The moment when Alphonso Davies became arguably the most famous Canadian athlete on the planet happened a week ago.
The 19-year-old raced up the left side of the pitch at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon, where his Bayern Munich team, one of the biggest clubs in soccer, was playing in the quarter-finals of the Champions League against Barcelona, an even bigger club. Davies, dribbling the ball, came to a stop in front of Barcelona defender Nelson Semedo. The Canadian faked and stuttered, and then dipped a shoulder and blew past Semedo, leaving him dead in his wake and quite possibly removing his soul. Davies scooted, cool as can be, along the goal-line boundary, drew defenders toward him and the slipped a pass to a Bayern teammate for the easiest of shots into an open goal.
? ALPHONSO DAVIES IS WORLD CLASS ALERT ? pic.twitter.com/yjr66geZKD— DAZN Canada (@DAZN_CA) August 14, 2020
It was a play that undoubtedly had people jumping off their couches from Melbourne to Beijing to Nairobi; from Moscow to Paris to Dublin; and from Mexico City to Vancouver, where Davies first played professional soccer, to Edmonton, where he was raised. The goal was just one of eight scored as Bayern thrashed mighty Barcelona, which was itself such a big defeat that it knocked the soccer world off its axis for a bit, but it was the Davies play that shot around the globe as its defining moment, the metaphor as a dazzling Bayern side left a creaky Barca grasping at air.
After a perfunctory win over plucky Lyon on Wednesday, Bayern Munich will meet Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League final on Sunday. It will be the first time that a player who represents Canada internationally takes the field in a men’s Champions League final. It is history. Did I mention Davies is a teenager?
The Champions League final is such a big match that it has no equivalent on this continent or any other. The annual competition pits the top teams in Europe’s leagues against each other in a schedule that is concurrent to domestic play. Interrupted by the pandemic, it has been finished in a sprint in Portugal over the past couple of weeks.
“It’s the biggest stage in club football,” says Kristian Jack, soccer analyst for TSN. “And I say that not just for European football, but football around the world.”
The World Cup will always have a bigger profile, but Jack notes that club football long ago passed the international game in terms of quality. There are more resources, better coaching, and a deeper accumulation of playing talent on the best teams.
“So, that makes this game the pinnacle of all, because there’s no better club football in the world than the European game. It’s where the best players play,” Jack says. “This is the biggest competition in the world where players like Alphonso and others are evaluated the most, because they are challenged the most by the best players.”
The Davies story has been well told, but a brief recap: Born in Ghana in a refugee camp for Liberians fleeing a civil war, Davies came to Edmonton with his family when he was five years old. He quickly became a soccer prodigy and was playing for the Vancouver Whitecaps of Major League Soccer when he was just 15 years old. He became a Canadian citizen at 17 and almost immediately started playing for the men’s national team — the path decidedly not taken years earlier by Owen Hargreaves, another teenage soccer phenom, who spurned Canada to represent England internationally. Davies’ play in MLS and the Canadian side, at such a young age, attracted interest from a number of European clubs and the Whitecaps sold his rights to Bayern Munich in 2018 for what could end up being the richest transfer deal in MLS history at more than US$20-million.
All of a sudden, “he’s walking into a changing room and shaking hands with guys he has played on a PlayStation,” Jack says. At the time Bayern had won six straight German titles — now eight — and featured World Cup winners like Manuel Neuer and Thomas Muller. “He’s looking at these players in the dressing room and thinking ‘these guys are some of my heroes’ and then eventually they look at him and go. ‘OK, what can you do for me?’ And he had to prove to them, and himself, that he belonged.”
Young players are typically loaned out to smaller clubs so that they can get regular game action, but injuries at Bayern created an opening for Davies early in just his second season in Munich. He was inserted in the lineup as a left-side defender, and has not lost his place since.
Playing a position with the primary responsibility, theoretically, of defence, Davies will not pile up the goals like his star teammates Robert Lewandowski or Serge Gnabry. But he has been a holy terror for Bayern, bursting forward with remarkable speed to join their frequent counter-attacks. A highlight-reel romp up the left side to set up a Lewandowski goal against Chelsea in the Champions League in February was one of Davies’ first hoo-boy moments on the global stage. On the other side of the pandemic pause, Davies chased down fellow teen sensation Erling Haaland of Borussia Dortmund in a run that was clocked at 36 kilometres an hour, a record for the German league, in another clip that shot around the world. Muller began calling his teammate the Road Runner, complete with “meep meep” sound effect. Davies’ speed has quickly become a Bayern hallmark, and the Germans could quite soon invent a word for it. (I suggest Phonzieschnell.)
His play this season, and the stage on Sunday, is significant for Canadian soccer, which has had much success on the women’s side but has been something of a wasteland for the men. “I think it alters perception enormously,” Jack says, noting that Canadian men, if they played overseas, have rarely been more than bit players on big clubs. Davies is already a star, with his jersey the third-best seller among Bayern players this year. It could make clubs cast more than the occasional glance to the development system here, and his rise will naturally raise the ceiling for a men’s national team that will be among the World Cup hosts in 2026, when Davies should be in his athletic prime.
But for now, there is Paris Saint-Germain to worry about. A Qatar-backed superclub that is loaded with attacking talent in the form of international stars Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Angel di Maria, PSG should provide a lot for a teenage defender to worry about.
“It is another monumental task,” Jack says. But so was Haaling at Dortmund. So was Barcelona and Lionel Messi. The kid that wears the maple leaf on his sleeve hasn’t just survived, he has sparkled. “It’s going to be a massive, massive challenge for him,” Jack says. “But everything we’ve seen from him, right now, is that he doesn’t feel overwhelmed by the moment at all.”
The next one comes Sunday afternoon, local time, in his home country.