Canadian soccer fans can certainly be forgiven if they think they’ve read this script somewhere before.
An African-born boy immigrates to Edmonton with his family, chooses soccer over hockey, catches on with the Vancouver Whitecaps Academy before surprising everyone with a move to Bayern Munich.
Just as it was for Alphonso Davies before him, the rise of Muslim Umar has been nothing short of a Hollywood movie. Unlike his trailblazing predecessor, however, Umar, 19, won’t be collecting a Bundesliga winner’s medal just a few short months after joining the German soccer giant.
The reality is that Umar is still a million miles away from Bayern’s first team, having joined what is called the World Squad, a barnstorming collection of young international talent that Bayern Munich sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic calls “an excellent springboard” to a professional career.
So rather than preparing to swap skills with the likes of Kylian Mbappé’s Paris Saint-Germain squad in the Champions League, Umar and his teammates are in the midst of what is essentially an extended training camp, having played the under-20 teams of Vasco da Gama and Flamengo on a tour of Rio de Janeiro in the past week.
After some time off, the squad of 20 players from 17 countries ranging from Ukraine to Togo will reassemble in Germany next month to lock horns with Bayern’s under-19 team at Allianz Arena. Throughout the entire journey, Bayern will have the TV cameras on hand to record the journey, ultimately producing a YouTube series called One Dream.
Umar, who was born in Lagos, Nigeria, was one of 2,604 players from 106 countries to apply for a spot on the team. But unlike the other 19 successful applicants this year, the concept is a familiar one for Umar, who was also part of the inaugural World Squad last year.
Having played just one professional game in his career – as a member of the Canadian Premier League’s York United last year – Umar is hoping that this unique opportunity, with Bayern believed to be the first top club to put together such a program, can pay dividends in his own career.
“I’m hoping it’s going to open more doors to teams in Europe to take a look at me and see this is a kid who had [the same circumstances] as Alphonso and maybe ... bring me in on a trial and see what I got,” he said on a Zoom call from Rio de Janeiro. “I feel like this is a good opportunity to showcase myself and play abroad in Europe.”
That’s precisely what Colombia’s Jose Mulato did last year, parlaying his World Squad appearance into a loan with North Texas SC, the top farm team for FC Dallas of Major League Soccer.
In Rio, the World Squad had a chance to attend a game between Fluminense and Atletico Goianiense at the famed Maracana Stadium – the site of the 1950 and 2014 World Cup finals – and Umar immersed himself in the city’s all-encompassing soccer culture, even performing keep-ups on the Mirante Dona Marta sightseeing platform.
But no matter where he goes, the kid from Edmonton cannot escape the shadow of Davies.
“I feel like Alphonso Davies is a big inspiration to everyone coming out of Canada,” Umar said. “Me following in his footsteps, like the first year when I came I’m like, ‘Wow, this is Alphonso Davies’s footsteps, anything is possible.
“If you look at where we’re coming from, we’re not really a big football nation, and thinking about another kid from the same city as Alphonso Davies, going through the same system as him, what are the chances?”
To be fair, Umar hardly hides from the comparison, with the midfielder even wearing the same No. 19 on his jersey that Davies wears for both club and country.
Having attended the same school, Edmonton’s St. Nicholas Catholic Junior High, the two have met on a number of occasions. Umar said the advice he gets from the more famous Bayern Munich regular is simple and straight to the point.
“He just told me to represent the country, not just the city, but the country,” he said. “People look at Canada as not a really big soccer country so you have to represent Canada wherever you go and just give 110 per cent.”
Any parallels between the pair extend beyond just their career path, apparently. Both have a relationship with Edmonton’s BTB Soccer Academy, which counts Davies as an ambassador, while Umar trained with its under-19/under-21 high-performance program while the Whitecaps Academy was shut down during the pandemic.
Kondeh Mansaray, who founded BTB eight years ago and is the organization’s technical director, says Fonzie and Muggs – his nickname for Umar – both share an almost unmatched drive to succeed.
“I think there’s a lot of similarities but for me the similarities I see more is the way they approach the game,” Mansaray said. “And Muggs is just a very hungry player, he’s looking to be the best he can so he works hard, he trains hard. Alphonso was always like that.”
While Mansaray applauds Bayern for trying to open doors for the young talent that often falls through the cracks around the world, he also knows that Umar has the right makeup to succeed at the next level. As with Davies, he says, Umar has speed to burn, and is happy to take players on and be creative.
However, he says Umar would be best served by finding his feet in a European club’s academy for a couple of seasons, seeing first-hand from established pros about the daily grind it takes to succeed. While the world’s eyes are now being opened to Canadian talent – a fact that will only increase now that Canada has qualified for a men’s World Cup – nothing is being handed out on reputation alone.
“Jumping from Canada to the first team anywhere, it’s very, very tough,” Mansaray said. “Alphonso is a one in a billion. Just because you’re able to jump from the Whitecaps’ first team at 17 to Bayern, and even when Alphonso went there he was with the under-23s at Bayern, it took him time to adjust.”
Not that Umar isn’t ready to embrace any challenge. In his first year with the World Squad, he was taken aback by just how pristine everything is at Bayern’s 80,000-square-metre training facility, something that seemed a million miles away from playing in the indoor facilities around Edmonton during a typical Alberta winter.
“As a young kid everyone wants to play for the Bayerns, the Manchester Uniteds, and me getting an opportunity, of course, growing up you think it’s a stretch, a kid from Edmonton going to go play for Bayern Munich, the biggest club in the world? And everyone’s competing for that spot.
“But actually being on the field, playing on the grass makes you feel like anything is actually possible and you can accomplish what you put your mind to.”