(Photo courtesy of Canada Soccer)

(Photo courtesy of Canada Soccer)

Everybody Loves Alphonso Davies

Inside Alphonso Davies’s amazing journey to become the best Canadian soccer player of all time

When people talk about Alphonso Davies as a soccer player, the first thing they mention is his speed. It’s his superpower, his cheat code, his magic trick. It’s the thing that, along with relentless hard work, self-belief and a rocket-launching left foot, has made him the best soccer player in Canadian history. In a now-famous World Cup qualifying match against Panama last October, Davies sprinted 40 yards up the sideline, gently plucked the ball from the foot of a dawdling Panamanian, took it inside the penalty area, and then, outfoxing both defender and keeper, promptly put the ball in the back of the net. His top speed during that run was 37.1 kilometres an hour, a pace mere mortals would be lucky to reach on a bicycle. In the Bundesliga, the German football league where Davies plays for the titanic FC Bayern Munich, he’s set a league record of an equally astonishing 36.51 kilometres an hour.

But when people talk about Alphonso Davies as a person, the first thing they bring up is his decency. This is somehow even more magical, more impossible, than his game. A lot of people—maybe most people—when bestowed with the superhuman ability that Davies possesses, might become arrogant, or complacent, or just plain entitled. If anything, Davies has gone in the opposite direction. As his career has unfolded—from his first professional game, at age 15 with the Vancouver Whitecaps, to now, as starting left back for Bayern—he has conducted himself with uncommon humility and grace. At press conferences, he apologizes for getting yellow cards. When he learned that Canada’s men’s team had qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 36 years, he cried openly on his Twitch stream. His agent is the same guy who coached him when he was 11.

And then there’s all his humanitarian work. Now just 21, Davies has already used his growing stardom to draw attention and money to a cause that he has a deep personal connection to: the global refugee crisis. In 2020, he started working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and in March of 2021 he became the first soccer player and the first Canadian to be appointed as a Global Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR. This past August, he announced that he will donate all of his World Cup earnings to charity.

Everybody loves Phonzie. In a sport with no small number of prima donnas and frustratingly persistent corruption, it’s quite possible that he has zero haters. His fans include, but are certainly not limited to, Justin Trudeau, Drake, Neymar and the entire countries of Liberia, Ghana and Canada. On the pitch, he’s the picture of focus and determination. In real life and online (and Phonzie is very much online), he’s a beloved celebrity: goofy, generous, exuberant. He has, naturally, leveraged all that affection into lucrative endorsement deals with, among others, Nike and EA Sports. He’s now considered the most marketable Canadian athlete in the world, ranking well above NHL legends Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid, and tennis star Eugenie Bouchard.

Davies’s story is exactly the one that Canadians love to tell about ourselves. Refugee family finds sanctuary here, works hard to make a life, and their child grows up to excel and prosper. It’s also the story of the evolution of soccer in this country. And it’s one that’s really just beginning.

***

Few could have predicted such a remarkable future for Davies. His parents, Debeah and Victoria, lived through two horrific civil wars in Liberia before fleeing for the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana. There, they were relatively safe, but daily life was still chaotic and grim. The family lived in a cramped, tin-roof shack, with clothing and food in short supply. Davies was born in the camp in 2000, the third of the five children his parents would eventually have. “Refugee life is like if they put you in a container and lock you up,” Victoria said years later. “No way to get out.”

And yet, eventually, miraculously, they did. Five years after Davies was born, the family made their way to Windsor, Ontario, through a resettlement program. They spent a year there before moving to Edmonton, where Debeah found work in a poultry plant and Victoria as a university janitor. They lived in Boyle Street, an older, low-income neighbourhood east of the core, where Davies attended Mother Teresa Catholic school. Debeah and Victoria adjusted slowly, gradually learning English. Debeah also played a little soccer, eventually joining a local rec team, and watched games on TV, cheering on Chelsea, his favourite English club.

Davies, a quiet and self-contained kid, found a similar way to settle in. As a young boy, he was unbelievably athletic, preternaturally good at basketball, soccer and track, picked first for almost every team. Soccer quickly became his favourite of these sports—he had an instinctive head for the game—and after excelling in Free Footie, an after-school program, he moved into more competitive leagues. By the age of 11, he was enrolled in Edmonton’s St. Nicholas Soccer Academy, where director Marco Bossio immediately recognized his talent and potential. “He showed up ready for what we had to offer,” Bossio tells me, “and just took it by storm.” Where other kids his age were still learning the basic techniques of efficient running, Davies had already moved on to another dimension, where gravity and windspeed were all but non-existent. “I don’t know where he picked that up,” Bossio says. “Whether it was god-given or genetics or what, his athleticism was off the charts.” Bossio played him in midfield or up front and always on the right side, so he could cut inside and use his already powerful left foot to shoot.

