There are a lot of different ways to describe a great goal in soccer. But there is no precise term that fully captures the one Alphonso Davies scored against Panama in Toronto on Wednesday night.
It was a lost cause, a hustle play, a breakaway and a couple of sublime touches, capped by a golazo. It was the sort of goal that caused in the viewer a powerful need to scan the press box so that you could lock eyes with someone, stare at each other for several long seconds and telepathically tell each other, “We just shared something special together. We were both here when it happened.”
Before Wednesday’s game, Davies, only 20 years old, was already the best men’s soccer player in Canadian history. That is not an opinion. It’s an objective fact.
But in the 66th minute of the game, he did something no Canadian could reasonably be expected to do while playing the world’s game. He scored a goal that put him, at least for a moment, in the company of the best to do it. For an instant there, Davies was Pele or Diego Maradona.
It wasn’t the goal itself, which was magnificent. Lots of people score magnificent soccer goals.
It was self-belief that made it so special. The sort of belief that led Davies to begin sprinting from 20 yards inside his own half after a ball lazily headed toward the touchline 40, 50 yards away. A ball buried so far in no-man’s land, with so many Panamanians nearer to it, no sensible player would waste energy in a 1-1 game chasing after it.
Think of all of your favourite players. All great athletes, I’m sure. All of them fully committed to the national crest. All hungry for glory and fast as you like.
How many of them do you think would have gone for that ball in that situation? None. Not a single one of them. Why do something pointless that’s just going to make you look silly?
But Davies is a different sort of cat. Apparently, he saw a ball a couple of postal codes away and thought to himself, “Oh look. That one’s for me,” and hit his internal thrust button.
Just getting to the ball before it rolled out was a triumph of the will. But stealing it? Ridiculous. Picking it away with his trailing foot, getting it under full control within a single stride and returning to full speed a couple of steps later? Physically impossible. Physicists will tell you that. Sure, you saw it, but it didn’t actually happen. Look at the math.
Harold Cummings. That’s the name of the Panamanian Davies took the ball from.
Poor Harold. For the rest of his life, his countrymen will be coming up to him in bars and saying, ‘Heeeey, aren’t you the guy …’ And Harold will say, ‘No, you’re thinking of some other Cummings.’
The actual scoring of the goal was nothing compared to all that, and it was still really something. Deking the first defender, stepping back to create space, freezing the ‘keeper by opening his body so that it looked like he was going for the far corner, aiming instead for the inches-wide aperture inside the near post, and then hitting the ball with full force despite all his momentum carrying him away from the goalmouth.
There were about five different elite skills required to score there and you can play professional soccer if you have mastered, say, two of them.
It wasn’t just the greatest Canadian soccer goal yet scored. That’s simple. It was in the running for the best Canadian goal of any kind, in any sport, by any person, at any level.
All that separates it from Paul Henderson, Marie-Philip Poulin or Mario Lemieux was the size of the stage. In terms of quality and aspiration, it surpasses all of them, and by some distance.
The goal was the game’s obvious takeaway. Aside from being exceptional, it also broke Panama’s back. The pushing and shoving that broke out a couple of times in the game were symptoms of frustration. What else are you going do when faced with an extraterrestrial talent such as Davies except lash out in fear and confusion? It’s almost understandable.
If Davies were Panamanian, he could run for president tomorrow. But he’s Canadian, so we’ll wait to see how this turns out before the rest of us get too excited.
It’s almost (but not quite) a shame that the goal is what people will talk about, because it takes away from Davies’s complete performance on the evening.
From the off, he was everywhere. There was no point in the game when he jogged. He was either standing still or running flat out. He broke through the Panamanian defence so often and with such ease that it looked as if the Central Americans had been told he had the cooties and wanted to keep their distance.
He presented so many chances to his teammates that the score could have been 6-1 or 7-1. Though he didn’t get credit for it, he scored the first goal by banging it in from a corner off a Panamanian’s head. It was like watching Gretzky on grass.
All that on what was not really a grand occasion, despite the prematch hype. There’s plenty of qualifying still to go. Losing it would not have been a total disaster and winning it is no guarantee of anything.
But having seen Davies play like this, you are now fully aware of the issue that will define this reanimated (because ‘resurgent’ would suggest there had been any ‘surgence at all over the past 35 years) Canadian men’s team.
It’s not ‘Will Canada finally make a men’s World Cup?’
It’s ‘Can Davies do this often enough to drag Canada into a World Cup?’
And then – this would be getting well ahead of ourselves, but what the hell – ‘What is Davies capable of once he is loosed at a World Cup? How many international superpower dreams can he crush?’
So though it is not in our national character to take big risks, nor has soccer (the men’s version) proved a good bet during anyone’s lifetime, now is the time to get on this bandwagon.
In the space of a few weeks, this team has gone from one no one cares about, to one a few aesthetes have a thing for, to one that looks as though it might be a contender, to one of those teams that could be touched by fate. I’m not saying it is, because there are only a few teams like that in global history. But that it might be.
The source of that possibility wears No. 19 and does his day job in Germany.
And if all that possibility blossoms into something truly special, that in turn will be down to the moment Davies looked up, saw a ball he had no business going for, and decided to go for it anyway.