by Victoria Lopatka, Staff Writer
Name: Ali Zohar
Position: Defensive midfielder
Favourite soccer player: Zinedine Zidane
Fun fact: Loves to watch anime
Four new players joined SFU’s men’s soccer team this season, including defensive midfielder Ali Zohar. From Bangladesh to Kentucky to Surrey, Zohar has demonstrated commitment and drive on the field, racking up several accomplishments — including being named the 2017 BMO Whitecaps Youth Player of the Year. After being benched with an injury for almost all of 2020, Zohar is back. The Peak caught up with Zohar right before his first official league game to get his take on confidence, family, and cold showers.
Editor’s note: Some answers have been edited for concision and clarity
The Peak: What does a defensive midfielder do during a game?
Ali Zohar: On the SFU team, they want me to help with the build-up phase, help the team, ticking, control the game and tempo, making plays from a deep position — I’d say is the best way to describe it. Get the ball, break up plays defensively, and pick up smart positions with and without the ball, get it moving, find forward passes, find my teammates in the opposition’s half. I’m the guy that connects with everyone.
P: Could you walk us through what your soccer career has been like, from kicking a soccer ball for the first time to now?
AZ: I was born in Bangladesh. My family and I moved here as refugees. So, I would say I started kicking a ball here in Canada. I used to play back home on the street when I was very little, like seven or eight, but it wasn’t with a soccer ball. It was more like a flat volleyball or maybe a plastic ball or something.
When I first came to Canada [ . . . ] I think in grade five, this kid saw me play at lunch and saw I was somewhat okay, and invited me to play on his team. His dad was the coach at that time. So, I went to the team and played there.
I played with that team for a year, I went from bronze, silver, and gold — three different levels in one year. From there, I had a mentor. He’s like my soccer dad; his name is Jack Reddy, and he’s helped me with every step of the way, from when I started playing soccer in Canada until basically now. He mentors me and gives me advice.
After I was done with that team, I went to play BC Soccer Premier League with Coastal FC 2000, won the provincials with them, and played for a year and a half.
I went to play for Surrey United SC, and played there a season, then got called up for the provincial team and made the Whitecaps.
From the Whitecaps, I got called up to play for the U15 national team at the age of 14. I also went on to the U17 team camp at the age of 15 or 16. I was named the 2017 BMO Whitecaps Youth Player of the Year, then had some opportunities to train and play an exhibition with the Whitecaps First Team. I was really grateful for my five or six years at the Whitecaps.
I committed to Northern Kentucky University to play NCAA DIV1 Soccer, did two years there, was named in the Horizon League Fresh XI. But then I had surgery, in 2020, and I was out for all of 2020.
Now I’ve finally transferred to come back home to play under coach [Clint] Schneider and [assistant coach] Kevin Harmse. That’s one of the main reasons I transferred to SFU, just knowing Kevin Harmse from when I joined the Whitecaps at the age of 13 or 14. Harmse was there for like six months, and I got to know him very well, he was a really good guy.
He’s someone who played pro and I know I will learn a lot from him. We stayed in touch over the years. It made my decision to come to SFU easy.
They have a really good playing style, and it suits me really well. I’ve been friends with most of [the guys] from when I started playing at a young age and I’ve stayed in touch. Throughout my journey, even until now, I have had so many friends, family coaches, teammates help me along the way.
P: Could you tell me about that injury you mentioned, if you don’t mind getting into it?
AZ: I went to Northern Kentucky University. My first year was in 2019. A month into the season, I basically tore my meniscus a little bit, and I kept playing because the season was so short and I didn’t want my first season to go down like that. I just went through the pain and kept playing for a month longer [which] made my knee even worse.
There was a point where I had to stop because it was getting worse and with three games left before the season ended [ . . . ] we weren’t going to make the playoffs. The physio team in Kentucky decided it would be best if I rested and did rehab on that knee.
I came back home during winter break in January, rested for that period, saw my own physio, and he was helping me with everything, doing rehab every day.
I went back to Kentucky in January 2020 and then I was just feeling good, just wanted to train every day, sometimes even twice a day plus a gym session on top, because I hadn’t trained for like three months. I think I came back too soon to training fully [ . . . ] I went to the field, kicked the ball the same way as I did the first time I injured it, I felt the exact same pain in my knee. At that moment, I called [my] physio right away. The next day I got an MRI and an X-ray, and they gave me the bad news that it was a really big tear. I had to get surgery as soon as possible, and so I got surgery on February 14, on Valentine’s Day.
From then on, I was just recovering for the whole of 2020, and now I’m finally back. Healthy, feeling good, and excited to play for SFU.
P: That must’ve been really difficult, especially the second time. What kept you going while you were recovering? Was there a thought or idea that you were holding onto?
AZ: I think, for me, my motivation comes from my family. Seeing where we came from. It just makes me hungrier and hungrier, wanting to work even harder.
