As a role model, you couldn't ask for better.
Just days before the 2003 World Cup, which was only the third international soccer tournament for women, Andrea Neil was contemplating retirement from the sport. But at 31, she was also ready to lead.
"When I was younger, there weren't many older players to look up to. We were all about the same age and just learning the game as we went along," she told reporters at the time. "So I'll be trying to provide some guidance for the younger players."
She played another World Cup in 2007 and then hung up her boots. On Jan. 9 she took on her latest leadership role as the head coach of the UBC women's soccer program. It caps a storied career.
As a 19-year-old in 1991, she made her national team debut and went on to log 18 seasons and 132 appearances for Canada, including four World Cup tournaments between 1995 and 2007. When she retired after the World Cup in China, she was only one of two players to have hit the century mark of 100 games for Canada.
She won two W-League championships in six seasons with the Vancouver Whitecaps, and was inducted to four halls of fame, including the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 2011.
She is a UBC alumna and won a national championship as a Thunderbird in 1994, the year after she was named the university's top female athlete.
As a young player on the midfield line with Neil, rising soccer superstar Christine Sinclair idolized the older athlete.
But despite the great respect she enjoys from her peers, Neil says developing soccer at UBC will take patience.
"You can't build it all within the fist two days, first weeks, even the first season," said the 42-year-old soccer great. "You build something over the course of years."
Neil's appointment as the Thunderbirds coach came on the heels of a controversial and embarrassing UBC mistake. The university announced another coach was hired one day before the job posting officially closed. That person, Marc Rizzardo, was forced to re-apply along with all candidates and Neil was hired three weeks later.
Neil applied for the job three years ago but was not hired. Her supporters have lobbied to see her coaching the women's program at UBC, not only because they believe she is qualified, but also because of her talent and effectiveness as an ambassador for the women's game.
"I felt that perhaps she should have been the last hire," said SFU women's head soccer coach Shelley Howieson, adding that Neil's appointment is "overdue."
"I've known Andrea from when she came out of high school," said Howieson, who has been with the SFU program its start in 1988. "I've always liked her even-handed personality and felt she would be suitable for a coaching position. I wish her luck."
This is Neil's first head coaching position. She holds an 'A' coaching license from the Union of European Football Associations and was a Canadian national assistant coach.
It's vital she assesses the program and the players in order to establish a direction for the team, she said. "I have my vision, they need to buy into that vision. It's about creating that together," she said. "The vision will be over the course of years and years. The vision is to try and increase the capacity of each player both on the field in a physical and cognitive and technical way and as a team in a tactical way."
Developing players for their lives off the pitch is also essential, said Neil. "Soccer is not just about soccer."
Life experience can't be undervalued, said the coach who lost her mother in 1996 and her father seven years later. Neil, who played badminton for Canada as a teenager at Prince of Wales secondary school in, committed to soccer after she nearly lost her leg following a motorcycle crash.
Experience counts in "the player who has been through big wins and big losses," she said, but also in "a person who has experienced life beyond the pitch."
Neil, one of Canada's most connected and respected athletes, wants to draw beyond her own personal resources to develop the Thunderbirds as people and players.
"There's a lot of people I'd love to work with," she said. "I think there is a lot of capacity that is untapped. It's an incredibly important thing to link past players who have paved the way for a lot of these current players."
Mentorship also happens within the team, said Neil, noting the difference between a freshman who just arrived in a new city to start university and the graduating player who is moving to a career that may keep her on the pitch or lead her away from competitive sport.
"There's an incredible sense of [giving] a great service to, in this case, women's soccer," she said. "I see a huge mentorship capability."
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