This is a story for anyone who might be doubting themselves.
By: Alphonso Davies
You might have read some stuff about me sometime in the last few years.
Like when I was 15: Davies becomes second-youngest player to play in MLS.
Or when I was 17: Davies makes record-breaking transfer to Bayern Munich.
I guess it must have looked like I was always going to make it.
But that’s not how it was. Or at least that’s not how it felt.
When I joined the Vancouver Whitecaps, at 14, I was a nervous wreck. I had just left my family in Edmonton. I was a very shy guy. Didn’t really say much. And I didn’t feel like I was one of the best players there. Over the previous year or two I’d had two trials there, but the coaches didn’t feel I was ready. I needed to do a third before they finally took me in.
When I began playing for Vancouver’s under-16s, I struggled. I needed time to adapt. After a while, I joined the under-18s, which was even more difficult — like, Wow. But when I got promoted to the second team, which was senior level, that was when I really hit the wall.
Suddenly I was playing with the big boys. Over the first couple of weeks I couldn’t get anything right. I couldn’t keep up. I wasn’t strong enough. I wasn’t thinking quickly enough. My passing wasn’t on. I began to worry. Is this really for me? Can I really do something here? I took a step back to evaluate the situation. My dream was to become a big player in Europe. But most of the stars there are either from Europe or places like Brazil and Argentina.
It must have looked like I was always going to make it. But that’s not how it was. Or at least that’s not how it felt.
How many come from Edmonton, where you’re only supposed to play hockey?
None. So yeah, I had a lot of doubts. I wondered if I had gone as far as I could. Because let’s be honest: There are many reasons why there are more footballers coming from Rio de Janeiro than Edmonton. It’s not just cold. It’s basically like living inside a freezer. When it hits September, and the snow starts coming down, you can’t play football outside.
The snow shocked me when I arrived there. I mean, I was a six-year-old boy who had been born in a refugee camp in Ghana to parents from Liberia. We had arrived in Canada just a year earlier, in Windsor, before moving to Edmonton. I remember waking up one day and seeing this white stuff lying on the ground outside. I was thinking, So what’s this? I went outside. I was wearing a T-shirt and shorts! I touched it. It was cold. My parents woke up and went outside, too.
It was so cold, though. To this day, I don’t like winter, even though I lived in Canada for so many years.
There were many things about Edmonton that I had to get used to. The housing, the schooling, how to make friends. I didn’t really know anyone there except my family, and I wasn’t as talkative as I am now. But when I started getting to know people, I was able to bring out the real me: A guy who is just humble and fun to be around.
My friends and I bonded over sports. I did track and field, basketball, volleyball. I tried to play hockey a little bit. I had a friend whose family owned a rink, and they opened it to the public. I didn’t know how to skate. I didn’t know how to tie a skate. My friend actually had to tie my laces. And then I just slid out on the ice and … I couldn’t stand. I was so bad!!
I tried it for like a day and that was it. Now I’m good. I’m not good — I’m O.K. I can stay on my feet. But put it this way: If I was a talent scout assessing Alphonso Davies the hockey player, there would be no doubt about the assessment.
“This guy needs to go.” Anyway, I wasn’t planning on making the NHL. My dad, Debeah, was playing football for an amateur team in Edmonton, and every weekend he would turn on the TV to watch Chelsea. So I grew up watching guys like Didier Drogba and Michael Essien. Chelsea became my team, too. And when I went to bed, I would dream about being like one of the big stars who played in Europe and scored goals and celebrated with tens of thousands of screaming fans. (Btw, I also wanted to become an actor. I still do. But football was No.1.)
One day when I was nine or 10, a friend of mine saw me play at lunchtime at school. He was going to a tryout for a team called Edmonton Internationals, and he invited me to come. A few hours later, as we were walking toward the pitch, I told him I was nervous. He said, “It’s O.K. You got this.” But the stakes were high. Either you made the team that day or you didn’t. And at the start, my touch wasn’t really there. But then I pulled off a couple of dribbles, my confidence grew and soon I was showing what I could do. An hour or two later we were sitting on the grass waiting to hear if we had made the cut. Suddenly everyone went quiet. The coach came over and looked at his board. For a few seconds you could hear a pin drop. Then he said, “Hey guys, congratulations. You all made the team.”
So I signed up. What carried me forward after that was my passion for the sport. It was just so sharp. It was always with me. But I had one problem. I would often miss practice because of my duties as … a babysitter.
I’m 19 now. My sister, Angel, is eight, and my brother, Brian, is 12. So seven years ago they had to be looked after around the clock, and my parents couldn’t always do that. My dad worked in a factory packing chicken. Sometimes he would leave in the middle of the night and come home after noon. My mom, Victoria, worked as a cleaner, and she might leave at 9 p.m. and come back at 8 a.m. They couldn’t afford a babysitter for when they both worked night shifts. So while my friends were training or playing video games, I’d be at home changing diapers and singing lullabies.
So yeah, that wasn’t ideal for my development. But I also had some luck. One day a friend of mine left our team to join another one, the Edmonton Strikers, where his dad was the coach. He invited me to come with him. I’m still not sure why I did it. The team was the worst in the league. But I’m glad I did, because his dad was Nick Huoseh, who is now my representative.
Nick turned the team around in no time. He brought in players who were very humble and hardworking. But he was way more than just a coach. He became a central part of my life. He’d pick me up for training and drive me home. He’d give me food. He’d make sure I was doing good. He cared about me as if I was his own.
