Alphonso Davies: Canada’s humble, joyful soccer phenom

Why We Wrote This

Alphonso Davies isn’t just a feel-good sports story. His rise – from being born in a refugee camp in Ghana to becoming a soccer phenom in Canada to winning the Champions League in Europe – is quintessentially Canadian.

Andreas Gebert/AP
Bayern Munich's Alphonso Davies, shown here after scoring Bayern Munich's fourth goal during a match against Eintracht Frankfurt on May 23, 2020, enjoyed a stellar season in the German Bundesliga, earning rookie of the year honors in 2020-21.

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Alphonso Davies has been the sports story in Canada this week, after the 19-year-old soccer star and his team, Bayern Munich, won the Champions League in Europe on Sunday. But it has also been his humility, groundedness, and charisma – as well as his origin in a refugee camp in Ghana – that have earned the nation’s adoration.

Mr. Davies has been invigorating sports observers like Shireen Ahmed of the “Burn It All Down” podcast. “I don’t know if I’m more impressed with his Champions League win or with the maturity he shows on the field, the way he has literally blended in with one of most experienced and sophisticated squads in the world at such a young age.”

What stands out most for her is how he combines technical skill, boldness, and speed with “that spirited joy you don’t often see,” she says.

“Life is too short to be angry or sad for long,” he told Bayern’s club magazine. “We went through tough times when I was very young and I’m so infinitely grateful to my parents. ... Their journey began during the civil war in Liberia. ... I’m in the happy situation where I can say I can enjoy every single day of my life.”

After Canadian soccer star Alphonso Davies and his team, Bayern Munich, clinched the Champions League in Europe this past weekend, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted his congratulations to the 19-year-old left back.

Mr. Davies replied: “Thank you Prime Minister @JustinTrudeau! Can I please come home for a week?”

With that single tweet, the newest Canadian sports star revealed glimpses of how he has captivated his nation. It’s for more than the poise he possesses on the field despite his age, and it extends beyond the irresistible success story of a boy who came to Canada as a refugee and became one of the most important prospects in the game.

His request to the prime minister was a reference to restrictions on travel because of the pandemic that has kept him apart from family in Alberta, while he basks in victory in one of soccer’s most important competitions. But with the question – which included a grimacing emoji and pleading hands along with three Canadian flags – he showed traces of the humility, groundedness, and charisma that his former coaches and sports observers say make him such a good role model and, to some, one of Canada’s most significant athletes.

His story is impossible to put down, one that earned plaudits from the UN Refugee Agency and Canadian politicians across the spectrum. Perhaps most significantly to Mr. Davies, it earned him a follow on Instagram from rap icon (and Toronto native) Drake – a social media honor that had him shouting with delight.

From refugee to the world’s best

He was born in Ghana’s Buduburam refugee camp, which was created for Liberians fleeing civil war like his parents. His family was eventually able to resettle in Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, when he was 5. Early mentors talk often about the long hours his parents worked, and the responsibilities Mr. Davies had at home, at just 10 years old, like changing his younger siblings’ diapers.

It was on the soccer field that he found an outlet and sense of belonging. Tim Adams founded Free Footie in Edmonton, a league for elementary schoolers whose families can’t afford recreational sport. One of his teachers connected him to the program. It was only a brief season, but Mr. Adams says that is all it took. “There are some kids where even if they touch the ball one time you know that they are special,” he says. “He was moving through a crowd of a thousand, and you could tell there was something different.”

He played soccer at St. Nicholas Soccer Academy and for the Edmonton Strikers youth club before enrolling in the residency program of the Vancouver Whitecaps, one of Canada’s top-flight teams, at 14. He had to convince his parents, who were worried about his studies and bad influences, to let him leave. His father, Debeah Davies, hammered into him: “Be a good guy. Be a good kid. Be a good boy,” he said in a Whitecaps video.

Peter Kneffel/Reuters
Alphonso Davies, far right, and his teammate Manuel Neuer pose for pictures as Bayern Munich players and staff arrive at Munich International Airport on August 24, 2020 after winning the Champions League final.

Mr. Davies made his Major League Soccer debut for the Whitecaps at 15, and in 2017, after he became a Canadian citizen, he became the youngest player to appear for the Canadian men’s team. At 17, he signed with one of the world’s best teams, Bayern Munich, which paid the Whitecaps at least $13.5 million in transfer fees, a record-setting deal for an MLS player at the time.

This time he had to convince himself. When Bayern reached out to meet him, he recalled recently in The Guardian, “I was like, ‘oh my god, really?’ It was both exciting and scary. I just had to prove to myself that I could compete at this level.”

‘That spirited joy you don’t often see’

Throughout it all, Mr. Davies has been invigorating sports observers like Shireen Ahmed, co-host of Burn It all Down, a feminist sports podcast. “I don’t know if I’m more impressed with his Champions League win or with the maturity he shows on the field, the way he has literally blended in with one of most experienced and sophisticated squads in the world at such a young age.”

What stands out most for her is how he combines technical skill, boldness, and speed with “that spirited joy you don’t often see,” she says. “He adds this life, this happiness.”

Joy is something he has carried throughout his life, he told Bayern’s club magazine. “Life is too short to be angry or sad for long. I think it runs in my family. We went through tough times when I was very young and I’m so infinitely grateful to my parents,” he said. “Their journey began during the civil war in Liberia and we came to Canada via Ghana. I’m in the happy situation where I can say I can enjoy every single day of my life.”

Globe and Mail sports columnist Cathal Kelly, who called Canada “just about the most marginal soccer country on Earth” in a recent column, says his appeal here is two-fold.

“He fulfills our most cherished national narrative – newcomer fleeing peril arrives in this country and makes good,” Mr. Kelly says in an email. And for a country with a history of being discarded by top athletes as soon as they are good enough, Mr. Davies committed himself as an international player here. “Davies is on the leading edge of a new generation of (non-hockey-playing) Canadian pros who want to wear the Maple Leaf. People respond to that.”

Perhaps more important, Mr. Davies has become an inspiration for any kid who might struggle, like those in Free Footie who are predominantly refugees, newcomers, and Indigenous youth – and stands as a reminder to society of the nurturing role it can play to help any child transcend. “His story and what he embodies is so perfect,” says Mr. Adams. “It just really shows that when you grind and you have characteristics that everybody can see, you’re going to be supported to get to some pretty amazing places.”

Mr. Davies addressed precisely those kids after his victory. “This one for everyone who is chasing a dream right now,” he tweeted. “Take it from me. Don’t give up. It may seem impossible now. But keep working on your craft. Keep grinding.”

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