Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson had a decision to make. Three days before his team’s home match against Minnesota United in a late July home game at BC Place, teenage star Alphonso Davies had become the most expensive outgoing transfer in Major League Soccer’s history, signing a contract with Bayern Munich. It was a deal that was potentially worth as much as $20m.
With the teenager’s name all over the news, the crowd was even more excited than usual to see him in action. But given the whirlwind of emotions Davies found himself at the centre of, it would be hard to fault the coach for choosing not to start him. An hour before kickoff, the line-up was released. Davies’ name was on it. Now the question was how the 17-year-old would perform with more eyes - particularly those in Munich - fixed on his performance.
The match began slowly for Davies, who was mobbed by a litany of United players and had little space to operate. In the 35th minute, though, he found a crack and capitalised on the lapse. With three defenders closing him down on the left side of Minnesota’s penalty area, Davies picked out the onrushing and unmarked Yordy Reyna at the top of the box. The Peruvian took the pass and slalomed his way through the crowd in front of the goal before finishing with aplomb to put the Whitecaps ahead 1–0. That was just the appetiser.
With his team still leading by that lone goal coming out of the half, Davies emerged from the tunnel with a focused look in his eyes. He knew that the Whitecaps couldn’t rely on such a slim advantage, especially against a Western Conference foe. It wouldn’t take him long to provide some insurance.
Ten minutes into the second half, Minnesota midfielder Ibson lost control of the ball and Davies, almost by teleportation, was suddenly in possession and dribbling with gusto towards goal. With one defender, former Whitecap Michael Boxall, to beat, Davies stepped on the ball with his left foot, pulled it inside to evade the tackle, continued into the box and calmly drove it past goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth. Eight minutes later he added a second assist, this time setting up Kei Kamara on the counter-attack.
With the game seemingly out of United’s reach, Vancouver eased up, allowing the visitors to claw back from 3–0 down to 3–2 with about five minutes left. The full comeback wasn’t going to happen on Davies’s watch, though. Once again he executed a juke that would’ve impressed Barry Sanders – this time through four outstretched legs from Minnesota’s defenders – and fired a bullet into the top right corner. Eight minutes later, the full-time whistle sounded on the 4–2 win. Davies had been involved in all four goals.
Coming so close on the heels of the transfer announcement, with the world watching, it was hard not to see Davies’s performance as a statement: Bayern is getting what they paid for, and maybe even more.
But as the Edmonton native notched his first MLS brace seemingly to celebrate his upcoming move to Europe, there was also a message for Canadian football written on the pitch.
Davies, who made his professional debut at 15, is arguably the most talented player this country has ever produced on the men’s side of the beautiful game. He’s already one of a scant few capable of playing at the highest level of the European pro leagues, and he has the potential to be the first to star there.
Even as a youngster, Davies’ potential was obvious. In talking to the coaches who first noticed and nurtured his otherworldly talent, as well as Davies himself, a picture emerges of the singular process that built Canada’s premiere male player - along with lessons for how to find the next Alphonso Davies.
Long before Davies became a household name, he played for his elementary school and his local club, Inter Soccer Club in Edmonton, where he stood out at an early age. Then Davies discovered that his team was participating in Free Footie. He initially thought it was a school tournament. Little did he know that it was far more than a typical competition.
Instead of facing the same players from the club environment, Davies played against other children from schools located across the city. Not only could he identify with them on a personal level, the kids were extra motivated at Free Footie because they were finally able to play in an organized setting.
Free Footie is a free program that allows kids in Grades 3 to 6 to play in an organised setting against other kids from schools in their own neighbourhoods in Edmonton. The children are provided free transportation, shin pads, shorts, socks, a jersey and a ball. “Our school had a soccer team and I joined,” Davies recalled when he explained how he discovered Free Footie. “Apparently, we were in a tournament called Free Footie, so I was like ‘oh, okay, that’s pretty cool!’ At the time, I didn’t really look into it. I thought it was just school soccer. But it helped kids like myself play with some of the good players around the schools that you usually won’t play against on club teams.”
Most of the children who participate in the program have tough family backgrounds or limited finances, so registering for a club team in Edmonton can be out of reach. Luckily, there was Free Footie.