When I was 11, while still playing for the Strikers, I also enrolled at St. Nicholas Soccer Academy, where I trained every day. Many of the kids there loved football as much as I did. Whenever I wanted to play, nobody ever said, “No, I’m tired.” They were on it every time. The school had these indoor facilities that allowed us to train in winter. That was good for my development as well. So yeah, I just kept playing for the Strikers and St. Nicholas, and trained as much as I could.
In August 2015, when I was 14, I had become good enough to join the Vancouver Whitecaps. It was really hard to leave my family at that age. Fortunately, Vancouver helped me with everything I needed. They sorted out the housing. When I couldn’t attend school because of training, they paid for a tutor. From the first day to the last, they took care of me.
That helped me a lot when I was struggling in the youth teams. But like I said, when I reached the second team, I wondered if I had reached the end of the road. By now it was April 2016. I played some really bad games, and it got to a point where I didn’t know what to do. But one of the older players on the senior team kept trying to cheer me up. His name was Pa-Modou Kah, a very experienced guy who had played in Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and for the Portland Timbers. He had watched my games and knew that I was struggling. He kept telling me, “Just keep going. We all have bad games. It’s the ones with the strongest mentality who make it.”
At first I was like, Yeah, he’s just saying that. Maybe he just wanted to be nice. But that line stuck in my head.
It’s the ones with the strongest mentality who make it. So I began to take his advice. I just kept fighting. I started to play better. In May I scored my first goal in the USL Championship. Then out of nowhere, the first-team coach, Carl Robinson, said, “Alphonso, we want you to come train with us.”
I guess I should have been excited. But I was just like, Wow, this is nerve-racking.
I was still just 15. At the first training session I said a quick hello to everyone and tried to let my football do the talking. But they played the ball much harder and faster than I did. I thought, I don’t know if I can play here.
Then I remembered what Pa-Modou Kah had told me. Back in the second team, I had really needed to hear that. Now I needed to remember it. So I kept training with the first team. Day by day I adapted slightly more. Then in this one session I pulled off this trick on the captain. He is nearly seven-foot. Big guy. I did this move on him — I can’t really explain what it was or how I did it — but I went past him, and all the other players were like, “OOOOOHHH!!”
This skinny kid from Edmonton had just come in and embarrassed the captain. I turned around to see his face, and he was so upset. Everyone else loved it, but I just thought, This guy is going to kill me. For the rest of the session I didn’t go anywhere near him.
Anyway, that moment kind of confirmed that I was able to play in the first team. On 15 July 2016, I signed a first-team contract. We had a game the following day. Pretty much as soon as the ink on the paper had dried, Carl told me, “You’re in the team.” I was like, “Already?” The next day we were playing Orlando City in front of 22,000 fans at BC Place. I sat on the bench and saw Orlando take the lead. We turned it around, but then they equalised to make it 2–2 . As I was trying to take in what was happening, Carl turned to me. “Alphonso, go warm up.” So I warmed up with three other guys. Then Carl said, “Alphonso, you’re going in.” I froze. I think I actually asked him, “Really?”
Then Carl said, “Alphonso, you’re going in.” I froze.
I pulled out my jersey and got ready. There were 14 minutes left. They put my number up. I looked at my toes. I was sooo nervous. And the problem when you’re nervous is that you don’t really want to touch the ball. You don’t want anyone to pass to you. You don’t want to make a mistake. But then a long ball came toward me and a defender came chasing after me. I was like, He’s gonna hit me. I’m gonna get rocked. Yet somehow I brought the ball down, took a touch inside and fired off a shot. Even though it didn’t go in, right then and there I got confidence. Most players get into the game by playing a couple of safe passes, easy stuff like that. My version of that was a dribble and a shot. It wasn’t really that easy! But yeah, my nervousness went out the window. It gave me the burst of energy I needed to get going on the first team. After that, things happened quickly. In 2017 I became a regular on the first team. The year after I scored eight goals in MLS games and was named the Whitecaps player of the year. Then Bayern made an offer for me. And when Bayern want you, you can’t really say no.
By the time I left the Whitecaps in November 2018, I was completely different from the shy kid who had turned up there more than four years earlier. I knew where I was going. I knew what was happening for me. When I got to Bayern, I wasn’t too nervous. I just wanted to show people that I could play at this level. And since I had come such a long way, I wanted to play with a smile on my face. I still remind myself of that.
Since then I have won two league titles, two German cups and become the Bundesliga Rookie of the Year. So yeah, I’m still smiling. That said, no matter how much time I spend in Germany, North America will always be home. When I went back there last year for the Audi Summer Tour, which is always a big part of our preseason, I enjoyed it a lot. This year we were supposed to go on tour to China, but then COVID-19 happened. So to make up for that, Audi and Bayern have set up the Audi Digital Summer Tour, where you guys can follow our routines and activities in real time through digital platforms. I hope it can help people get to know me even better. And if kids can relate to me through it, that would be amazing. I have thought about what my career will be like when I’m not so young anymore. I want to stay in Germany for as long as possible. When I’m ready to retire — many, many years from now — I’ll definitely get my coaching badges. Then who knows where I’ll end up? Maybe somewhere in Europe, or even back home in Canada.
But anyway, that’s far away right now. I’m still 19, so I don’t want to think too much about the end of my career. I have had a lot of big dreams ever since I was a kid, and Bayern are helping me achieve those dreams.
But trust me, there is more to come.
I’m just getting started.
Story by The Players Tribune: Alfonso Davis