Academy, the United States Soccer Federation, the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, the Dutch Football Association and the T&T Football Association (TTFA). La Foucade was also recognised by the (then) Ministry of Sport and Youth Affairs in 1998 as coach of the year. However, his career undoubtably had its ups and downs. One notable dark moment came in 2002, when La Foucade was controversially removed as head coach of the men’s national Under-17 team after all of four months, for alleged political involvement stemming from a team selection. For those who were not aware of the actual reasons for his dismissal, they may have misjudged him and his ability as a coach. Asked what other challenges he faced in his profession, La Foucade said, “The most difficult experiences for me as a coach are when parents failed to understand that proper development takes time and that there is a science and methodology involved in developing top players. Some of the parents and coaches want their kids to be superstars overnight.”
Finding adequate sponsors for his camps, getting permission from the clubs and attracting the coaches, as well as finding quality coaches locally to work with the children were also among the challenges. Why would La Foucade work primarily with children? “I chose to work primarily with children as I believe that is my God given talent and he wanted me working and helping to develop young people and their values.” La Foucade was still a teenager when he began coaching. Fresh out of St Anthony’s College as a capable defender, La Foucade, who was voted the school’s player of the year in 1987, sustained a serious knee injury, and upon his recovery, immediately executed on his vision to coach. “At one of the coaching seminars I attended I was strongly encouraged by the Canada’s national coach at that time, (Anthony) Tony Waiters, who insisted that I seriously take up coaching. His exact words to me were, ‘you have a knack for teaching and would do well,’” said La Foucade, who was 17 at the time. The words struck La Foucade. He has since been under the guidance and worked together with renowned coaches including Harry Redknapp (at West Ham and Tottenham), Sir Alex Ferguson (at Manchester United), David Moyes (at Everton), and a host of others. His recognition and contributions, particularly at home and in England have earned Coach Dion respect from the game’s finest, as indicated on paper by recommendations from former T&T internationals Lincoln Phillips and 2006 World Cup hero Shaka Hislop.
In a recommendation to the United States Immigration Department, Phillips, who is also a former TTFF technical director wrote, “Dion’s reputation for developing youth soccer players is a matter of record. He has taken his experiences, garnered through the years, from all over the world and successfully transformed these skills into T&T most successful youth soccer organization, the Dion La Foucade Soccer Academy.” Phillips added, “Dion spends quality time in the under-developed regions of T&T, offering free clinics and serving as mentor to many of the youth who never had leadership in their lives.” Obviously, with the opportunity granted, Boulder feels the same. The club’s executive director, Jeff Frykholm, in a letter addressed to President of T&T, His Excellency Anthony Carmona, said he believes there are many tangible benefits in La Foucade’s decision to work with Boulder. “We will continued to bring out teams to Trinidad (and Tobago) as part of our effort to foster good will and cultural understanding,” wrote Frykholm. He added: “I have seen firsthand on many occasions just how special he (La Foucade) is, and how remarkably and profoundly he is able to impact the lives of those with whom he is in contact. While we are ready to celebrate his arrival, we also acknowledge the true pain and anguish that Dion - and many of his friends, players and acquaintances - have encountered as he has considered the possibility of leaving his homeland, for a period of time to pursue his own professional development and personal growth in a new context.”
“Having walked the streets of T&T with Dion numerous times, I know fully well how dearly loved and revered he is in your country. I confess that it does feel somewhat awkward to me to know that we are borrowing, for the time being, a national treasure of T&T. I do not take that lightly.” Two members of the President’s family, who trained at the clinic, La Foucade said, were also not quite pleased upon hearing the news of his departure, but given their humble demeanor were gracious enough to understand the circumstances. While Coach Dion is contracted until 2016 and may remain for another three years, he maintains with strong ambitions for his home country, including a return to the national set up. He said he aims to assist T&T in consistently qualifying for more youth World Cups and, hopefully, another senior World Cup. He said he also wishes to establish a properly functioning scientific academy for all of out (T&T’s) best players. Coach Dion, generally accepted as one of the most popular people from any line of trade in T&T, is as humble and gracious as mostly anyone else as prominent. For that, it is often advised that one avoids walking the streets with him if late for a meeting. Speaking just before his departure over the weekend, La Foucade sent a message to the public: “I would like to thank all the players and parents for giving me the opportunity to work with them and to know that I will always keep them in my prayers and thoughts. Also, I would hope to return to Trinidad to take up where I left off. I want them to always remember that with God all things are possible and that talent by itself will never be enough.”