The 2014 FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup will be hosted by Canada and kicks off Tuesday with the start of group play. Four LSU Tigers are will be competing in the event for the best representation of the LSU Soccer program in the history of the World Cup event. LSUSports.net will publish a four-part feature series on the Tigers stepping onto the field for their countries at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup. Part 2 features All-SEC and Freshman All-American attacking midfielder Emma Fletcher, who will be lining up for Canada during the event.
Anyone familiar with world football will immediately recognize the name Real Madrid.
One of the most accomplished club sides in the history of the sport, Los Blancos recently captured their record 10th UEFA Champions League title with a 4-1 extra time victory over city rivals Atletico Madrid in the European Cup Final held in Lisbon, Portugal, on May 24 of this year.
With a fearsome front line of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Angel di Maria scoring goals for fun, Real Madrid’s style of powering past opponents with a potent attack has built a passionate following across the globe.
Ronaldo, the reigning Ballon d’Or winner as FIFA’s World Player of the Year, scored a staggering 54 goals in all competitions in 2013-14 to lead Real Madrid to Champions League glory.
Benzema, a French international, bagged 26 goals of his own last season, while Bale netted 22 times in a strong debut season in Madrid after signing from Tottenham Hotspur with a world-record transfer fee in excess of $145 million in the summer of 2013.
But behind a brilliant front line lies a maestro pulling the strings in the midfield and writing the names of his teammates in headlines worldwide, often sacrificing personal recognition for the good of the team.
For Real Madrid, that responsibility often falls on the unassuming shoulders of one man – Luka Modric.
A Croatian international, Modric has been a staple in the starting 11 for Los Blancos since first arriving in the Spanish capital in the summer of 2012, also from London-based Tottenham. He appeared 51 times a year ago for the Champions League and Copa del Rey winners, playing primarily in Real Madrid’s famous No. 10 role in the center of midfield.
Modric followed his club success by leading Croatia into the FIFA World Cup Brazil 2014, where he made three more appearances on the international stage with his country in group play.
Among Modric’s many admirers is a world-class midfield talent in her own right in LSU’s All-SEC standout and Canadian international Emma Fletcher.
“He is awesome!” Fletcher exclaimed of her admiration of the Real Madrid talisman. “Many people have told me that I play like him, and that’s a great compliment. He’s such a great player, so I like to try and model my play after him as much as I can. He’s truly world-class.”
A native of Victoria, British Columbia, Fletcher follows a decorated rookie season with the Tigers last fall by helping to lead her country onto the World Cup stage as Canada plays host to the 2014 FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup. The host nation will face Ghana in the first match of the group stage on Tuesday as play in Group A will open up at BMO Field in Toronto.
Group A will also feature Finland and North Korea alongside Canada and Ghana at this year’s World Cup.
There are 16 nations competing at this year’s FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup with top two teams in each of the four groups advancing to the knockout quarterfinals beginning Aug. 16.
Perhaps inspired by Modric’s displays for Real Madrid and at the World Cup, Fletcher will look to pull the strings in the Canadian attack with the same style and flair as her Croatian counterpart.
An Education in Football
Unlike many footballing prodigies, Fletcher jokes that she grew up “hating” the sport she now loves.
She credits the persistence of her parents – Stefan and Peggy Fletcher – in fostering her love of soccer as a young child growing up in the Vancouver area.
“I was probably 5 when I first started playing soccer, and I hated it!” Fletcher shared. “But my parents kept taking me. It took a couple of years, but I was maybe 7 when I actually started to love the sport. By the time I was 10, I discovered YouTube and was looking up juggling tricks and different things, and was obsessively practicing them on my own. It just kept improving, and by the time I made my first provincial team at 13, I realized this was a sport that could take me somewhere.”
Fletcher featured with the British Columbia Provincial Team at the U-13 level for the first time in 2008 as an emerging local talent. Upon her graduation from the U-16 squad, she had led British Columbia to a U-14 silver medal at the 2009 BMO Canadian All-Star National Championships and a U-16 bronze medal for the 2011 Canadian National Championships.
Fletcher’s displays at the provincial level earned an invitation into the Canadian Women’s National Team system for the first time with the U-15s for a series of training camps in 2010.
“It was a huge honor,” Fletcher shared of her first experience with the U-15 Canadian National Team. “In my early years playing soccer, playing for Canada was a dream of mine from a really young age.
“Getting that first opportunity with the U-15s was extremely important to me and my development.”
Little did Fletcher know that her family connections would soon open the door to an opportunity to play internationally more than 7,000 miles from home as it was in the black and white shirt of New Zealand’s Young Football Ferns that she would step onto the World Cup stage for the first time.
To New Zealand and Back
Fletcher’s father, Stefan, is a native New Zealander.
It’s that heritage that allowed Fletcher to make her World Cup debut with New Zealand’s Young Football Ferns at the 2012 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup held in the Middle Eastern nation of Azerbaijan.
She started each of New Zealand’s three games and played all but five minutes in the group stage during her first World Cup as one of the breakout stars of the team. It was an experience that Fletcher speaks of being invaluable to her development, saying it “helped prepare me for the unique experience that playing in a World Cup really is. It can be a lot of pressure knowing you have an entire nation behind you that is checking in on the team and following each result.”
Fletcher would make eight appearances with New Zealand’s U-17 squad over two seasons from 2011-12 before once again pursuing her dream of playing for Canada in a World Cup.
