The Taya Shokker Column: A cup of coffee with Nautsa’mawt and UBC’s Joe Zupo

The Taya Shokker Column: A cup of coffee with Nautsa’mawt and UBC’s Joe Zupo

The first rainy afternoon of June, I met Joe Zupo at a coffee shop on Dunbar Street. The sky was a miserable shade of blue and gray, the promise of coffee and the opportunity to interview a reputable coach and player kept my mood lifted. I looked up from my phone and noticed Joe sitting under an umbrella outside Caffe Artigiano. I greeted Joe with a handshake and sat down across from him under the cover.

I first met Joe months earlier through Ares Football Academy. He never missed a Monday night session at SFU, no matter how cold it was. I asked Joe about his connection to AFA and Farivar (Owner of AFA), “…he [Farivar] was my first point of contact when I got into Vancouver, almost 3 years ago now. He was the first person that I met here when we were working with another club.”

The successes Joe and Farivar had while working at that club together, bonded them.

“When he founded his academy [AFA] I really wanted to make sure that I supported him as best as I could. I was really happy for him to take that step.”

I was fortunate enough to be involved with AFA at the same time as Joe and spent a few hours a week listening to him share his knowledge of the game.

Once the interview got going, neither of us paid much attention to the heavy patter of rain and cars speeding across the street.

Joe shared with me the milestones in his career, starting with four years away from home at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. Although Joe is originally from Ontario, the university was a few hour’s drive from home. That season was different from Joe’s prior playing experiences, which had been closer to home and the continuous support of his family.

Joe’s experience at Queens took his respect for the game to another level. He was the only player to sit on the bench for the entirety of the first match of the season. The following game the starting centre back went out with an injury 30 minutes into the match. Joe came off the bench and never left the pitch after that day. It was around this time that Joe no longer played like what he called a ‘passenger’.

“I don’t even really know when exactly it happened,” Joe started. “I think probably when I got to Queens. I think that’s kind of where I really came into my own a little bit. It was pretty late on, like you’re already 17, 18 by that stage. They named me captain in my second year. And I think I was kind of forced to grow up really really quickly. It was really good for me as a player, as an individual to grow and to have that experience. But no, when I was a kid, there were games when I would hide. When I wish I could bury my head in the sand.”

I wanted to know more about what Joe meant by being a ‘passenger’ and what magic comes from the alternative. Joe took a sip of coffee before answering my question.

“You can’t really be a passenger, you can’t really hide,” he explained. “You have to stand up and be counted, which is something that certain cultures of mine have really imparted on me – to stand up and be counted. If everyone defers to the next person, you don’t have anyone driving the ship. You just have a bunch of passengers that are sitting on a sinking thing.”

I took a moment to visualize the metaphor. So many of my experiences were mirrored in the idea of a ship and passengers. I knew for certain I’d been a passenger at times, and so had Joe, early on in his career.

“If everyone is a driver, you know you’re not gonna sink,” he continued. “I’d rather have everyone be a driver than everyone being a passenger and looking to the guy or girl beside them and saying, ‘who’s gonna pick up the slack here, I’m just going to sort of fold and hide away.’ If everyone did that, you’d never win any games.”

It was relieving to hear even a player as successful as Joe was once a ‘passenger’.

“…and I’ve been guilty of it too in games,” Joe admits. “Where you kind of try and blend in and let the other 10 around you do the heavy lifting.”

Self-confidence grows with time and experience. Especially when you’re thrown into situations where you can either crumble under the pressure or rise. Joe had chosen to rise and meet challenges head on throughout his career. It’s much easier to live with the mindset of leaving the harder or more challenging work to someone else… someone more ‘suitable’ for the task. But if you live and play that way, you won’t ever feel part of the success, and you definitely won’t grow.

Joe also spent two years playing in Australia. As he relives his time spent playing there, some of the moments he enjoyed most were with his team and on bus rides to away matches, pointing out two big differences between his experiences playing in Canada versus abroad.

“I think the big one is how culturally important the clubs are, in Australia especially,” he explained. “The connection of players to club is quite prominent and people really play for the badge. That’s not really something that you get much here [in Canada].”

Joe talked about how he was “fortunate enough to play in two pretty remote places” which involved a lot of travel. “So that was another big one too, getting used to either a bus trip for 5-6 hours on a weekend – every other weekend, or a flight. …I think it seems like Canada is looking to emulate Australia’s NPL structure.”

I hadn’t expected there to be such a contrast between club travel in Canada in comparison to other countries, but the more Joe described the culture and week-to-week atmosphere in Australia, the more it made sense. Canada just wasn’t there, yet.

Joe currently plays with Nautsa’mawt in League1BC, where he also helps support from a coaching perspective. A move made smoother by the fact that he is also a coach with UBC during the U Sports season and the bulk of the Nautsa’mawt team is made up of Thunderbirds players.

It’s a position that lies in a gray area, one where he isn’t quite immersed with the young players around him but he’s also not truly a part of the coaching staff during the short summer season. This unique position on Nautsa’mawt has been an interesting one to navigate but one that he has fully embraced.

His role is unusual because of his involvement with UBC. The switch between player to coach had to be flipped quickly last season as UBC preseason was just a day after the League1 BC final in August. The age difference between Joe and his teammates has also played a part in how he approaches his involvement with the team.

So as a leader on the team, what is his role then and what does he take on his shoulders as being his responsibility?

“It’s been kind of an interesting one to navigate,” he admits. “Obviously they are anywhere from 10 to 12 years younger than I am – a lot of them, the grand majority of them, anyway. I think a lot of it is trying to lead by example. You know, I’m there at training, I’m there for games, I’m in the gym on my own at the school. I’m trying to lead by example and I want them to see what that looks like…”

Playing at a high level and doing it well at an age older than the majority of your competitors takes a lot of commitment. But more than just committing to the grind, there has to be a switch in mindset to allow yourself to keep pushing for better.

