The previous time the greatest-ever Canadian soccer player left for Europe, no one noticed.
Calgary’s Owen Hargreaves was 16 years old when scouts from German giant Bayern Munich hoovered him up into their youth system. They were well ahead of Canada in that regard.
Few media outlets noted the move, and none did any more than brief it. It was 1997 and putting the words “soccer” and “Canada” into the same sentence qualified as a narcotic-level sleep aid.
Once he was a big deal, Canada’s national teams wanted in on the Hargreaves business. Nursing a series of grievances against various levels of the Canadian setup, Hargreaves and his family began a years-long campaign of avoidance.
First, the teenager agreed to play internationally for Wales (through his mother). Eventually, he switched to England (through his father).
In the end, Hargreaves’s career flared like a struck match. For just a moment – during the 2006 World Cup and its immediate aftermath – he was regarded as one of the better players in the world. But injuries undid him early.
Hargreaves never did play for the country he was raised in and was never given any reason to regret it. If he was our great missed opportunity, we were hardly his.
Twenty years later, the country gets its chance to redo the Hargreaves mess with Alphonso Davies.
On Wednesday, Davies finalized a move to Hargreaves’s alma mater in Munich. A Liberian by way of Ghana and Edmonton, the 17-year-old entered the Vancouver Whitecaps youth system three years ago. He is a raw and remarkable talent.
Bayern is reportedly putting up something in the range of $29-million to acquire his services, a Major League Soccer record.
As the global soccer economy explodes, the biggest franchises have become more focused on acquiring younger players, on the reasonable theory that it’s the last time you can save a few bucks.
However, spending this much on an untested high schooler is still rare enough to be notable.
So, Davies isn’t just a big deal in this corner of the world. He’s a big deal, full stop. He’s not yet the best Canadian player ever, but is looking likely to get there sooner rather than later.
Most importantly, he’s already ours. Canada Soccer was so anxious to get a national-team jersey on Davies that the president showed up with one at his citizenship ceremony. He was chosen for the team the next day.
At the time, Davies was already being described by officials as the “cornerstone” of Canada’s 2026 World Cup team.
He was 16.
The key problem of Canadian men’s soccer – that we are inexplicably bad at it – has occupied many big sports brains for a long time. The approach has never changed. It might best be described as the “amateur home computer fix.”
You pull out the plug and restart the thing every few years and hope it boots up.
And it never boots up.
Like his predecessors, new senior men’s coach John Herdman has begun with a vision that emphasizes bureaucracy. We need to harmonize systems, improve coaching and create a hive-mind of purpose at the grassroots.
That all sounds great, but it doesn’t change the fact that the next Hargreaves or Davies will not be developed in Mississauga. In order to succeed, Canada’s soccer infrastructure must be outsourced to places where they do this professionally.
If Davies becomes what Canada hopes, this country will have had little to do with it. We’ve sub-contracted the most important work to Germany.
Leagues around the world have already developed the harmonized systems, improved coaching and hive-minds of purpose that Canada is now determined to build from scratch (again). They’re called professional clubs, and they do the work for free.
If Canada wants to matter at soccer, the goal should not be getting hold of young players and developing them – the hockey approach. It should be inviting foreign clubs to come for a visit and leave with a well-paid human souvenir. Clubs have never before been as anxious to travel.
The trick is binding those young players to the Canadian national program at the same time.
Many of the best of them are newcomers, like Davies; or have ties to the old country, like Hargreaves; or have lived long enough in a new country that they can choose to represent it, like Dutch-by-way-of-Scarborough Jonathan de Guzman.
That gives them choices. Canada often seems to be last on the list. Why is that? It should be the first question Canada Soccer asks itself. It should occupy the majority of its working hours.
If we’re being cynical about it, Davies would have been better off choosing to play for Ghana. That was the smart move.
But he was not cynical about it. Davies called being chosen to play for Canada “one of my dreams,” which is probably a bit of an exaggeration, but nice nonetheless. He is the most important soccer player to choose this country. It’s an enormously lucky break. For us, not him.
Now what Canada needs is the next Davies. He’s out there somewhere.
Herdman’s main task isn’t coaching a soccer team. It’s finding the next Davies and sending him abroad, but first making sure he’s willing to come home when it counts.