Tough competition around the league as Global players vie for jobs in CFL training camp

Canadian football is back and so are the pro football dreams of more than 30 international athletes fighting for a job through the CFL’s Global program.

High hopes for the league and its Global players were crushed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, bringing about the cancelation of the 2020 season and massive financial losses. It was the first time a Grey Cup wasn’t awarded since World War 1 and the ensuing Spanish flu pandemic saw the game canceled from 1916-1919 and the future of the CFL was very much placed in question.

Now the league is rising from the ashes after an 18-month hiatus, but a shortened 14-game season in 2021 means sacrifices, and Global players will feel the pinch. The initiative was supposed to expand to two active roster spots in 2021, but as a result of an amended collective bargaining agreement with the league’s players’ association, has been kept stagnant at the one-player quota set in 2019 despite a massive increase in talent.

A team could dress more than the minimum amount of Globals, but the extra player would have to beat out an American player for that roster spot due to the CFL’s national ratio. Players could also earn a spot on an expanded practice roster, which can contain as many as 12 players so long as two are Globals, or the five-man taxi squad created to ease the potential roster impact of COVID-19.

Even with those options, the reduced Global program means extremely tough competition across the league. Players will be fighting for more than just a job once the season begins as well, as the initiative remains unpopular with many in league circles, and a disappointing showing from those nine Global players who do see the field could see pressure mount to end the program entirely as the CFL cuts costs.

With training camp more than 10  days in for all nine teams, here is how those battles are shaping up across the league.

B.C. Lions

Australian kicker Jake Ford

The Global competition in B.C. Lions camp has primarily centered around the kicking game, where two of the three candidates for jobs are from outside North America. Australian punter Jake Ford was selected by the team with the first overall selection in the 2021 selection and is a clear favorite to make the roster thanks to his big leg. The Lions drafted Ford with the hopes that he could handle all three kicking jobs — punting, field goals and kickoffs — but the Pro Kick Australia product doesn’t have a tremendous amount of in-game experience as a place kicker. That leaves the door open for Japanese kicker Takeru Yamasaki to try to claim that role, something he’s making a case for after hitting four field goals in the team’s first scrimmage. UCLA punter Stefan Flintoft offers the only American competition to either of them.

Right now, German defensive end Niklas Gustav is the only other Global in camp, vying for a spot on an inexperienced d-line group. Chinese defensive end Boqiao Li is currently on the team’s suspended list as work-permit issues have kept him stuck in Beijing, but they hope that he can make the trip at some point this season.

Edmonton Elks

Danish OL Steve Nielsen Photo: Eastern Michigan Athletics

With five Global players in camp, the newly-christened Elks have a tough task to whittle the group down. Frenchman Maxime Rouyer was the man who earned the roster spot in 2019 and posted four special teams tackles, but a talented Draft class means he’s by no means guaranteed a role. The same goes for fan-favorite Mexican receiver and kick returner Diego Viamontes, who has moved to Edmonton full-time and has received nothing but praise from coaches and teammates about his attitude on the field.

Leading the way among the draft picks is Danish offensive tackle Steven Nielsen, the second overall pick in the Global draft. The Eastern Michigan product has become even more important after a rash of retirements and a devastating injury to starting right tackle Colin Kelly left the Elks thin at that position. On the opposite side of the trenches, New Zealand’s Misiona Aiolupotea-pei and Belgium’s Tibo Debaillie bring quality NCAA resumes to the backup defensive tackle competition.

Calgary Stampeders

Mexican WR Andres Salgado Photo: Calgary Stampeders

Calgary was the only team to release a Global player on the CFL’s first cutdown day, giving Australian kicker Gerard Laws his walking papers, but they are very comfortable with the players they have left. Australian punter Cody Grace, nicknamed “The Thunder from Down Under” during his time at Arkansas State, is showing off a cannon in a three-way competition to replace retired veteran Rob Maver, battling with Canadians Ronnie Pfeffer and Keiran Burnham. However, it is Mexican receiver Andres Salgado who is getting hyped up by teammates. The Stamps2019 Global player has spent the entire pandemic in Calgary, training with local teammates under the tutelage of receivers’ coach Marquay McDaniel and adding 15 pounds of muscle. He reportedly looks like a different player and some are predicting the former Mexico City Condor will be a poster boy for the development potential of Global players.

The Stamps are expecting at least one more Global player to arrive shortly, after Nigerian defensive end Franklin Agbasimere spent the start of camp on the suspended list with visa problems. South African rugby player-turned-running back Nico Leonard has experienced similar issues, but there is no imminent timeline for his arrival.

Saskatchewan Roughriders

The Riders swung on some big names early in the Global Draft that opted not to sign for a shortened CFL season, then lost Finnish receiver Sebastian Sagne to a devastating injury weeks before camp opened. That leaves them as the only team without a Global player expected to make a meaningful impact.