When FIFA named Canada the host nation for the 2014 U-20 Women’s World Cup, Fletcher knew of the opportunity that lay in front of her of not only representing her home country in a World Cup, but to do so on home soil in front of her friends, family and compatriots from coast to coast.
It was time for an emerging world-class talent to return to her roots in the red and white once again.
“It has been pretty smooth,” Fletcher said of her integration back into the Canadian Women’s National Team system. “I missed playing with my Canadian teammates. I obviously miss the New Zealand girls as well, but it definitely feels right to be back representing my home country.”
In the spring of 2013, Fletcher joined the Canadian U-20 squad in a series of National EXCELeration team camps that were designed with a long-term vision of identifying the player pool from which to select the roster of 21 players that would feature at the U-20 World Cup.
And her name was called, time and time again, by head coach Andrew Olivieri to train with the team in a clear indication she could be selected as part of Canada’s squad in her second World Cup.
She was called into seven national training camps, to be exact, between the spring of 2013 and the early summer of 2014 ahead of the squad announcement held in Toronto on the morning of July 16, 2014.
It was then that Fletcher’s dream became reality once again and she was presented to the country along with 20 of her teammates in a special unveiling of Canada’s World Cup squad.
“Getting the opportunity to play in front of a home crowd and representing the country I love and grew up in is something I can’t put into words,” Fletcher said of her selection for the squad. “Having our home crowd behind us is something that I think can help our team win games.
“It’s also important for us not to lose ourselves too much in the hype and emotion, and to stay focused on the matches at hand and what we need to do as a team to be successful throughout the tournament. That’s what happened to Brazil in the men’s World Cup, and we all saw what happened there.”
Fletcher and her teammates will certainly focus on a fast start against Ghana in Tuesday’s opener.
Christmas Comes Early for Tigers
Christmas Eve 2011 is a day that Brian Lee and the rest of his coaching staff at LSU won’t soon forget.
It was on that day when they received perhaps their greatest gift of the Christmas season when Fletcher shut down her recruitment and gave her verbal commitment to the LSU Tigers.
Although she would not sign her National Letter of Intent to officially join the program for another year, Fletcher’s commitment got the ball rolling on a recruiting class that would rank among the nation’s best in the Class of 2013. It was a decision that paid immediate dividends when the Tigers added yet another commitment just days later as Fletcher’s good friend and fellow Vancouver-area product Summer Clarke also pledged to the Tigers as one of the top young strikers in Canada.
For Fletcher, the commitment of Lee and his staff to her ultimately led to her commitment to LSU.
“The coaches had been committed to me throughout my whole recruitment process,” Fletcher shared as she reflected on her decision to commit to LSU. “Knowing how much they wanted me on their team was a huge factor in my decision. Brian (Lee) and Kevin (Dempsey) were extremely helpful and honest during the whole process.
“Summer and I also decided that going to school and playing together would be awesome so we decided to go ahead and commit together.”
As an emerging international talent with both Canada and New Zealand, Fletcher had her pick of schools from across the United States when her recruitment took off as a 16-year-old.
She was certainly a welcomed addition to the LSU program when she called Lee with her commitment to the Tigers that Christmas Eve.
“Emma and Summer committing back-to-back was a great Christmas present for our staff,” Lee said.
“We had a great belief as we got to know them during the recruiting process that they were the perfect fit for what we are trying to do from both a playing and personality standpoint,” Lee continued. “To hear then say, ‘I am in with you at LSU,’ was incredibly exciting for us all.”
Fletcher’s debut season with the Tigers in 2013 was one for the record books as she was certainly one of the top attacking midfielders in all of college soccer while leading the LSU attack. Her 12 assists smashed LSU’s freshman record and topped the Southeastern Conference scoring charts for the season, while she also opened her account with the Tigers by scoring one goal in league play.
It was a performance that earned Fletcher a Second-Team All-SEC selection by the league’s coaches, and Freshman All-America honors by both Soccer America and TopDrawerSoccer.com in 2013.
“Emma has a very bright future with us at LSU,” Lee said of his star midfielder. “Her first year laid quite a solid foundation and I am certain her best years are to come. She’s a top talent that thrives in our No. 10 role. I enjoy watching her play. I’m convinced she’s one of, if not the best, creative attacking midfielder in college soccer.”
LSU’s rookie class a year ago made Southeastern Conference history as Fletcher and Clarke joined fellow freshman left back Megan Lee in earning Second-Team All-SEC honors after the regular season. It marked the first time in SEC history for three freshmen from the same program to earn All-SEC honors in the same season.
“Last year was important for me in building up my confidence,” Fletcher said of her debut season at LSU. “I got a lot of opportunities to work on and develop what I do best on the field, and the coaches were so encouraging for me in that respect.”
Fletcher says she will even use her World Cup experience in the coming weeks to prepare herself for the 2014 collegiate season.
“World Cups are always a learning experience,” Fletcher said. “I know this World Cup will be no different for me. Playing against the best players in the world, I’ll have to raise my game to a new level. Hopefully, I can carry that into the new collegiate season at LSU.
“Our team can grow a lot in the coming years with the talent we’ve got, and the talent we’ve got coming in. With hard work, I believe we can become conference champions in the future. From there, who knows, but I feel like the future is bright for sure!”