Sports News of Sunday, 16 July 2017
Alphonso Davies does not remember the refugee camp in Ghana where he was born.
The Edmonton-raised soccer star can only try to comprehend the perils faced by his parents in Liberia during two bloody civil wars.
But Davies, 16, is grateful his family made the decision to immigrate to Canada and is proud to represent his adopted country at this month’s CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament, which started July 7 in New York.
“It’s a really big honour for me playing for the national team,” said Davies, who toils professionally for the Vancouver Whitecaps of Major League Soccer. “I came to Canada at a young age and I’ve been here for most of my life, so being able to play for this country is a really great experience and joy.”
His parents, Victoria and Debeah, fled their home in Monrovia, Liberia, during a civil war to seek safety in the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana. After years in the camp, the family was given an opportunity to move to Canada and start a new life.
“Refugee life is like if they put you in a container and lock you up,” Victoria Davies told whitecapsfc.com in a video feature on the young soccer star.
“No way to get out. You can’t go far from the camp, anything can happen to you.”
When Davies was five, his family came to Canada, first to Toronto, then to Windsor, Ont., and finally to Edmonton, where he discovered soccer, starting a rapid ascent from the minor ranks to the highest professional level in North America.
“I’m proud of him,” his mother said. “Because if I look back, where we came from, no food, no clothes and here we are today, he has everything that he needs.”
Early into his professional career, it is evident Davies is a special talent. The left-footed midfielder is incredibly quick and has strong offensive instincts.
Davies developed his skill and work ethic in Edmonton attending Mother Theresa elementary school and then St. Nicholas junior high, where he was a member of the soccer academy.
“We were excited to have him join our program, because as soon as he came to our school, he was super motivated and embraced everything we had in the program,” said Marco Bossio, director of the St. Nicholas Soccer Academy. “He was constantly asking to stay after school and work out in the facility. When you have someone like Alphonso, who is so athletic, fast and strong and great to work with, he just excelled from Grade 7 to Grade 9.”
It was at the St. Nicholas Academy where Davies began to foster the dream of playing professionally. Davies did not start out playing the game in hopes of one day doing it for a living.
“To be honest, I was just trying to play for fun, to keep myself active and keep myself out of trouble,” Davies said. “I didn’t really think I was really good, I was just playing the game because I enjoyed playing it with my friends. Then once I started playing organized soccer, parents, coaches and other teammates were telling me to keep going and that I could become something so I started believing it. That’s what started me wanting to become a professional. That’s when I started training hard to become a professional.”
Davies was recruited by the Whitecaps at 14 and invited to be part of their youth academy. Within two years, he was suiting up with their senior team, becoming one of the youngest players to ever play in MLS.
“When he came in, we knew that he was a prospect for sure,” said Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi. “I’m not sure that we would have gone overboard at that point and said he was going to make it and be something really special. For me, he’s a little bit of an anomaly.
“When he came in, he was part of the U-16 team and within months he went from U-16 to U-18, WFC2 (Whitecaps Football Club 2) to the senior team. That’s very rare that happens, and it’s very rare that it will happen that much in the future.”
Despite his meteoric rise, Davies’ feet are planted firmly on the ground due, in large part, to his humble beginnings. Having lived through a civil war and then in a refugee camp, Victoria and Debeah instilled core values in their children.
“The one thing that has been very refreshing is the fact that he’s so grounded,” Lenarduzzi said. “He got here and you didn’t even know that he was around, he was very respectful and did his job. The academic aspect of his life was important to his mom and dad and to him, obviously, so he’s making sure that he’s doing all those things he need to do.
“Throughout the rapid rise that he’s had, it hasn’t impacted him as a person. Very early in his life, being a good person was obviously very important to him and his family, and you could see that they didn’t just talk about it, they implemented it. That’s refreshing, because in this age of the Millennial, that doesn’t happen a lot.”
It took some convincing for Davies to be granted permission to leave home at 14 to pursue a professional soccer career. His parents eventually relented when assured by the Whitecaps education would remain a high priority.
“It was really tough being 14 and moving away from home,” Davies said. “My mom was really hesitant to let me go, because I was 14 years old and she wanted to keep an eye on me to see what I’m doing and how my grades are at school, and she wouldn’t really have that if I moved to Vancouver.
“But I talked to her, I told her that the Whitecaps would help me keep me focused in school and not get distracted and that helped things settle down and she allowed me to come over to Vancouver. My dad was fine with it, he was happy, it was my mom that took a little bit more convincing.”
Davies was put up with a billet family in Vancouver and is balancing school with soccer. Being away from his family, however, proved difficult at times.
“It was different being in a billet home, living with other families,” Davies said. “At first, I was really shy, but then when you start connecting and talking to your family, you develop a bond with them and they make it easier for you.
“It takes some of your homesickness away. At first, I was really homesick. A month in, I was really homesick, I was missing my mom and my dad and my brothers and my sister.”
Success on the field allowed Davies to cope with his homesickness and his quick rise up the Whitecaps’ development ladder reaffirmed the decision to leave home at such a young age.
Davies signed his first professional contract in February 2016, and shortly thereafter, became the youngest goal-scorer in United Soccer League history playing for WFC2. In July of that year, Davies joined the Whitecaps senior team, making him the youngest active player in the MLS at 15.
He was soon on the national team’s radar and represented the country at the Under-17 and Under-20 levels before making his senior team debut in early June, just a week after obtaining his Canadian citizenship.
“That was a great moment for the family,” Davies said. “I’m glad I could get it. It’s going to mean a lot, representing the country I’ve lived in for most of my life. Having that (Canadian) crest on my chest playing for them is going to mean a lot for me.”
Lenarduzzi said it is important to manage expectations on the young professional Davies.
He represents a youth movement for the national team, which has struggled at the international level and has not qualified for a FIFA World Cup since 1986, including the 2018 World Cup in Russia next summer. Davies, however, should not be looked at as a saviour.
“I’ve been in the game long enough, our coach Carl Robinson, has been in the game long enough, to know that there are things that can derail you,” Lenarduzzi said. “Ideally, we can make sure that those things don’t happen, but more importantly, he needs to make sure those things don’t happen.
“He’s a young player, he’s shown a lot of promise, he’s got a real good head on his shoulders, he comes from a good family. All the ingredients that are required are there, but he’s 16. Lets talk again in three or four years and see where he’s at, at that point.”
The story behind the success is beginning to attract attention. Davies scored two goals for Canada in a 4-2 win against French Guiana in the opening game of the Gold Cup. They were his first two goals for the senior national team.
“It almost seems like it’s a movie right now, and we’re at the start of the movie with his family and life background, how he got to us and how well he’s done with us,” Lenarduzzi said. “How he went from U-16 to our senior team within a season, got his citizenship and got called up to the national team. But there is a lot of the story that is left to be written.”