The thought of kicking a competitive ball in anger for any soccer player in Canada right now still seems some way off. But for one international defender, that dream is about to become a reality on Friday.
Doneil Henry cannot stop smiling. As he drives to training on Thursday morning in South Korea he knows he is back in a familiar routine, preparing for a game and going through the usual mental and physical steps he enjoys to be ready. “I cannot complain at all. Everything is pretty good here and I’m really looking forward to the game,” he tells TSN.
He no longer needs to look far to see it, but that hasn’t always been the case for the former Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps centre-back who has been on quite a journey the last few months.
Henry left Vancouver and signed with Suwon Samsung Bluewings in November and expected to start the season on February 29. Before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic halted the K-League, the 27-year-old was thrilled with how his team was coming together after two hard-fought losses in the Asian Champions League ahead of the domestic opener.
“We started those games at a really high level early and I was impressed at how quick the team jelled,” said Henry. The Bluewings started their campaign against Japanese side Vissel Kobe at home, narrowly losing 1-0 to a 90th-minute strike by Kyogo Furuhashi. But for Henry, it will always be a game he will remember for playing against Spanish and former Barcelona legend Andres Iniesta. “He is still class, his legs may not be the same but the brain is and he orchestrated the magic and we lost right at the end, unfortunately.”
After another narrow loss in Malaysia that Henry remembers mainly for the incredible heat he found himself unsure of what was to follow. He’d loved everything about the culture of the club and country he now called home, including having a familiar face close by with his sister teaching just an hour away, but with the league on hold and football carrying on around the world and, in particular starting again back with MLS in his real home, he found himself wondering what was to come.
Henry flew back to Vancouver in March and entered self-quarantine ahead of the expected national camp for Canada in Victoria that was supposed to take place from March 23-31 with games against Trinidad and Tobago. While back in Canada everything else started to shut down and once that camp was cancelled be flew back to Suwon and again entered another 14 days of self-quarantine.
“I was isolating almost for a full month,” he recalls. It gave Henry a lot of time to think and he was determined to settle and enjoy his new opportunity. The surroundings that were once peculiar became more regular and having spent the time to embrace the culture and its people he found himself missing only one thing. Football.
On April 25 the K-League announced plans to restart the league behind closed doors on May 8 when Henry’s team kick off the campaign against the reigning champions, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. Strict social-distancing regulations will remain, including no pre-match handshakes, coaches must wear masks and communication between players and their teammates, and between players and officials, is to be as limited as possible.
“The club [has] been very professional while taking things serious[ly]. There [have] been strict instructions to go from our homes to the training grounds and back. They provide us with meals and we report everywhere we have been to them every evening. When we are at training we get fever checks and if any player feels any elements of sickness they stay home,” said Henry.
Suwon prepared for the new season by playing some university teams and instantly Henry felt the motivation and excitement he feels before every professional season starts.
“To be the first Canadian to play in this league is special but I didn’t know much about this league before I came here. It’s a very hard league, a fast league full of technical players who give everything and I mean everything. When the final whistle goes so many of them are exhausted because of their commitment levels. It’s been really good for me.”
He admits the biggest challenge has been the language barrier and says he has grown a new appreciation for any player who arrives to play football in a country where they are unfamiliar with the dialect. Henry has naturally grown close to a couple of Australian teammates who use a club translator with the Canadian but has also developed a good relationship with his fellow defenders including Min-Sang Gi who knows some English from his time with the youth academy at Watford.
“It’s been good to train and work with the defenders and we’ve been experimenting a little more with a back three system ahead of the first match.”
Henry is aware much of the world is starving for professional sports and is thrilled when he is told that the game is being shown live for free on YouTube, kicking off at 6 a.m. ET on Friday morning.
“I’m looking forward to playing the champions to start the season because that will be a good test for our team.”
Above everything else, however, Henry is just delighted to be back doing what he does best. Once it is seen as safe to do so, many other professionals will be hoping to do the same sooner rather than later.
The game is available at K League’s official YouTube channel (youtube.com/withkleague) and at its official Twitter account, @kleague. The match will kick off at 7 p.m. Friday (6 am ET) at Jeonju World Cup Stadium in Jeonju, 240 kilometres south of Seoul.