Manuel Veth –
On Thursday Spanish giants Barcelona announced the signing of talented Canadian midfielder/winger Ballou Tabla from the Montreal Impact. It is in many ways a historic signing as Ballou Tabla could become just the second Canadian player to play in the Spanish La Liga after former Canadian national team player Julian de Guzmán, who played 97 games with Deportivo La Coruna.
Although de Guzmán’s impact in La Liga should not be underestimated Ballou Tabla’s transfer to Barcelona sets a new benchmark—unlike de Guzmán Ballou Tabla is a product of Major League Soccer and his transfer, therefore, is a significant recognition for a league still fighting with the stigma of a retirement league.
In reality, the league is changing dramatically in front of everyone’s eyes. Last season Atlanta United were one of the most attractive teams in the league. The expansion franchise put together a squad of young and talented South Americans and players taken in the draft. The German midfielder Julian Gressel, in fact, was for many experts, one of the best players in the league and was perhaps the first player to make a significant impact in his draft year.
Major League Soccer does not operate like the other Sports Leagues in North America
As explained in the recent We Call It Soccer Podcast Major League Soccer clubs operate differently than franchises in other North American leagues. Whereas in most leagues in North America clubs do not have their academies and instead rely entirely on bringing in players through trades and the draft MLS clubs have their academy system. For a long-time, however, very few players have come out of this system, but with the league slowly coming to their youth academies are starting to produce exciting players.
Ballou Tabla, for example, is just one of two Canadian wunderkinds. Alphonso Davies from the Vancouver Whitecaps is often named as the most prominent prospect in the country. Davies, however, is still 17, and although he was invited to train with Manchester United this winter, FIFA rules means that he will have to wait until he is 18 to make a move to Europe possibly.
For Ballou Tabla the move to Europe has become a reality now. Born in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, he grew up in Montreal and is a product of the Impact Academy and also saw playing time at the Impact farm team FC Montreal in the second division United Soccer League during the 2016 season. Playing in the second division, Ballou Tabla managed five goals and three assists as a 17-year-old playing against grown man in a league that can be cutthroat as players are looking for professional contracts in MLS.
Then during the 2017 season, Ballou Tabla would see his big breakthrough in MLS. Montreal ended the previous year in disappointment after falling to rivals Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference finals. 2017 was supposed to be used to build on the past year, but in truth, the side had performed above its means and Montreal was forced to make some adjustments to the squad.
All of this provided opportunities for a young player of Ballou Tabla’s format—working hard in pre-season the winger got his chance in the second half of matchday 1 against the San Jose Earthquakes and then once again against the Seattle Sounders on matchday 2. He then missed the game against New York City FC on matchday 3 before starting against Chicago Fire on matchday 4.
Ballou Tabla took the spotlight from Bastian Schweinsteiger
Going to Chicago on March 1, the game was all about the recently arrived Bastian Schweinsteiger. The 2014 World Cup winner made his debut against Montreal that day and ended up scoring the opening goal of the contest. Schweinsteiger’s goal and his presence on the field were set to dominate the headlines, but in the end, it was Ballou Tabla, who almost took all the headlines.
In the 61st minute, Matteo Mancosu had equalised for Montreal in what quickly turned out to be a tight affair between two technically strong teams. Both teams also had a man sent off with Juninho going off for Chicago in the 71st and Victor Cabrera for Montreal in the 80th. In a match full of highlights, however, it was Ballou Tabla’s goal that turned heads. Playing as a left-winger, Ballou Tabla received the ball on wing stepped in briefly glimpsed up and scored with an inch-perfect shot from outside the box.
The move showed maturity vision and confidence to take an opportunity when it represents itself. It was one of only two goals this season, but with 21 games played Ballou Tabla showed that he was ready to compete on this level and that he is perhaps one of the biggest talents in MLS.
That talent is now heading to Spain where Ballou Tabla will play for Barcelona’s second team in La Liga 2. Signed for the next three years Ballou Tabla’s exit clause in Spain will be €25 million that will grow to €75 million should he extend his contract. As it is always the case it is difficult to predict whether Ballou Tabla will be able to break into Barcelona’s first squad—he would be the first Canadian to play for Barca.
At the same time, there are plenty of examples of players that have not made it to the first team in Barcelona and still managed a great career. In fact, Ballou Tabla, and the Canadian national team to some extent will benefit from this move. Playing in Barcelona’s academy, after all, will provide the kid from Montreal with another essential building block towards a great career.
Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and social media editor at Bundesliga.com. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth.