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From refugee camp to Champions League stardom: the inexplicable and inspiring rise of Alphonso Davies

The 19-year-old who dazzled at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday has quite the story to tell.

Image: Mike Egerton

THE CANADIAN CITY of Edmonton is a long way from London. About 4,200 miles. Give or take.

But on Tuesday, that distance seemed dramatically shorter for the group of academy kids glued to a TV screen at St Nicholas Junior High School. After all, Alphonso Davies used to be one of them.  

For the Bayern Munich left-back, the 3-0 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge seemed like a seismic moment. Despite him being in his second season with the Bavarian giants and his transfer having been a pretty high-profile one back in the summer of 2018, a dazzling performance in a knockout round Uefa Champions League tie with the entire world watching has ensured a considerable spike in his fanbase.

In itself, a Canadian football star is quite an inexplicable occurrence. The country has long had a curious relationship with the game, struggling to make inroads and paling in comparison with the developments of the domestic product overseen by confederation rivals (and fellow World Cup co-hosts in 2026) the United States and Mexico. The lack of infrastructure ensured that two former homegrown talents – Owen Hargreaves and Asmir Begovic – both felt compelled to declare for England and Bosnia later in their careers. But things are better now and in Davies, Canada has what they’ve desperately craved for so long: a poster boy.

But as much as his talents are spectacular, so are the other ingredients in his compelling story. 

Firstly, the window dressing. Having made his Major League Soccer debut as a fifteen-year-old for Vancouver Whitecaps in the summer of 2016, he made history less than twelve months later as the youngest player to ever represent the Canadian senior side. In national circles, he’s been a phenomenon for quite a while.

But the Canadian debut was intriguing for one other reason: it was only a week earlier that Davies became a Canadian citizen.

firo-25-02-2020-football-soccer-uefa-champions-league-cl-ucl-round-of-16-first-leg-fc-chelsea-fcb-fc-bayern-munich-muenchen Alphonso Davies' story is a remarkable one: born in a Ghanaian refugee camp to parents who fled the Liberian civil war, he found a home and a purpose in Canada. Source: firo/Sebastian El-Saqqa

His background is astonishing. He was born in the Buduburam refugee camp, about thirty miles outside of the Ghanaian capital of Accra. His parents, Victoria and Debeah, were from Liberia and after surviving their country’s first civil war that raged for eight years (1989-1997) and saw an estimated 250,000 people lose their lives, they weren’t so lucky when the brief respite ended and the brutality and savagery started up again. Like so many others, they were forced to flee their home in Monrovia and seek refuge anywhere they could.

In Ghana, they were blessed with a first child, Alphonso, in 2000 but were still in a state of flux, unsure of what the future had in store and could only watch as their homeland was brought to its knees. They were based in Buduburam for years and Victoria later described refugee life as ‘like being put in a container and being locked up’. The family applied for resettlement in Canada and in 2006, they arrived to a temporary home in Windsor, just across the lake from Detroit, in southern Ontario and about a four-and-a-half hour drive from Toronto. 

It was the following year when they moved again, eventually settling in Edmonton, a city almost 2000 miles to the east.

The family – displaced for close to a decade – could finally start putting down some roots. And Alphonso could properly start to fuel his obsession with football.

But, owing to his circumstances, Davies could easily have drifted. With his parents working various jobs to keep the household intact, he also had a crucial role: oldest sibling. Trying to juggle school as well as the extra responsibility of caring for his brother and sister was a substantial weight. But, he had quite a support network to help him.

There was an after-school program run by local journalist Tim Adams called Free Footie that catered specifically for kids on the margins of society and who badly needed regular, organised sport that wouldn’t cost their parents a small fortune. 

Davies was enrolled and thrived. Similarly, when he arrived at St Nicholas junior high school and enrolled in the football academy, it was another safe haven of sorts. It was a space that provided a welcome distraction. And helped harness his potential.

Under coach Marco Bossio, he blossomed. He was still barely a teenager but the innate athleticism – that speed and power – proved a potent cocktail when mixed with his trickery and wider skill set. Quickly, Bossio realised Davies was a rare find and began to relentlessly call the Vancouver Whitecaps to try and whip up some interest. Finally, they invited him for a residency trial and the rest is history.

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But, without the likes of Bossio and Adams – a pair of volunteers in a local community – Davies’ story, more than likely, would have turned out a lot differently. And he’s always been immensely grateful for where the fork in that road took him. 

He’s been back to Edmonton quite a few times since moving to Munich and has made a point of visiting his old coach and former stomping ground. On many occasions, Bossio has arranged viewing parties when Bayern have been in action. Last year, a local TV crew went to cover one and spoke to some of the students.

“Somebody from St Nick’s has gone so far in life,” said fourteen-year-old Felix Mutuyemungu.

“He’s an inspiration to all of us.”

What must they think of him now?  

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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