Davies, born to Liberian parents in Ghana before they emigrated to Canada when he was five years old, shared a similar story to the other children in Free Footie. Whether they were immigrants like Davies or born and raised in Edmonton, he enjoyed playing with the other boys and girls in the program. “I think some of the boys would always get frustrated because the girls always got out of school first and we had some girls on our team that were really good.” Davies said with a chuckle. “We’d just give the ball to them and they would score. It was just fun afterwards.”
With Davies reaching his graduate date from elementary school, he was set to attend St. Nicholas Catholic Junior High School in Edmonton, who had a soccer academy as well as a team. The school’s academy director and coach, Marco Bossio, coached several kids from Free Footie so he decided to make the trek down to the fields to take in the Free Footie tournament.
Bossio had never met Davies, so he was set to experience an unexpected masterclass. “It was kind of like a year-end round-up tournament and I went to go and kind of watch all of the young athletes and I saw Alphonso play,” said Bossio. “I recognised that he was an exceptional talent right at that age already and he came up to me and said, with a big smile on his face, that he was coming to our academy next year and we were delighted to hear that. As soon as he stepped foot in our academy he worked really, really hard and he just excelled to the next level each day and by the end of Grade 9 he was phenomenal.”
Football wasn’t Davies’ only passion growing up, either. He was also a track and field star as well as an avid basketball player. Even today, he can be seen donning Golden State Warriors apparel, his favourite team, and supporting them during their games.
Upon landing in Munich before his first training session with Bayern, Davies was seen playing a casual game of one-on-one against new teammate Serge Gnabry before Bayern Munich’s basketball team played Olympiacos. The quick dribbling and the shifty movements were reminiscent of Davies on the pitch. “Being able to play [multiple sports] is always good for an athlete,” Davies explained. “Especially basketball, track and field, or even football. Being able to run track and field helped me with my mechanics, my speed, to apply them on the field and also basketball, my defending and all those skills.”
Even though he might’ve become equally adept at any of his favourite sports, Davies had his heart set on one specific goal. “I always wanted to play professionally but I didn’t really think it was possible,” Davies remarked. “I had doubts in my mind that maybe footballers shouldn’t have, but when I started playing organised soccer, and came to Vancouver, I really thought that if I kept going at it, I could really be something.”
At the same time, Davies joined the Edmonton Strikers, a local soccer club. He trained during the day at St. Nicholas and practised or played in matches at night with the Strikers. In his final year with the Strikers, he toured across North America, participating in marquee youth tournaments in the United States such as the Dallas Cup. He even faced the Whitecaps’ under-17 team. His under-15s won that match and eventually convinced Vancouver to sign Davies before his 15th birthday.
At 19, Davies is only scratching the surface of his potential. He has started eight matches for Bayern Munich, including his Champions League debut, and scored Canada’s first goal against the United States since 2007, helping them earn a historic win in October. Despite the rising stardom, Davies has remained a respectful young man with a strong work ethic. He credits his mother for his professionalism, who he doesn’t want to disappoint by “getting a big head”.
That attitude was evident during his childhood as well. “I’ve seen a lot of athletes come through our building,” Bossio stated. “They’re the best player in the school for that year, and they might handle it a little differently, whereas Alphonso is very reserved, very humble, always trying to help players not quite at his level. He was a captain on our team back in Grade 8 and that’s the kind of leadership that he had, even with older boys. He still had that humble attitude but in terms of personality, he’s fun. He loves to make people laugh and joke around and he plays with a big smile on the face like we know now.”
Fitting, then, that Davies stepped onto the training pitch at Bayern Munich with that same child-like smile on his first day. Back home in Edmonton, the hysteria behind Davies’ signing with Bayern has led to a boon for Free Footie. There are more than 4,000 kids who participate in the program – up from the 650 who were enrolled in 2013 – and it plans on expanding into other sports like basketball and hockey.
Founder Tim Adams has seen Davies grow up from Free Footie participant to a wonderkid. His story is remarkable and serves as motivation for other kids who want to follow his path. “Alphonso’s signing means so much more than showcasing that he can put the ball in the net,” said Adams. “His story is the perfect example of what it means to be Canadian. His story shows that here in Canada, we welcome everyone with open arms, we will try our best, with limited resources, to help you find your passion, to support and grow it, and if you put in the hard work, you’ll succeed.