“I think it’s just that entitlement factor too,” he continued. “We talked a little bit about my career, how old I am… and I think Covid had a little bit to do with it as well, like I don’t feel entitled to football right now. I know that it’s something you have to work for. It’s something that you have to be prepared for, mentally, physically, emotionally, whatever.”

At this point in his career, Joe feels that football is a privilege. Every time he sets foot on the pitch, he feels grateful to still have the opportunity to be playing. Covid took so much from society and what we knew as the ‘norm’ but it also took away the ritual of sports. There’s perspective to be had when something you’re so passionate about can be taken away so easily.

“I think the older you get, you get a little bit more perspective,” he mused. “You never really know what can happen in life or in football.”

As we move into the second half of the current League1 BC season, I asked Joe what his thoughts were so far and what has been the biggest struggle for Nautsa’mawt.

“We have expectations and we haven’t lived up to those expectations,” Joe said, “And so I think that has been a struggle. Going into games I feel like a sense of… there’s a sense of nervousness a little bit. Where I’m like, ‘we expect to win but right now we’re not and we’re in a bit of a rut.’”

Joe reiterates that the main challenge has been meshing the expectations of the team with the current reality of how the team is performing.

“Because at the moment we’re not as good as we maybe think we are,” Joe honestly admits. “And I think Altitude the other day hopefully was a bit of a reality check. We’re like, ‘this is where we stand.’ I do think that that’s something that the group as a whole does need to really dig their heels in and start to try to fight back a little bit and try to claw us back to where we think we should be. But at the end of the day, we are where we are because that’s what we are.”

“No sense denying that,” I added.

“No, if it meows it’s a cat,” he replied.

Lastly, I wanted to ask Joe what his thoughts were for the near future of football in this country. Although sometimes it feels like we’re miles behind developing the culture of the game, League1 has been a major catalyst in visibility and platforms for footballers across Canada.

What are his hopes for League1 in the coming years and what is he hoping the league will do for Canada and football here?

“I played three seasons [in] League1Ontario, three pretty successful ones,” he said. “Named in the all-time best 11 players in the league, three League1 Ontario first team all-stars. You look at the Canadian World Cup team, and I don’t remember the number exactly… but there is a decent number of those players who played in League1 Ontario who played for Canada in the [2022] World Cup.

“Cyle Larin, Alistair Johnston, Kamal Miller are some of them…. and now the World Cup is coming to Canada in 2026 and there’s a guaranteed spot. I’m hoping – it would be really nice to see if we could have somebody who played in League1 BC be in that squad.”

Joe mentioned the success of League1 Ontario teams over the last several years. The difference isn’t far off from League1 BC teams eventually reaching the standard that Ontario has set. The best example is the recent historic match between TSS Rovers and Valour FC in the Canadian Championship.

“If you look at the best League1 Ontario teams they are not far off being a CPL team,” Joe continued. “If you look at TSS Rovers, they beat Valour and they didn’t just beat Valour, they handled Valour. If you were not aware of who was who, and you watched that game, you probably wouldn’t have thought that Valour was a CPL team and that TSS was a League1BC team.”

League1 Ontario is almost 10 years old now. League1 BC is just in the middle of its second season. BC is a newborn baby compared to the experience and development Ontario has had over the decade.

“The quality in the leagues is there and I’m hopeful that it continues to grow and take on a real foothold as a semi-professional league like League1 Ontario has and that a bunch of graduates manage to find their way into a Canadian national team set up,” Joe explains. “That would be kind of ideal. There weren’t enough BC based players in the men’s team. On the women’s side, totally different. BC for the longest time has been a real catchment area for the Christine Sinclairs of the world.”

“Julia Grosso, Jordyn Huitema, yeah so many,” I mentioned, thinking of all the local heroes I’ve had posted on my wall since I was 12 years old.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of them,” Joe agreed. “On the men’s side there’s a bit of catching up to do, for sure.”

Areas Canada has been lacking in greatly are the platforms and visibility for athletes to perform. There haven’t been enough local opportunities for most Canadian footballers to use to propel their careers forwards. League1 changes that for the athletes but it also changes that for the women’s and men’s Canadian national teams.

“I think it [League1] just needs to really continue to grow,” Joe believes. “Good players need to keep playing in it. Good people need to keep investing their time, their energy, and their money into it. And like I said with everything else, from the very beginning of our conversation, success is a process. It’s not something that happens overnight.”

Thanking Joe for his time and effort to meet me after work, we parted ways. It was no surprise he was off to the pitch for a session. Joe’s career seemed far from over, as we discussed his current and future goals of continuing to work in and around the sport. There was no doubt there would be many great opportunities for him and provided by him in the future.

Football is just beginning to snowball in Canada. My conversation with Joe gave me insight into the development of League1 on the east coast and how much its progress has already shaped the country’s men’s national team. There’s no doubt its growth will continue and potentially double in the next decade.

The more attention we give the sport, the more investment we put into developing the beautiful game, the more we will get out of it in the long run. Every athlete, coach, fan, and volunteer that finds themselves touched by the league should feel the responsibility to leave it better than they found it. In whatever capacity you can, as Joe said it best, “Put your mark on the game.”

There are 2 comments for this article
  1. Chris Corrigan at 16:36

    Felt like I was a fly on the wall at Caffe Artigiano. Lovely piece, Taya.

  2. Taya Shokker at 17:12

    Hi Chris! Thank you for this huge compliment! I’m sure you know it’s any writers dream to hear 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed the piece!

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