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I missed it in the shuffle of the new year but the seemingly-inevitable has happened. Czech youth international Jacob Lensky has announced his retirement from professional soccer.
So why write about it here? Well, Lensky is a Vancouver native and a former member of the Canadian youth national teams. He was, by consensus, one of the brightest young Canadian players of his generation: at the Jonathan de Guzman level of "this kid is not just good for a Canadian, but he's good period". Shopped around major European academies like Manchester United and Celtic as a child, he eventually caught on in the Netherlands and since then became a truly, undeniably excellent player.
But this is not the first time Lensky's been in the papers because of his commitment to soccer waning. It's not even his first retirement. When a brilliant young player, physically healthy, retires at age 23 that's news: when he retires at age 23 for the second time that's sobering.
Lensky is a traitor to the Canadian national team. I should hate him, and once I did. But he's also a sad story; the shame of Canadian soccer. He's a former obsession of my old Maple Leaf Forever blog, and even in retirement he'll never leave the Canadian soccer consciousness. Which is a pity, because it seems being remembered is the last thing he wants.
Lensky's first retirement came in August of 2008. The promising wide midfielder (so he was at the time) was burned-out on soccer; I don't dare repeat any rumours but suffice to say that there had long been scuttlebutt over how much of Lensky's career was Jacob's decision and how much was influenced by his family. It all came to a head and, though Feyenoord handled Lensky with grace and gave him all the opportunities due such a promising, if troubled, young man, they eventually handed Lensky his unconditional release. Lensky returned to Canada, seemingly to leave soccer for good.
Later on, Lensky claimed he'd come in for abuse at Feyenoord from his teammates and from the club. There's no doubt that Lensky was genuinely burned-out on professional soccer at the time and genuinely wanted out; I fully believe Jacob left Feyenoord in good faith and that he was released in the same spirit. There's little doubt Feyenoord would have kept Lensky if he wanted to say; Peter Bosz called Lensky's talent "unquestionable".
But in January 2009 Lensky lined up a trial with the Vancouver Whitecaps, then of the USL First Division, and by all accounts was extremely impressive. He was actually offered a trial with the Seattle Sounders in Major League Soccer but, rather than accept Seattle's invitation, returned to Europe where he trialled with, and eventually signed with, FC Utrecht.
Feyenoord was, quite understandably, outraged: they had allowed Lensky to leave free of charge because of his personal issues and six months later he was under contract to a rival without Feyenoord receiving a dime in compensation. Lensky immediately became a prominent part of the Utrecht first team, moving to left back and starting regularly in one of Europe's top leagues at age 20. His promise had come through; his success seemed assured.
In November of 2009, Lensky was invited by Canadian head coach Stephen Hart to make his debut for our full national team in friendlies against Poland and the Ukraine. Lensky accepted the invitation; he had already represented Canada at the U-20 and U-23 levels. However, at almost the last possible moment, Lensky sent Hart an e-mail saying that he wouldn't be coming; he'd chosen to join the Czech Republic U-21 team instead (his father, Boris, is Czech). In a cynical move by the Czechs, Lensky filed the paperwork to permanently change his FIFA nationality, gave him one U-21 appearance, and then never called him for any national team at any age level again.
So Lensky became the latest Asmir Begovic type to turn his back on his home and native land (and, at the time, I howled with outrage in a way that now seems shockingly unfair). Unlike Begovic or Owen Hargreaves, he got no glory out of it, just obscurity. But he still had a thriving Eredivisie career and a good chance of working his way into the full Czech team as he matured.
Lensky continued to play well over the next years, even as Canadians stopped following him. Trouble, however, did not let him go. By August of this past year Lensky was out of FC Utrecht's lineup, undergoing treatment for alcoholism and once again speaking, in detail, about his total dislike for professional soccer. At least publicly, Utrecht showed support and were said to be sticking with him through his treatment, but to many of us Lensky was turning into more and more of a tragic figure.
I don't think Jacob would like being an object of pity but, frankly, I feel sorry for him. Anyone who's read my articles on Hargreaves and Begovic knows that I am second to none when it comes to hating those who turn their backs on Canada but, in Lensky's face, I just feel bad. His entire career, we've heard people mumble dark rumours about his commitment to the game and how he'll handle professional soccer, and his entire career we've seen sign after sign that those mumbles are correct, and that for all his incredible natural talent he just was never meant to be a professional soccer player.
I do wonder if the mumbling of people like, the pressure of a Canadian soccer community that saw another saviour, hurt Lensky. Even when he took a run with his home-town team in 2009 it wasn't long before the newspapers were talking to him and the big clubs were on the phone. We knew his father was pro-Czech for years, we worried that he might jump ship, and every time the Canadian media spoke to him that was an undertone in the conversation. There was no sanctuary from the heat of playing for a major European team. Even back home, where soccer is such a minor sport, he couldn't escape the pressure.
I hope that, whereever Jacob goes in his life, he finds the success and contentment that's eluded him on the soccer field. I can no longer even be angry at him. Just sad.