“Then we’ll celebrate you like no other because we all love playing a tiny role in someone’s success. Success for some many of us in the soccer community and this country is not yourself doing personally well, but helping someone else do well and that’s a beautiful thing. I just hope that it inspires a push so this support doesn’t happen for one kid by chance, but for thousands by design.”
But Davies’ exemplary behaviour is also a fantastic example for the kids. Adams, like many other Canadians, were moved by the teenager’s speech at FIFA Congress in June 2018.
With Canada, the United States and Mexico launching a joint bid for the 2026 World Cup, they had strong competition in Morocco, who was slightly favoured to win the hosting rights over North America. Davies took to the stage before the votes were tabulated. He spoke about his family, their journey to Canada and how proud he is to be Canadian. It would’ve been a powerful speech from anyone, let alone a 17-year-old who was barely old enough to drive in British Columbia. Most media members present at FIFA Congress meeting claim that Davies swung the vote in favour of the North American bid after his emotional monologue.
“Alphonso’s success is that we can show kids it’s not enough to be the best player on the pitch,” Adams continued. “You also have to be the best person on and off the pitch. I have examples of kids I’ve coached that have been the best on the field, got pro contracts, but never received the right support to pull together the rest of their lives and now, once a star, they are flash in the pan. Of course, for Alphonso to have this platform, he has to be a great player, but I am excited for him to be an ambassador and advocate for doing good.”
Now Adams and his volunteer coaches – mainly composed of teachers, parents and school principals – are focused on providing a safe and fun environment for other kids. Thanks to Free Footie’s kind donors and sponsors, Adams and his volunteers are able to ensure that every child is respected just as much as the next. The program’s mandate is solely focused on ensuring that every kid has the means to play football.
“I got to know these kids so well and their stories broke my heart,” said Adams. “One of my kids was a former child soldier. Another I found sleeping in the river valley on the way to school. One of my kids won the 400-metre, 800-metre and 1500-metre indoor track competition after sleeping in a stairwell in minus-20 degree weather.
“The amazing part is that despite these stories, these kids were the most resilient people I’ve ever met. They were still just kids. Happy, kind, caring and respectful, but screaming for someone else to care about them, to hold them to account and to challenge them. That’s when I knew I had to reach more kids.”
One girl who came through the program, attended St. Nicholas’ academy and played for the Edmonton Strikers is following the exact same path as Davies – except for one minor tweak. Alout Agar, whose family moved to Canada from South Sudan, was named in Canada’s under-15 girls’ team for the CONCACAF Girls’ Under-15 Championship in 2018. Agar, who started up front for Les Rouges, scored twice in four matches at the tournament. She, too, has a bright future.
Because she is replicating Davies’ rise from Free Footie to the national team, Bossio refers to Agar as “Alphonsa”, much to her delight. Saying the name Alphonso around St. Nicholas will leave kids in awe because of his legendary status. “I don’t really consider myself a legend but it makes me happy,” said Davies. “I went to the school for three years. I always try to help wherever I go, to succeed in whatever I do. But kids looking up to me, being called a legend, is overwhelming. It’s a good title. It puts a smile on my face.”
However, for every Alphonso Davies that is discovered, many others fall through the cracks and lose interest in soccer altogether. “My favourite example is a kid I met from Afghanistan,” Adams explained. “He came as a refugee and lived in the affordable housing across the street from me. At nine years old, he was the best player I’d ever seen. I’d take him to play pickup [football] and he and I would play two-versus-two against talented men and clean their clocks. He could read the game and space like no kid I’d ever seen. He was better than Alphonso at finding space, he could dance with that ball like a ballerina and he was a great kid too. Respectful, smart and hardworking.”
Recognising his outstanding attributes, Adams attended a club tryout with the boy when he turned ten. One of the coaches asked the child to strike the ball from the top of the box into the goal. Because he didn’t have the strength in his legs to do so, he was unable to meet that requirement. The youngster was eventually cut from the tryouts.
“That day, I watched potentially the best player in this country disappear,” Adams lamented. “The CSA needs to invest heavily and strategically in the grassroots game in these neighbourhoods, but not with just soccer. It must come with everything else too or it will fail.”
