For 12-year-old Henok Hiebert, his mother Jennifer Stayner, and their family, being part of the Winnipeg soccer community has been extremely important ever since the Canadian Premier League kicked off in 2019.
Henok liked soccer already when the league’s inaugural season began, and they decided to take him to the first Valour home game. They were all immediately hooked.
The atmosphere, the new friends, and the spectacle on the pitch were enough to make them passionate fans and members of The Trench, a section of IG Field with some of Valour’s loudest fans. The section is also home to the “Trench Kids”, featuring a handful of passionate, young fans in attendance at Valour matches, including Henok.
Jennifer said that they “weren’t huge soccer fans before Valour was here,” before Henok interrupted to remind her that he was with a smile.
“Immediately we connected with people at the games, and outside the games, as well as obviously the fantastic soccer. The team, the players and the environment, it’s a whole lot of fun.”
Henok quickly became a passionate fan of the club, soaking up knowledge about the team. By chance, a trip to the dentist turned into a lifelong soccer memory. On the way home they passed by a field of players training, and figured out that it was the Valour team. They stopped to watch and someone invited them to get a closer look, and then meet the squad.
As he made his way around introducing himself to people, he met Ali Musse. “There was that moment when he met Ali, and there was this fist bump, and that was where it all began,” Jennifer explained.
“Shoutout to my boy Ali,” Henok added with a huge smile on his face. “I first saw him and I was like ‘I like the way he plays’. He’s such an awesome guy and really kind to me… we gave each other a fist bump for the first time, there’s a picture of that, and we have good memories.”
What started as such a simple gesture, fist-bumping a young fan, became a relationship and an admiration that nobody could have predicted. Henok’s passion for the team continued to grow, and Musse was his new favourite player.
It’s also a gesture that largely happened because of how accessible the Canadian Premier League can be. It would be nearly impossible for a fan wanting to meet the likes of Lionel Messi to actually interact with him, but the current scale of the CPL allows fans to get up close and personal with many of the league’s best.
It was clear from listening to Henok’s enthusiasm when telling stories and his ability to recall details that Valour, and the people associated with the club and sport more generally, mean a lot to him. Three years later, he still remembers that Tyson Farago was the first player to come up to him and say hello at the aforementioned practice in 2019, and he remembers that Marco Bustos scored a 90th-minute penalty for Valour to steal a 1-1 draw against Cavalry on his birthday that same season.
As part of his birthday celebrations that year, Henok went bowling with some friends and family. Also getting an invitation was his new friend Ali Musse, and to the surprise of those in attendance, he showed up.
“I was so scared he wasn’t going to show up,” Henok admitted. “Then he walked through the door and I was like ‘Ali’s here!’ and we had pizza, went bowling, took a photo together. He gave me a CPL soccer ball that I used… a lot… and that’s what he wanted me to do.”
“It was entirely unexpected,” Jennifer said. “There had been these chance encounters — my husband took Henok to watch one of the away games and there was Ali at Nicolino’s (a restaurant in Winnipeg), and they had pizza… and then a month later it was Henok going ‘hey, do you want to come bowling with me?’ and Ali showed up to our family bowling night. It showed me the type of character he has.”
For Musse, it was a gesture that was important for both himself, and for the family. They were becoming friends, and he knew how much it would mean to him.
“That was a great time, bowling with him and his family, and a couple of his friends were there as well,” Musse told CanPL.ca. “His mom invited me to the bowling party that he had, and I had nothing going on that day, so I thought ‘Why not surprise the guy, have some fun with him?’ and it turned out to be a great day.”
When he was set to leave Valour, Musse gave them his contact information so they could stay in touch. They had formed a bond that was important to everyone, and he wasn’t about to let that change.
“At that point, at the time I left, we were already friends, so we had created a relationship,” Musse explained. “We hung out a couple of times during that season, so toward the end of the season I thought ‘why not?’ A new friend and I wanted to keep in touch with the guy, and hopefully next time I see him again we can hang out.”
After that 2019 season, however, there were some roadblocks. With the COVID-19 pandemic beginning, there was a lot of uncertainty in the world already, and with Musse not returning to Valour, it created some extra anxiety for Henok about whether or not he’d ever see Ali again.
“I thought he was gone, I thought he wasn’t coming back, and I was super sad,” Henok said. “Then my mom’s CPL friend texted her and my mom was upstairs doing stuff, and I was downstairs watching a show on TV. I saw the text and it said ‘Cavalry is proud to announce they’re signing Ali Musse.'”
Jennifer thought he was joking at first, but then when she saw the text herself it was a happy moment for the family, a moment of hope. After the 2021 season finally began again in June, the CPL chose Winnipeg as its location for The Kickoff, the bubble to play the first eight games to start the 2021 season, with games at their familiar IG Field.
After Henok and his fellow “Trench Kids” at IG Field sent a nice message to Atlético Ottawa goalkeeper Dylon Powley and were praised for their kindness, Powley arranged to meet them and brought them some gifts.