P: What has been your impression of the SFU soccer team thus far?
AZ: It’s a really good team. A lot of talented players with really good attributes and character, but I knew I was going to bring something different. I knew that this team could go really far with the talent they have, and the coaching staff is really good. I’ve watched the players play before, trained with them before, played with most of them growing up, so I kind of knew what it was going to be like and knew what kind of players they were. It’s a really good team that likes to play football. It’s a really good playing style, and the coaching is really good. It’s a really good set-up, and I’m so happy to be here.
P: Speaking of your coach, Clint Schneider, he has said you bring communication and leadership potential to the team — what’s the secret to being a great leader?
AZ: I don’t know about communication — because I’m not the best at it when it comes to on-the-field. I do communicate, but not as much as I should be doing in my position. [ . . . ] I just like to keep learning, analyzing, from everyone.
Leadership, I think it is almost a natural thing. There are leaders that lead by example, leaders that vocalize [ . . . ] I scream here or there, but I’m more of a leader that leads by example. Maybe like winning the ball in the air, making a good pass forward that breaks the other team down — I think that’s the type of leader I am.
P: Which do you think is most important for an athlete: confidence or resilience?
AZ: Every athlete has to be confident, they have to believe in their abilities. If they don’t believe in themselves, then why play the sport you love? I would say a bit of both, just believing in who you are and knowing your ability.
P: Where does your passion for soccer come from?
AZ: I’d say it’s my brothers — I have two older brothers, two younger brothers, and a younger sister. My two older brothers used to play back home in the village, so I used to walk to go watch their games. When we came to Canada, I got really into watching games and watching my favourite player [ . . . ] Zinedine Zidane. He was really good when I first heard about him, but I never got to see him until I came to Canada.
P: I’m noticing a theme of family — your soccer dad, your family inspires you — so would you say family is very important to you?
AZ: Family is very important, the most important thing in life.
P: What is your pre-game routine?
AZ: It’s changed a bit in recent years, it also depends on what time the game is. If the game is in the morning, [I would] wake up early [ . . . ] watch a game or two, have some breakfast, and head to the game. Before the game, I would listen to some nice RnB music, and relax [ . . . ] just calm my mind. I usually take cold showers most of the time. If it’s a game at like 7:00 p.m., then breakfast, watch some games or anime — just relax as much as I can. But there are times when you do think about it, so just know it’s normal, part of the game.
P: I’ve heard cold showers are good for you, but I’m not sure they’re for me.
AZ: I love a cold shower, I used to take cold showers like two to three times a day. It’s really good, plus it cools me down so much. For me, when I take a hot shower, I don’t feel like I’ve taken a shower.
P: I guess you get used to it, right? Anyways, if you could give advice to younger athletes looking up to you, what advice would you give them?
AZ: I would say work really hard, do the extra work on the side when no one’s watching. A great mindset and mentality go a very long way. No matter how good you are, you can always work hard to get better. Growing up, I wasn’t technically or physically the biggest guy on the field, or the smartest player on the field — I had to work for everything [ . . . ] I’m still not athletically gifted, so I try to watch a lot of games and become smarter, analyze the games, learn from the game, put in the extra hour in the gym with my trainer, Gavin. It’s those small things that make a big difference as you get older.
Nutrition is a really big thing — that is one of the most important things I didn’t have growing up. The Whitecaps tried to help me out with my nutrition plan, but I wasn’t disciplined enough [ . . . ] we eat different food at home than what some people eat — pasta, this, that. I grew up eating rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner back home in my village. It was basically the same for most of my life. At the end of the day, nutrition goes a long way. I wish that was something I took care of when I was younger. There were literally times when I had a chocolate bar, or nothing for lunch, or just one meal throughout the day, and just went to a game.
P: Speaking of food, what’s your favourite post-game meal?
AZ: I love rice, and maybe steak, grilled chicken, shrimp or prawns, or baked salmon or pasta, or chicken alfredo, something like that. I love pasta and rice. Can never go wrong with that.
P: What are you looking forward to in upcoming seasons and your future with SFU?
AZ: For the season, I’m just really excited to play my first game [ . . . ] We’ve played pre-season games and trained a bunch with the guys, and now I’m just excited to get on the field with these guys, y’know? I would say we’ve got really high expectations of ourselves for this year, got a really good group of players, talented players, good coaching. I think just seeing how far we go together as a team, game-by-game, and hopefully going all the way.
We play a lot of top teams this season, which is really exciting, and we travel a lot, which is nice, too [ . . . ] My main reason for transferring to SFU was for me to go somewhere, professionally. I knew that if I came to SFU, this was like the perfect place to be a pro, to go somewhere, to be a pro. I just knew that I could learn a lot. Also get my degree at the same time, hopefully.
To read the rest of this interview, visit the-peak.ca.