By Chris Sanders
Days before the Ryerson’s men’s soccer team began their 2019-20 season, midfielder and captain Abdallah El-Chanti entered pre-season training camp at Downsview Park in preparation to chase the program’s first OUA champion title.
But three years ago, El-Chanti didn’t want anything to do with Ryerson. He wanted out of a soccer program that wasn’t as glamorous as he imagined when he first committed.
Joining an already established roster, it was hard to see where El-Chanti would fit with the team, finishing first in the OUA East division the season prior.
A recent graduate from Jarvis Collegiate High School, El-Chanti had high expectations for himself—briefly trialing with the English Premier League’s West Bromwich Albion a year before—he wasn’t ready to settle for less minutes and be part of a team that he said, “wasn’t like a family.”
“It was hard to get minutes early on, and that’s tough for a player at his level,” said Rams head coach Filip Prostran. “That year-gap he took off was [him] trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. He still had his foot in one door. ‘I wanna play professional, I wanna go overseas and I wanna go to school.’”
From his teenage years, he lived in Regent Park with his family after migrating from Lebanon in 2005. He always envisioned professional soccer as his way out of Toronto’s government housing.
“It’s obviously not the friendliest growing up there—a lot of violence,” said El-Chanti. He credits his family for keeping him off the streets. “Soccer kept me away from all that garbage. I’m glad I play this sport because a lot of people I grew up with are either in jail or some of them are dead. I’m glad I didn’t take that route.”
Playing 14 games in his rookie year, El-Chanti got his wish and left Ryerson, relocating to Sweden as he signed a contract with a second division club Tenhults IF, to chase his professional dreams.
But the pro lifestyle wouldn’t last that long, El-Chanti was forced to return to Canada after fracturing his toe. He was sidelined for five months and back in the same situation he was trying to escape.
Hearing about his return, Ryerson and head coach Filip Prostran came calling once again, but the midfielder was adamant that he wasn’t interested in returning.
“I’m not really into the team,” El-Chanti would tell Prostran. “Just the way it is, the culture and stuff, I just didn’t belong there.”
El-Chanti didn’t see it yet, but to his best friend and former U SPORTS All-Canadian Raheem Rose, he did belong.
“We had this dream of our [high school club] going professional and us playing together,” laughed Rose. “Whenever we play that’s just our bond. The fact that I was there was the icing on the cake to come back to Ryerson. “I want the best for him … we’re looking out for each other on the field.”
Between Rose and El-Chanti, they had a brotherhood like none other, going back to their days playing for the North Toronto Nitros and East York. They earned a bronze medal side-by-side during the 2013 Canada games, and had 5 to 6 a.m. training sessions together.
To Rose, it was just a matter of convincing El-Chanti to give Ryerson another chance. “I was begging him to come,” said Rose. “I told him to come to a practice first and see how it is.”
Unsure of what to expect, El-Chanti doubted that the culture had changed, but was willing to give it a try, intrigued by the idea of reuniting with Rose. The moment El-Chanti returned to practice with Ryerson, he knew it was time to come home.
“When Abdallah first got recruited, I talked with him for the first five minutes and I knew this was the kind of guy we want,” said Prostran. “As soon as Abdallah took that year off and came back to us, we wanted to incorporate him right away…he’s a guy that’s extremely hardworking. He brings a love to the game that’s hard to find.”
The decision to integrate El-Chanti into the team paid off. In his first season back, he finished with seven goals, six assists and 19 shots on net. El-Chanti would top that in his next season, leading the team in scoring as he earned an OUA First-Team All-Star nod for the first time in his career, while also being named captain.
Now in the midst of his fourth year with the Rams, the geographic analysis student never thought he’d be back after once saying goodbye.
It took hell and back to bring him home, but it was all part of a journey that El-Chanti is glad he experienced.
“Looking back at it, I think I made a good decision leaving,” said El-Chanti with a widening smile. “I love it here now. It’s amazing. I love everyone here. It’s like my second family and I’m pretty sure a lot of guys can relate. Yeah, four years, helluva ride.”