Davies wasn’t just quick on the field; his ascent through various soccer leagues was similarly prodigious. While at St. Nick’s, he played with the community club, Edmonton’s Internazionale Soccer Club, and later with its rival, the Edmonton Strikers. He told his coaches and teachers, with great solemnity, that he was going to become a pro, and there were few who doubted it. Davies’s parents were encouraging—sports keep kids out of trouble, of course—but they were also concerned. They wanted him to focus on school, to make sure he had the opportunities they didn’t. They also needed him at home. With Debeah and Victoria both working and unable to afford child care, Davies often had to look after his younger siblings, starting when he was just 10. He cooked meals, changed diapers and fit in football when he could.

With the Strikers, everything changed. His coach was Nick Huoseh, an electrical engineer by trade, who loved soccer and the kids who played it. He helped cover registration fees for some of his players, bought them cleats if they couldn’t afford them and ferried them to games. His own son Adam played with Davies, and the two became close friends. Like everyone, Huoseh was dazzled by Davies, and he offered to help take care of him, too. Huoseh’s father was also a refugee—the family is Palestinian—and he recognized the struggle and need. Soon, Davies was coming over for barbecues, and the Huosehs became his second family.

Huoseh was the Alphonso Davies whisperer. He was generous and protective, but also extremely keen on discipline and character. He’d seen how some other coaches behaved—insulting other teams and players, swearing, being quick to anger—and was always careful to set a good example. “I was pretty straight to the point,” he says. “You gotta be respectful, you gotta be humble. Don’t think you’re better than anybody else, because there’s always somebody better, bigger, faster.” He quickly reoriented the basic mechanics of Davies’s game. While other coaches would instruct their players to kick the ball ahead of Davies, whose speed meant he’d always get to it, Huoseh knew that this trick wouldn’t always work—there would be other quick players, and bigger ones, too, who would bump him off the ball. “He would get upset, and I would have to bench him,” Huoseh says. “Other coaches had taught him to play on his own. I had to teach him to play with his team.”

***

Between 2012 and 2014, Craig Dalrymple, then technical director for MLS’s Vancouver Whitecaps, travelled to Edmonton several times to see Davies play. He was impressed, of course, with Davies’s pace and dexterity, and that crazy left foot, but he was most captivated by the kid’s energy. “He played with a tremendous smile on his face,” Dalrymple told me. “He was this larger-than-life personality.” The player Bossi and Huoseh knew—a leader, for sure, but a reserved one—was morphing. His self-assurance had grown along with his skills. Dalrymple wanted him for the Whitecaps.

That would take some persuasion. His mother, in particular, had reservations. “I don’t want a full-grown man living on my couch and not working in five or six years,” Huoseh remembers Victoria saying, “because of some football fantasy.” Davies promised her he would finish high school, and at 14, he joined the Whitecaps’ academy residency team. He progressed from the under-16 team to the first team in just 18 months. When he signed a multi-year professional contract with the team at 15, he was the third-youngest player in MLS history to do so, and, at the time, the youngest player in the league.

With the Whitecaps, too, he displayed a tremendous capacity for work. After his debut with the first team, he returned to the academy the next morning and said he wanted to train with his buddies on the under-16 team that afternoon. Dalrymple told him no—he was on the first team now and he needed a recovery day. Davies deflated. Fine, Dalrymple said, you can hang out, fill water bottles, serve as a linesman. “I expected him to walk off home,” Dalrymple remembered. “But he didn’t. He stayed, ran the line, helped the guys with their water. That’s who he is as a person.” In 2016, he was named the club’s most promising player. The following year, he received his Canadian citizenship and, a week later, was called up to the Canadian senior national team. A month later, in the CONCACAF Gold Cup—CONCACAF is the FIFA group for countries in North and Central America and the Caribbean—he became the youngest goal scorer in the history of both the men’s national team and the tournament.

Nick Huoseh was still in Davies’s life—he handled all the admin with the Whitecaps and regularly reported back to Davies’s parents. When agents began circling the phenom, Huoseh told Victoria and Debeah that their son needed representation. Victoria asked if Huoseh would do it. “We don’t know these people,” she said. “You’re a smart guy and you’re doing everything anyway.” Davies agreed, and urged him to take on the role. All Huoseh really knew about being a sports agent was from Jerry Maguire, but he talked to a few friends who were scouts for big clubs, thought about it for a minute, and finally said yes. “I didn’t wake up and say, ‘I’m gonna be this guy’s agent,’ ” he says. “Then, six or seven months later, I find myself at a negotiating table with Bayern Munich.”

Bayern Munich is one of the top five football clubs in the world. The German powerhouse has won 10 consecutive Bundesliga titles, and in recent years, its roster has included dozens of iconic players, most notably Arjen Robben, whom Davies has long adored. Davies had always fantasized of playing for such a club; MLS was great, but Europe was the dream. Huoseh started sniffing around, focusing on half a dozen European teams who would fit well (and pay out accordingly). Manchester United was one possibility—an international scout sent the team at least 40 different reports about Davies—but Bayern was the most persistent. In July of 2018, the club signed Davies in a US$22-million transfer deal, an MLS record at the time.

Davies was in Munich when he learned that Canada had qualified for the World Cup. A viral clip shows him going through three stages of elation: hoots, tears and unfurling the Canadian flag.

