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Alberta doctors swap scrubs for jerseys at World Medical Football Championship

Typically, Dr. Kamal Daniel spends his days as a family physician in Red Deer.

This week, though, he’s in Mar del Plata, Argentina, alongside about four dozen other Canadian doctors, from pharmacologists to surgeons to ophthalmologists, playing soccer in an international tournament.

They’re not professional athletes. They just love the game — and a little friendly rivalry.

“Imagine doctors, so competitive, like we don’t like to lose,” Daniel said in an interview on The Homestretch. “It is a big event for us, and we love every moment of it.”

Every year, doctors from all over the world take part in the World Medical Football Championships (WMFC), an annual tournament and an accompanying medical conference held in different spots all over the world.

The concept originated in Spain in 1995. Since then, it has continued to expand.

Dr. Paul Dhillon, a rural family physician from Sechelt, B.C., heard about the competition from an e-newsletter in Ireland, where he completed his medical training.

After discovering Canada didn’t have a team, he created one in 2016. 

Dr. Kyle McKenzie from Team Canada participates in the group draw at the 2022 World Medical Football Championship. (Submitted by Paul Dhillon)

“When I started it, it was literally just me, and I promised the organizing committee I would have a team, and then I convinced 17 other doctors, of which I think I’d only met three in person, to fly to Barcelona and meet me there. That was the first year,” he said.

“But it’s grown and grown since then. I think we have 180, maybe 190 interested physicians now across the country.”

Each country has to make at least one presentation during the medical conference. This year, about 20 countries are participating.

Team Canada is split into two teams: an 11-a-side team competing for the Morrell Cup and an over-45 team, seven players a side, going for the Vogel Cup. 

It’s not a cheap endeavour. Each participant pays their own way, which includes uniforms, travel and tournament fees, although they’ve worked with two sponsors, Dhillon says.

The Homestretch7:18Doctors play in international soccer tournament

Soccer players from all over the world are heading to Argentina this week for an international competition. But these players aren’t your typical athletes. They’re all doctors. Kamal Daniel is a family physician in Red Deer who plays on Team Canada.

For Daniel, the championship is a chance to play the game he loves while also networking with hundreds of medical professionals from around the globe.

“Usually for a family doctor like myself, you go to conferences for family doctors, right? So you know the specialists from your own city,” he said.

“But with this, we meet everybody … having fun, learning medicine and in the meantime we are playing some good soccer.”

‘The game that you love’

Dr. Jeff Anderson, a family physician in Calgary, has loved soccer since he was a child. 

He is a goaltender for Team Canada, and although he misses his wife and his three young sons at home, he says he couldn’t miss the chance to play in his first WMFC, especially after losing two years of opportunities due to the pandemic.

“I’m really surprised, actually, at the level of competition. It’s been excellent,” he said.

“To come and play soccer in Argentina, play against them on their home turf, it’s something that I take a huge honour in as a Canadian, and it’s been something I’ve been looking forward to now for three years.”

He’s also enjoyed the medical conferences, which have focused on sports medicine and assessing and treating injuries.

“You really get to learn a lot about how medicine is practised all over the world, some of the differences and also a great many similarities.”

Team Canada prepared for the championship in Argentina by inviting the Mexican players to B.C. for additional practice in July. (Submitted by Kamal Daniel)

Like so many gatherings, the tournaments had to be cancelled the past two years due to the pandemic. 

Dhillon says they had to rebuild almost the entire team, holding tryouts for interested physicians. They typically hold a training camp alongside the U.S. team in February, selecting the team from there. 

“We kind of try to balance it out by bringing new people on every year. There’s academic presentations. So that kind of gives you points to get picked to the team,” Dhillon said. 

“It’s just guys that love playing soccer, and they kind of, some of them had to kind of give it up a little bit during residency and med school. So it’s a chance to kind of reconnect with that.”

This year, Dhillon had to give up his own place on the squad. He’s also a brigade surgeon with the Canadian Armed Forces and was called on a mission at the same time as the tournament.

“This is the first tournament I’ve missed,” he said. “Some of these guys are friends and colleagues, but we haven’t seen each other in years.”

The Canadian team was made up of only men, but this year, for the first time, a woman joined the squad.

Dr. Aisha Mirza poses with Dr. Ferran Morrell, the founder of the World Medical Football Champtionship, while at a game in Argentina. (Submitted by Aisha Mirza)

Dr. Aisha Mirza is an emergency physician at Grey Nuns Community Hospital in Edmonton. She started playing soccer in her teens but took some time off to study medicine and have her three children. When she found out about the team, she jumped at the chance to try out.

“This experience can’t be understated … the last two years have been really tough with the pandemic, and there’ve been some really difficult times,” she said. 

“To be able to finally interact with other colleagues, especially from around the world, and with the sports medicine conference, we’re learning so much.”

Mirza plays in a women’s league in Edmonton and has already scored a goal for Team Canada. She says she didn’t think twice about trying out for a team made up of all men, wanting to set a good example for her daughter — and other teams are taking notice of her presence.

“It is really nice because when they’re shaking my hands after the game. I hear them say to me, on more than one occasion, you know, ‘We’re going to invite our female colleagues to play with us. We’re going to do this, too. Thanks for coming out and playing,'” she said.

The tournament runs until Saturday, Sept. 24. Daniel says they’ve been training hard, and they’ll be doing their best to come home victorious.

“You’re playing the game that you love. In the meantime, you’re representing the country you are in,” he said. “There is no more honour than that.”

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