Paolo Sabak’s signing with Forge FC last month came at an unusual time, as the Belgian youth international changed clubs during a global pandemic.
Let’s start with his multiple COVID-19 tests. Yes, there have been two – both negative, thankfully.
Feeling under the weather with a flight looming to Canada in early March, the 21-year-old took the right precautions, and was tested and cleared by Belgian doctors to board a plane in order to attend Forge’s pre-season in Hamilton.
Arriving in Ontario soon after, Sabak was, well, tested again.
“When I got here I was even sicker,” Sabak told CanPL.ca. “The day after I got the test, I showed up to Forge training and they had shut it down.”
Even after undergoing two traumatic tests for a deadly virus, he never had a chance to train with his new squad.
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It’s been a troubling start to the attacking midfielder’s interesting career move. A young European prospect uprooting from development systems in Belgium and the Netherlands – which have produced some of the best footballers this millennium – to move to the Canadian Premier League.
It’s a first for a second-year league, but Sabak is looking forward to earning a fresh start in the CPL.
“I think I can restart my career here, once I can begin of course,” Sabak said. “I want to play and be a starter. When I started off as a pro at 16, I played a bit, played Europa League, so I know how the feeling is to breakthrough. But there should be more.
“Last year and the year before I think I played a dozen times. That’s not enough.”
The closer you look, the more his decision to join Forge makes sense. Sabak’s tenure at Genk overlapped with current Forge assistant coach Peter Reynders and defender Daniel Krutzen. There’s also a clear path back to Europe. He’s a painfully-obvious like-for-like replacement for Tristan Borges – a player who was snapped up by Belgian second-tier side OH Leuven this winter.
Perhaps what makes the young Belgian’s move to Forge stand out is his reputation.
A product of KRC Genk’s storied youth academy, a young, quick, and hungry Sabak graduated to the senior team at age 16. His senior debut came not long after when he came on as a substitute for current Toronto FC designated player Alejandro Pozuelo in a Belgian league match.
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Quite a start to a professional career. Mix in 20 appearances for Belgian youth sides and you have a potential wonderkid.
“He was a promising player,” Reynders, who was part of the Genk youth setup at the time, said at the time of Sabak’s signing.
“But he was very young… He was playing like a kid, but he’s gotten better at playing with the team.”
Too much, too soon? Perhaps. But as a work in progress, the 21-year-old just wants to be treated as such.
“When I was young, I didn’t hesitate. I wanted to play at the top level as soon as possible,” Sabak said. “Now, I have learned a lot. I just want to play.
“Everyone has an idea of who I am in Belgium. If I make a mistake, people will say ‘oh look, he’s doing the same thing as before,.
“No one knows me here, so I can play how I want, and that’s a good thing.”
Ironically, no one has seen him play in the CPL as COVID-19 protocols and delays remain in place.
“All I’ve seen of Hamilton is my street and the field 300 metres from here,” Sabak said, admitting he found the view of the street impressive.