With exorbitant registration fees, the endless hours of travel and the cost of equipment, many families are priced out of football in Canada. As much as parents want their kids to have fun, they simply aren’t capable of meeting the outrageous requirements.
Luckily for local kids in Edmonton, there is Free Footie. St. Nicholas’ soccer academy has a fee of $900, although Bossio says that the families who can’t meet those costs are compensated. The players are trained as referees and earn money officiating matches, which helps them learn the rules of the game as well as pay for the program.
However, there are hundreds of thousands of children who would love to play football in Canada but can’t afford it. “The way sport is organised in Canada needs to be completely blown up,” said Adams. “I hate that clubs have kids spend $100 on a kit. My own kid’s U5 soccer costs $150. What does that pay for? I coach the team, there are no refs, we play outside on a field that’s free and the ball and jersey my kid got are sponsored.
“Then let’s trickle that down to families that don’t have $150. They don’t have $15 for a meal. They don’t have $4 for a bus ticket. Yet, so much of this country’s athletic and leadership talent exists in these communities.”
The solution is simple, according to Adams. “We need a grassroots program to live here, just like Free Footie, in every Canadian city. Let’s identify all the highest-needs schools in the country and give that school a Free Footie program. Let’s draw on the varsity, physical education and teaching programs at post-secondary institutions across the country to provide coaches, so the amazing teachers in the schools aren’t burning out and on the hook for even more.
“Let’s push the federal and provincial governments to fund scholarships for these students to coach. Let’s push the CSA and provincial associations to train these coaches on the technical skills. Let’s ask big sponsors like Adidas or Jumpstart to cover the equipment.”
Some academies rely on solidarity payments from clubs who purchase their players. In Davies’ case, the Whitecaps pay a small amount of the transfer fee received from Bayern to the Edmonton Strikers. This is FIFA law, so every deal across the planet follows this practice. Unfortunately, Free Footie and St. Nicholas are not entitled to compensation as the Canadian Soccer Association confirmed that the programs aren’t “a registered entity from the Alberta Soccer Association” and is therefore not allowed to obtain a fee from the Whitecaps. Adams says he is applying for that status so that Free Footie is properly compensated in the future.
Bossio, meanwhile, is hoping that Davies’ story will lead to more kids earning better opportunities to play, and perhaps utilise their talent to forge a professional career. “I think that Alphonso’s story is bringing to light the work that is being done in places like Edmonton with programs like Free Footie and our soccer academy and the club teams that are involved here in Edmonton,” said Bossio.
“I’m hoping that Alphonso’s story can bring to light that Canada Soccer and Alberta Soccer and get everyone on board and bring everyone together and make sure that none of these athletes fall through the cracks and not get the opportunity to play. It would be nice to see because there’s a lot of [kids] that never get the opportunity to participate or they find it hard to participate and it’s usually due to financial reasons.”
Even Davies supports the formation or funding for programs like Free Footie so children aren’t priced out of organised football. “The program is a good program. It helped me a lot with my skills. It helps a lot of young footballers that want to excel in the sport. It provides a basic platform to start with: being able to help your team. It’s a great way to see some players around Canada and also to let kids enjoy the sport. You never know, maybe they’ll fall in love with it.”
With Canada failing to qualify for the men’s Under-20 World Cup for the last 12 years, and with a heavy reliance on MLS academies to supply youth national team players, it would behove the CSA to fund programs like Free Footie, or start their own, to enhance the talent pool. Jonathan David never represented an MLS academy, yet he is shining for Belgian club Gent as a 19-year-old in just his second season as a professional player.
The inclusion of the Canadian Premier League should be a massive boon for Canadian football, too. Marco Carducci, Noah Verhoeven and Amer Didic have been in senior national team squads or invited to camps in the league’s first year of existence. Tristan Borges and Terran Campbell, both 21, were the CPL’s top two scorers in 2019. They were in MLS academies but either left early for other opportunities or were deemed surplus to requirements before returning to Canada.
While that continues to percolate, Alphonso Davies’ will keep carving out a career overseas. He’s already featured in Nike advertisements and is earning minutes at a marquee European club. For the first time, perhaps ever, a Canadian player could be a marketable star in this country. Hopefully, he will be the first of many.
By Peter Galindo @GalindoPW