With all the teams staying in the same hotel while in Winnipeg, Henok was hopeful that he’d be able to see Musse as well, but wasn’t feeling too optimistic. He texted Ali, hoping that he’d get to see him again after a year and a half apart, and while they were meeting with Powley, another special guest came out of the hotel doors.
“I saw the door open and thought ‘Who is that?’ but then I realized ‘Oh, it’s Ali Musse!’,” Henok recalled with a huge smile. “I just ran over to him and gave him a hug, I started crying, I feel like he almost cried. I wiped my tears away and I was so embarrassed, it was just so awesome, then we started to catch up with each other.”
“I finally didn’t have to answer the question ‘Will I see Ali again?’,” Jennifer said, adding that Henok had asked her the same question a hundred times. “I always had to say ‘I don’t know’, at that time with the pandemic, who knows when we’re going to see anyone that you want to see. It was a super great moment when they got a chance to see each other again.”
Last summer, Henok and his family went out to Calgary to catch a Valour road game against Cavalry, and he had a chance to spend time with Ali. They were planning to go go-karting, but Henok was worried that the way you have to position your body to sit in it was going to worsen the leg injury that Musse was dealing with at the time, or that it would at least make the experience unenjoyable.
They decided to go ahead with their plan, and “luckily he didn’t,” Henok said.
“We got to go up to the Olympic Park, and they have a whole bunch of rides and things like that, and it was a good time,” Musse added. “We got to catch up a bit.”
“I wouldn’t describe Ali as a super chatty guy, he’s pretty reserved,” Jennifer reflected. “When he connects with someone or cares about someone, he shows it by showing up. That means a lot to me because I think role models are super important, and Ali and a number of players have really stepped up in terms of being present and kind, and caring. Exactly what any parent would want their kid to have.”
As she alluded to, a handful of CPL stars are now friends with Henok — including Valour attacker William Akio, and Musse’s Cavalry teammates Elijah Adekugbe and Victor Loturi. He’s in a group chat with them, where they sometimes message each other.
Musse has been one of Cavalry’s best players thus far in 2022, with three goals and an assist through eight matches, with the Cavs sitting second in the table. Henok is quick to congratulate him on a good performance, and along with being a huge Valour fan, tries not to miss a match when Musse is playing for the Calgarians.
“It’s cool, me and these other players — Will, Elijah, Vic — we’ve been growing up together so we have a lot of the same experiences,” said Musse. “As we grow our little community starts to grow, we have new people joining our circle. Now you have a kid that looks up to you, and I feel like we’re really privileged to be in this position. For us to have people looking up to us as role models — it’s an honour really.”
When talking about his role models, Henok didn’t hesitate to again list those players he looks up to most — Musse, Akio, Adekugbe, Loturi. He has something in common with all of those players that allows him to see himself represented in them; their families have African heritage, but have found a home in Canada.
Henok was born in Ethiopia but adopted by his family in Winnipeg, and he said that it’s “awesome to see people around me that are similar to me.”
“They’re all very inspiring people,” he added. “It makes me feel like I can do it too.”
Adekugbe wrote a freestyle for Henok back in March, about being proud of who he is inside and out — something that he himself said he related to after growing up in Calgary.
“Outside of soccer I like to make music, and I started an Instagram freestyle series where I would write freestyles for people,” Adekugbe explained to CanPL.ca. “I put it out there asking people for requests, and he messaged me like ‘hey man, can you write something helping me deal with racist people’, because I guess where he’s from in Winnipeg he’s culturally outnumbered. When I grew up in Calgary that was something I related to, I was one of the only Black kids in my school.
“I related to that and wanted to write him something positive that would make him feel proud to be who he is, proud to be different, and also just to know that when you’re going through something like that there are people can relate. Hopefully that’s something that he can refer back to and makes him feel good about who he is and is something positive.”
The players don’t take their positions as role models lightly. They know from their own experiences now how being a good footballer can impact people’s lives on the pitch, but also know that there are more important things than sport in life.
“It’s very important, in any environment you want to have positive people with a good mindset, who work hard, have professionalism,” said Musse. “Not only is it important for us and our club, but it’s important for the league, for the youth, for anyone who’s involved in any situation. You have a kid that looks up to you, and I feel like we’re really privileged to be in this position. For us to have people looking up to us as role models — it’s an honour really.”
The need for a strong community, and strong role models, was a sentiment echoed by Adekugbe.
“That’s a big one for me, I know when I was growing up in Calgary, there wasn’t a lot of people around me who looked like me — there weren’t a lot of Black influences or Black role models I could look up to that were doing something I wanted to be doing,” he said. “When [Henok] talked to me about that it kind of hit home for me, and to be someone that he calls a role model… I’m proud.
“If I can impact his life in any way positive, and be someone he looks up to, that’s a beautiful thing.”