Right now, just two are in training camp. South African kicker John Henry Nell has the most experience coming out of Arena football, but Australian Ben Scruton may be the most intriguing with experience at defensive back, receiver, and punter from his time at the University of Hawaii. Neither is expected to have a big role with All-Star Canadians Brett Lauther and Jon Ryan cemented into the kicking jobs, and the Riders may be looking to poach from the list of cast-offs from other teams once final cuts are made.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers

German DL Thiadric Hansen

There is no secret who the odds-on favorite to win — or rather retain — the Bombers’ Global spot is. German Grey Cup hero Thiadric Hansen is by all accounts picking up right where he left off in the defensive end rotation, but part of the reason for his groundbreaking success in 2019 was a Bombers‘ culture that always rewards hard work with opportunity under head coach Mike O’Shea. Hansen is continuing to earn his, but the Bombers‘ boss has made clear the four other Global players in camp are keeping themselves in consideration.

Another holdover from their championship season, the team is very comfortable with Mexican defensive back Sergio Schiaffino on special teams, despite his smaller size. Japanese linebacker Les Maruo brings a more mature understanding of the game than most Globals thanks to his time starting for UTSA and he’s looked comfortable, while athletic British backer Ayo Oyelola is catching up on the technical side. Most intriguing, O’Shea has waxed poetic about Japanese offensive lineman Tomoya Machino’s movement skills and the potential for line coach Marty Costello to mold him. All four players look to be in serious contention for practice roster spots at the very least.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats

British DE David Izinyon

Another team with a proven willingness to use their Globals, in part due to the NFL Europe experience of special teams coordinator Jeff Reinebold, the Ticats return French defensive lineman Valentin Gnahoua after a successful 2019 campaign. However, the valuable special teamer was recently placed on the suspended list and won’t get a chance to compete until he’s cleared to be back on the field.

Among the remaining bunch, Aussie first-round pick Joel Whitford is the lone primary punter in a crowded kicking competition but will face pressure from Canadians Gabriel Ferraro and Michael Domagala, as well as American Mathew White, who all have experience doing both jobs. Finland’s Chris Mulumba is leaning on his Division 1 pedigree to attempt to earn a spot in the defensive rotation behind star defensive tackles Ted Laurent and Dylan Wynn, while British defensive end David Izinyon is trying to prove he can play a similar role to his lofty pre-draft comp, Thiadric Hansen.

Toronto Argonauts

British DB Tigie Sankoh #40 snagging an interception at Cleveland Browns practice Photo: Joshua-Gunter,

Given the organization’s clear public excitement after the 2021 Global Draft, it’s fair to say that it would take a lot for the third overall selection Tigie Sankoh not to earn the Argos’ Global spot. The British safety is as versatile as they come and should make an instant impact on special teams.

Elsewhere on the roster, it seems pre-determined that Japanese kicker Toshiki Sato will not get a shot to win the kicking role, with Toronto favoring a player who can perform all three jobs. That guy is Boris Bede, a French national who counts as an American because he pre-dates the Global program, and the veteran has been praised for his mentorship of his new Japanese teammate. Also in the mix is French running back Asnnel Robo, a star for the Montreal Carabins who played three games in 2019 as Calgary’s Global player.

Ottawa Redblacks

Mexican WR Guillermo Villalobos #85 at Ottawa Redblacks training camp

The Redblacks are notorious for their “French Mafia,” a core group of talented francophone players, but despite their best efforts, there are no actual French players among their Global crop in camp. First-round pick receiver Anthony Mahoungou opted to stay home and play in the ELF this year, while defensive back Tony Anderson is on the team’s suspended list with no update on his arrival.

Nevertheless, Ottawa remains comfortable in the Global department. Back are both players who filled the role at various points in 2019, Mexican kicker Jose Maltos and receiver Guillermo Villalobos. Maltos finds himself buried behind the nearly automatic Canadian Lewis Ward and is unlikely to see the field, but an improved Villalobos will push for a bigger role after earning a little buzz in his first season. It may be the new draft picks who have the upper hand though, with Dutch linebacker Tyron Vrede sure to be a valuable special teamer and Bahamian offensive tackle Chris Ferguson serving as potentially crucial insurance on what may be a rough Redblacks offensive line.

Montreal Alouettes

RB Taku Lee  #29 playing for the Obic Seagulls Photo: XLeague

The Alouettes could be the team with the best grasp of Global talent, after all, defensive assistant Greg Quick was the director of Global scouting responsible for assembling the CFL’s 2021 Global Draft pool and GM Danny Maciocia coached the Bergamo Lions to a pair of Italian championships in the late ’90s. They’ve backed it up by bringing in five talented players and how that competition shakes out is anybody’s guess.

Australian punter Joseph Zema was the Als’ top draft selection and is competing with Canadian Felix Menard-Briere for that role, but the organization hit the jackpot when third-round pick Taku Lee slipped through the NFL cracks. The Japanese running back carries more hype than any other Global player but will have an uphill climb to contribute at his position. Japanese linebacker Akio Yamagishi and Swedish safety William James will both make a case for themselves on special teams, but French receiver Kevin Kaya shouldn’t be discounted either. The undrafted free agent was a second team All-Canadian in 2019 for the Universite de Montreal, where Maciocia was head coach, and is one of 14 former Carabins he’s signed to the Alouettes since taking over.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.