Canada’s blind luck led it to Alphonso Davies – and the 2022 World Cup

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Canada’s blind luck led it to Alphonso Davies – and the 2022 World Cup

Illustration by MICHAEL BYERS

Right at this moment, as we’re about to begin soccer’s quadrennial sorting, there’s an argument to be made about the Canadian national men’s team.

Not that it is finally world class, which is true. Or that it’s the most in-form North American team, which is true as well. But that it is the best non-European, non-South American national team in the world.

In fairness, no non-European, non-South American team has won a World Cup. Or even got close. But it’s still something.

If we assume that everyone on Earth follows and plays soccer, and that 15 per cent of the global population tends to be best at it (Europe plus South America), we’re currently top out of the other 85.

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Ten, 20 years ago, Canada was in the bottom half. At times, maybe the bottom quarter.

What changed?

We have heard and will continue to hear a bunch of process-oriented explanations from people who make their living from soccer in this country.

If a business makes a ton of money, the people who run that business are never going to say, ‘Who knew people would like yoga pants so much?’ They’re going to say they planned it all out that way and they hired the smartest people to execute their plan (though no one ever blames a business going the opposite way on employee stupidity).

As far as the Canadian soccer establishment is concerned, the men’s team got good because of scouting, coaching, grassroots development, good examples (ie. the national women’s team) and money. Money has to feature in there somewhere. That’s how you get more of it.

All those things are true, to a point.

But mostly it’s blind luck. When a thing that was really bad suddenly becomes really good, it’s always luck.

The most important stroke of luck was that moment in the mid-aughts when Victoria and Debeah Davies chose Canada.

Everything good about the current Canadian program stems from that decision. Their son, Alphonso, playing in Edmonton youth soccer, is another of those decisions. His lucky choice of the right coaches and mentors is another. Picking Major League Soccer as his launch point; Canada Soccer leveraging Davies’s proximity to convince him to commit to Canada when he had other options; the Vancouver Whitecaps agreeing to let him leave for Germany, never mind Bayern Munich’s foresight in wanting him – all of those are crucial, unobvious choices. Flip the order around a bit and things would probably have gone very differently.

Most North American team athletes get put in a pipeline at an early age. If you’re very, very good at basketball as a 12-year-old, someone who matters is going to recognize that. They are financially incentivized to do so.

That sort of pipeline doesn’t exist in Canada. There is no direct route to the best clubs (and, therefore, the best training) in Europe. The system favours people who are able to navigate it (ie. those who are already well connected). It certainly does not favour working-class refugees starting from ‘Go’ in a soccer backwater.

When someone such as Davies, talented though he may be, manages to break through all those layers and end up at a major European team when he is still a teenager, that is a sort of sporting miracle. Where Canada is concerned, it is the stroke of luck that made all others possible.

That a generation of players would spring up around Davies, about the same age and on the same development path, is another bolt out of nowhere.

Ten years ago, Jonathan David and Tajon Buchanan might have been Jonathan de Guzman or Owen Hargreaves. After banging their heads against the Canadian soccer establishment for a while, they might have chosen other routes to national teams in other countries. David might play for the U.S., where he was born. Buchanan might be angling to get into the Belgian setup, where he plays professionally now.

They might’ve been Dwayne De Rosario or Julian de Guzman (Jonathan’s brother). Gifted local products who spent their best years in low-level conflict with the people who run the country’s soccer setup, increasingly disgruntled and, eventually, alienated. Sometimes losing isn’t an isolated act. It can be a learned pattern. It’s hard not to look back at the raw, aggregate talent of the Canadian teams of the early 21st century and wonder how they lost so often when it would have been easier for them to win.

Davies gave David, Buchanan and all the rest permission to treat the Canadian national program with a respect it probably didn’t deserve at the time he gave it. If a player that good thinks Canada is worth it, then everyone else loses permission to scoff.

A great team is exactly as good as its greatest player thinks it is. Another huge stroke of Canadian luck is that the team’s most gifted player has a force of personality to match. Davies took a theoretical idea – ‘Given its intrinsic advantages, Canada should be competitive at men’s soccer’ – and made it practical. He did that by himself.

Long before Canada plays in the World Cup, and regardless of how it turns out, Davies is already the most valuable – emphasis on that word – player in it.

The right person arriving at the right time and making (for the purposes of our soccer program) the right choices for the right reasons. That’s how Canada did it. So, in other words, blind luck.

It’s a good news/bad news situation from here on.

The bad news is that World Cups don’t tend to reward luck. The people you think will win don’t usually do. They always do. There has never been an even mildly surprising winner of this thing.

Canada is good enough to get out of its group. After that, it’s a function of luck. But getting lucky once would still be something.

Estimable soccer countries – South Korea, Cameroon, Ireland – are still dining out on one glorious run in a World Cup that didn’t result in a title. Sometimes, the quarters are enough.

The good news is that success tends to beget more of the same. Every incremental step Canada takes up the ladder makes it more likely it will take another.

Others have to win in order to justify their place in the soccer world. Just this once, Canada wins merely through attendance. We’ve arrived on the world stage. Just hearing our anthem played before the first game with Belgium will be a signpost in Canadian sports history.

And after that, who knows? It’s possible – not at all likely, but possible – we are lucky in the timing of our luck. It would be a first, but firsts are a function of luck, too.