Alphonso Davies' journey: from a refugee camp to Bayern Munich and the 2022 World Cup with Canada
Having made his way from birth in a refugee camp to Bundesliga champion and UEFA Champions League winner with Bayern Munich and the 2022 World Cup with Canada, if Alphonso Davies has kept a diary, it will be a fascinating read some day. And it's nowhere near finished yet.
Davies is the face of Canadian soccer, and already has four Bundesliga titles and a slice of treble-winning history to call his own. The incredible thing is - at 22 - the Bayern star's fairytale is barely beyond the first chapter.
The story began in Buduburam, a Ghanaian refugee camp, where Davies was born after his parents had fled the civil war in Liberia. Life was fraught with difficulties. The search for clean water, food, simply staying alive; every hour that passed a triumph of survival. There had to be a better way.
"It was hard to live because the only way you survive sometimes is you have to carry guns," remembers Alphonso's father, Debeah. "We didn't have any interest in shooting guns. So we decided to just escape from there."
"When my parents came to Canada, they told me some stories about their time in Ghana," said Alphonso. "It's sad - it was a tough time and it was hard. Growing up listening to these stories, I just want to make a better life for my family.
"It's a story that is part of me, and looking back, I can't believe we made it out, which was amazing. I remember how hard they [parents] worked to free their family. Every time I step on the pitch, it's for them."
Davies had already started doing his bit for the family even before he became a football superstar. Aged just five when his family crossed the Atlantic, eventually settling in Edmonton, Alberta, Alphonso would help raise his two younger siblings while Debeah and the family matriarch Victoria worked long hours to make ends meet.
He also went to school, where his talent with the ball at his feet first caught the eye.
"Our little Alphonso," said Melissa Guzzo, Davies' Grade 6 teacher and sports coach at the Mother Theresa Catholic school. "He's just one of those kids who had a permanent smile on his face, always dancing in the hallways. He's such a natural talent. Anything he touched - track, basketball, any sport - he was the kid."
Sensing something in the Edmonton air, Guzzo touched base with Tim Adams, the founder of Free Footie - a free after-school soccer league for young inner-city kids who can't afford registration fees and equipment or get transportation to games. Adams quickly realised that Davies was out of the ordinary.
"I saw him make his first touch, and I knew immediately. This kid has a gift for the game," he recalled after witnessing just a few minutes of Davies' magic at a Free Footie end-of-year tournament. Instinctively, Adams had also called local soccer coach Marco Bossio to check out the tournament. The St. Nicholas Soccer Academy boss wasn't disappointed.
"There was something special about this boy," Bossio said. "He had lightning-quick feet and speed with the ball. I knew that was something special at that age. I asked him what his plans were and he told me he would be playing for us next season. We were delighted. We have a lot of kids from different communities, so he fit in right away."
While his football ability spoke volumes, Davies' stuttering English in his early days in Canada meant he didn't.
"He spoke English but it was, like, broken English," said Chernoh Fahnbulleh, Davies' school friend who immigrated to Canada from Liberia in 2008. "We were all in the same drama class, so then for the drama thing we all get in a group and then we act out something or read a book together.
"His coach would help him out a lot too. They would always go to a whole bunch of places, and the coach would introduce him to other people… everybody in the soccer community already knew Alphonso, anyway."
That's because his twinkle-toed feet had already done his talking for him. With praise of his prowess eventually came the germ of an idea that blossomed: pursuing soccer 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 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' readiness to go that extra mile - a quality he attributes to his parents' experience in war-torn Monrovia - saw him outgrow St. Nicholas and later the Edmonton Strikers.
By the age of 14, he was enrolled in the Vancouver Whitecaps' residency program. His progress was rapid and, after becoming the youngest player to appear in the United Soccer League, he made history as the first player born in the 2000s to play in Major League Soccer. He was just 15 years, eight months and 15 days old.
"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 U16 team and within months he went from U16 to U18, WFC2 [Whitecaps Football Club] to the senior team. That's very rare that happens, and it's very rare that it will happen that much in the future."