Davies wasn’t quite 18, however, so to finalize the deal, he and Huoseh flew from Vancouver to Edmonton, along with Bayern’s leadership, where they met Victoria and Debeah at the airport to sign the paperwork. They got on another plane to Toronto, then drove to Philadelphia, where Bayern was playing a pre-season friendly. Davies and Huoseh arrived at the Ritz-Carlton just in time to see the team bus pull up. As Davies and Huoseh got out of their cab, they watched the players file out. Huoseh recalls the moment with awe: “It was like, you see all these big-name players come off, and you go, ‘Man, I’m gonna be part of this.’”

***

In Germany, they called Davies Kid Canada. And he was still a kid. He sat on the bench for most of his first few months. He struggled, made mistakes. After spending the first part of his career as an attacker, he was moved to left back, and had to learn to become a defender.

It was a smart move, instantly proving how versatile Davies could be. From the back, he had more control of the field, could set up plays, could change the pace of the game. By 2019–20, his first full season, he had found his footing. He was named Bundesliga Rookie of the Season, and Bayern won the Bundesliga, the UEFA Champions League and the DFB-Pokal, Germany’s annual cup competition. The pandemic temporarily scuttled his progress, but in April of 2020, Bayern extended Davies’s contract to 2025. He was routinely called the best left back in the world. By the time he was 21, he’d won 12 major trophies, including four Bundesliga titles.

With superhuman speed, an explosive left foot and unflagging enthusiasm, Davies can take control of the field and change the pace of a game. (Photo courtesy of Canada Soccer)

He complemented all this with some of the best social media in sports. On TikTok, Davies shows off both pre-season workouts and late-night dance moves. His Instagram account is a case study in FIFA drip. He streams his FIFA 22 games on Twitch. While he was dating fellow Canadian soccer star Jordyn Huitema, the couple started a YouTube channel that chronicled their romance with detail that was both endearing and cringe. Together for four years, they broke up in May. Davies confirmed the news on Twitter, of course, where he said of Huitema, “She is a good person I have a lot of respect for her.”

Back home, Davies would be unsurprisingly instrumental to Canada’s long-awaited return to the World Cup (see the aforementioned game with Panama). Coach John Herdman, who had taken over the men’s team after winning back-to-back Olympic bronze medals with Canada’s women’s team, compared him to that side’s low-key captain, Christine Sinclair. Describing Davies as a “caged animal” when on defence, Herdman returned him to the attack. But in January of 2021, while on a break from Bayern, Davies contracted COVID. Even worse, he also developed symptoms of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that can reduce its ability to pump blood. For a moment, Davies was terrified—was his career ending just as it had begun?—but, ultimately, it wasn’t that bad. He rested for several weeks and was unable to play in Canada’s final six qualifying matches. But the team already had the momentum it needed. On March 27, on a snowy afternoon in Toronto, they beat Jamaica 4-0 and qualified for the first time in 36 years. Davies was at home in Munich, gaming and streaming, when he got the news. A clip, which went viral, captured him going through at least three different stages of elation: hoots, tears, the unfurling of the Canadian flag.

If possible, the illness seemed to focus him even more. When he returned to the pitch with Bayern nearly four months later, he worked harder and appeared to have more energy. As a younger player, he had struggled a bit with nerves and was occasionally afraid to make the wrong move or decision. After being out with COVID, he played with fresh confidence. Huoseh recalled him taking a penalty kick in a recent game, a task he previously would have handed over to an older, more experienced teammate. “I think he’s matured as an athlete and as a person,” Huoseh says. “To say, ‘Okay, you know what, I’ve earned this.’ ”

The World Cup is a different kind of pressure, however. In a way, the national team has to do very little. Even scoring just one goal would put them ahead of the performance Canada managed in 1986. But for Herdman and Phonzie, there’s more at stake. Davies has said in the past that it bugs him a bit when his Bayern teammates make jokes about Canadian soccer. “Every time I go home, I just want to prove to them that we’re getting better and better,” he’s said. He, of course, is the prime example of that. But he’s not alone. The national team won a lot of games without him, thanks to players like Jonathan David, who plays for Lille in France’s top division, and rising star Tajon Buchanan. Davies’s old coach at St. Nick’s, Marco Bossi, has watched with admiration and pride as Canadian soccer infrastructure has evolved over the decades, creating exactly the right conditions for a player like Alphonso Davies to thrive—the youth academies, the growth of MLS, the formation of the Canadian Premier League in 2017. Enrolment in Free Footie, the program where Davies got his start as a boy, has increased by over 500 per cent in the last decade.

“I see young players now, and their aspiration is to be the next Alphonso Davies,” Bossi tells me. “There was none of that when he was a kid. It was all about maybe going to play for their home country back in Africa. Now they’re striving to be on the Canadian national team. I strongly feel that over the next five or 10 years we’re going to see many more Phonzies.” He paused. “Or close to it.”


This article appears in print in the November 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Buy the issue for $8.99 or better yet, subscribe to the monthly print magazine for just $29.99.

 

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