Born in a refugee camp in Ghana, Alphonso Davies is clear about his goals at this World Cup. For a 22-year-old, the perspective is refreshing.
His mission reaches beyond recording Canada’s first ever World Cup final point or goal or qualification for the knock-out stages. In an era in which migrations are described as invasions, Davies has an important and extraordinary back story.
A Champions League winner with Bayern Munich, rated by some as the best left back at this tournament, Davies’ vocation goes well beyond the football. His parents fled the Liberian Civil War for the Buduburum refugee camp in Ghana, where Davies was born in 2000.
Alphonso Davies will be looking to make history for Canada at this month’s World Cup
Concerns have been raised over how Qatar manages its vast population of migrant workers
Five years later they settled in Canada, ending up in ice hockey obsessed Edmonton, on the fringes of the Canadian prairie, where the winters are long and hard.
He is now in the Bundesliga, arriving by the most-circuitous route, and, speaking by Zoom last week, the Bayern defender reflected on what he regards as the additional responsibility of representing refugees in an age in which migrants are demonised.
‘Definitely,’ he agreed when asked if he feels his story can have a humanising effect. ‘People say refugees are a problem but we’re all human beings. Refugees don’t choose to be refugees. Something is going on in their country and they have to go to safer environment.’
The camp at which he was born was established by the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees and he is now a UN ambassador. ‘For me joining the UNHCR was a big moment in my life because I wanted to show not just myself on the podium but that refugees are human beings and, given opportunities, we can be footballers, doctors.
‘We’re human beings as well. I feel like people have a negative say when people hear the word refugee. I want to change that to a positive thing.’
Davies feels added responsibility given discourse over Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers
Canada’s players celebrate qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1986
Davies’ journey is genuinely inspirational. He jokes about seeing snow for the first time in Edmonton – ‘I remember waking up and seeing this white stiff outside’ – and that even now he doesn’t embrace Canadian winters. His dad, Debeah, who had found work in a factory packing chicken, was an amateur footballer so, having discovered he was not a natural ice skater – ‘I can stay on my feet’ is the limit of his talents – he ended up playing at his father’s club.
He couldn’t always make practice as he was also family babysitter, as his mum, Victoria, worked nights as a cleaner. Nonetheless, he did well enough to move away from home to join MLS franchise Vancouver Whitecaps at 14 and make his senior pro debut a year later at 15.
Davies, a Chelsea fan who grew up idolising Didier Drogba and Michael Essien, is the signature star of this Canada team but for the outside world, it may well be a novel concept that Canada have a sporting culture outside of ice hockey and icons beyond Wayne Gretzsky.
They also have England’s next big coaching thing in Durham native John Herdman, the man who twice took the Canadian women’s team to Olympic bronze at London 2012 and Rio 2016, a tournament with the same status as the World Cup in women’s football. The FA twice approached him to coach the England women’s team.
The Canadian full-back has made 133 appearances for the Bundesliga champions
Davies grew up idolosing Chelsea – in particular, Didier Drogba (L) and Michael Essien
Pretty much unknown in the UK, Herdman, an academy coach at Sunderland and Hartlepool, had to emigrate to a regional coaching job in New Zealand to progress, feeling that English football disdained his lack of professional football CV. England’s loss has been Canada’s gain, with Davies insistent that we’re missing out. ‘Most definitely,’ he said.
‘For me he’s just a great guy, he’s great motivator and good coach as well. He brings in life to the team, the brotherhood. We’re different characters on the team, we’re all grown men, tempers flare and he keeps us together he makes us believe before the World Cup started he made us believe we could make it.’
Herdman has transformed Canada’s reputation as regional laughing stock in North and Central America. One infamous episode in 2012 saw the men’s team require just a point to qualify through the initial stages of CONCACAF qualifying stages for Brazil 2014 and yet they lost 8-1 in Honduras. Under Herdman though, they topped CONCACAF qualifying, ahead of Mexico and the USA, scoring most goals and playing exciting, progressive football.
All the players reference Herdman’s ability to bond the players, and he has drawn heavily on the work of former Oxford United Kiwi, Ceri Evans, who is the qualified psychiatrist who advised the All Blacks on their 2011 and 2015 World Cup wins.
Englishman John Herdman has helped transform Canada’s national football team
‘I really enjoy John’s pre-game videos, the way he presents them and his speeches before the game,’ said Davies. ‘It really motivates the team.’ At the start of their World Cup qualifying campaign, when they played their second game in Nashville playing against traditional rivals USA, a game they would be expected to lose, Davies says that Herdman reframed their expectations.
‘The day before the game he put a video on and it really spoke to us. We all looked at each other like: “Definitely, definitely.” Everyone was ready to play that minute. Our focus, our mind-set was definitely that we can make this World Cup. And here we are. We made it. John is a great guy.
‘He studies the game hours after hours after hours. They [the coaching team] will be up until 5am, 6am, just studying opponents. It’s incredible. We are lucky to have him.’
Canada, who are co-hosts of the 2026 World Cup with Mexico and the USA, have qualified for the first time since 1986 when they exited without scoring and without a picking up a point, even if they acquitted themselves well against France, Hungary and Soviet Union, losing narrowly in each game.
The full-back boasts an impressive record of 12 goals from his 34 international appearances
‘Growing up in Canada, the main sport was [ice] hockey, football wasn’t really the focus,’ said Davies. ‘Now, with the women’s team doing so well, the men’s team going to a World Cup, people are starting to take a look at Canada as a footballing country.
We have big talent in this country and we just want to put in a display to inspire the next generation of Canadian athletes to play the sport, for them to have a base to start. Being new into the World Cup, we just want to go in there and show that we belong there.
We don’t want to shy away from the competition. We don’t want go in there and hide. We want to go in there and play our game, how we know how to play and see how it goes. This is football and anything can happen if you give it your all.’
Whatever he achieves here, you suspect his impact will resonate well beyond the world of football.