A once-in-a-generation talent, Davies was soon on the national team's radar. He had already represented the country at U17 and U20 level when he was called up for the senior side, debuting against Curaçao on 14 June 2017. He had only obtained his Canadian citizenship a week earlier.
"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."
The Davies household watched on in awe as Alphonso, still 16, later became Canada's youngest ever goalscorer and the youngest to score at a Gold Cup with his brace against French Guiana. He was also the first player born in the 21st century to score at a major international tournament. A star was born - but Davies represented more than just a prodigious athlete.
"Alphonso Davies is somebody that all our players can aspire to become," Canada national team coach John Herdman told the Edmonton Sun. "He underlines what Canada is. It is a country that accepts all."
Before agreeing to join Bayern for an MLS record fee in July 2018, Davies spoke at a FIFA Congress on behalf of North America's 'United bid' to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup. He explained how Canada had welcomed him and his family as they sought refuge from Liberia's bloody civil war; a journey that took him from a refugee camp in Ghana, via Edmonton, to a career in professional soccer. The impact of his words was undeniable.
"I don't know what you were able to see back home, whether they showed the photos or not, but they showed photos of him when he was five years old, him coming to Canada and Canada adopting him as his home country," said Peter Montopoli, General Secretary of Soccer Canada, after FIFA awarded the 2026 World Cup to Canada, Mexico and the USA.
"It was very compelling and very inspiring and very emotional. He was just the perfect guy to start with. He is what this bid was all about - being united."
And the Bayern man's solidarity extends well beyond his sport as - despite his budding national hero status - Davies' feet are rooted firmly on the ground. He has no recollection of the refugee camp in Ghana where he was born, but fully appreciates how different life might have been.
"It was a great way for some artists to show their work. Digital art is something different... I thought it was a cool idea to get involved," explained Davies regarding his 2021 non-fungible token (NFT) collection, which included three unique pieces of virtual art created by US-based illustrator Jack Perkins. Twenty per cent of the funds collected went to a refugee charity.
"I was in a refugee camp, people helped us, and I just want to give back to them," he says. "I think it's a good thing to do."
"He's got a good head on his shoulders," commented Lenarduzzi, who has seen his former protege donate to a number of causes down the years and commit his upcoming World Cup earnings to charity.
"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."
Having wrapped up his MLS chapter on 28 October 2018, Davies officially joined Bayern on a five-year deal in January 2019. But despite his blossoming status in his home nation, walking into the Bayern dressing room was still a daunting prospect, especially when your childhood heroes are now teammates.
"Words can't really explain it... In my mind, I was thinking, 'There's no way these are the real people.' And then [Arjen] Robben walks in the room, and it's a real guy, it's not a cartoon. [I] shook his hand and he mine. Everything I've accomplished, it's been amazing... when I got my opportunity, I told myself, 'Take your opportunity,' and I took it."
After making the transition from winger to full-back, he has also claimed more winner's medals than most professionals could ever dream of in 10 careers. All while - according to Bayern coach Julian Nagelsmann - progressing to become one of the finest exponents of the left-back's art.
"Phonzie is developing very well," said Nagelsmann in November 2021. "You have to allow a player in his age to have fluctuations in his performance levels. This will certainly be the case for him this year as well. He has the physical prerequisites to be one of the best left-backs. He probably already is. There aren't that many at his level in his position."
Watch: The best of Alphonso Davies
One of Bayern's most important players and an essential part of Canada's qualification for the 2022 World Cup - their first time at the tournament since 1986 - it was fitting that Davies scored his country's maiden goal at a men's finals.
Having missed a penalty in Canada's Group F opener defeat to Belgium, 'Phonzy' made amends with the fastest goal of the 2022 tournament, netting a towering header just 68 seconds into the crunch tie with Croatia. Happy days.
"A kid born in a refugee camp wasn’t supposed to make it," Davies tweeted. "Don't let no one tell you that your dreams are unrealistic. Keep dreaming, keep achieving."
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