About halfway through the short while he played soccer professionally in Canada, Alphonso Davies did one of those sit-down Q&As with his MLS club, the Vancouver Whitecaps.
These sorts of things have a rhythm – the teams softball questions at their own players; the players put every answer in the outfield bleachers. This is not where you go for deep thinking.
One of the first questions Davies, then only 17, was asked was, “Who inspires you?”
His answer: “Lionel Messi.”
That’s hard to argue with from a soccer perspective, but then Davies stopped.
The done thing in this instance would be to pick another, lesser, but more hometown-friendly hero. A famous coach or a West Coast legend. Some random Canadian he’d watched as a young kid.
The interviewer circled back a couple of times, giving him a chance to add some value to the answer. Davies stuck with Messi.
It’s hard to blame him – who was he supposed to say?
Davies and his cohort in the resurgent Canadian national men’s program grew up without anyone to look up to. Around the time they would have been realizing just how good they were individually, it would have been hard not to notice just how awful Canada was collectively.
But programs don’t suddenly get good out of nowhere. A tide has to come in before the boats start to rise.
In Canada, that tide was the women’s national team.
Whatever Davies & Co. do over the next 10 years, it won’t have started now. It started in 2012, with the women’s national team’s bolt-from-the-clear-blue-sky showing at the London Olympics.
It wasn’t so much that they won bronze, or even the infamous way the women lost to the United States in the semis. It was that all of a sudden, Canadian soccer found a place to fit in the world’s most crowded sporting field.
England is tough and loses most of the time. Argentina is tough and wins some of the time. Italy is not tough and wins more often than either of them. Germany – efficient. France – fractious. Brazil – too pretty for its own good.
Every soccer contender has its clichéd identity. The individual teams may change so that the cliché may no longer hold. For instance, Italy may be the toughest team in the world right now. But the commonplace about this or that national personality holds the idea of the team together.
Canada didn’t have a soccer personality until Christine Sinclair put three by the United States in Manchester nine years ago at the Games.
The men’s team had always been scrappy, but in a way that was hard to love. Too little aggro, and zero results to go with it. Like a team of hockey players who had all their original teeth.
The women’s set-up created the idea of Canadian soccer – not the most gifted technicians out there, but a team that will get on your bumper and either knock you off the road, or hang on to the end.
That women’s showing in 2012 would have been the first time anyone was talking excitedly about any national soccer team in a quarter century. Davies was 11 when that happened. His forward linemate, Jonathan David, was 12. Tajon Buchanan, the Alfred to their Batman and Robin, was 13.
We love to hear the story about such and such an athlete remembers exactly where he was when National Hero X scored the overtime winner. But far more important is that they were raised in an environment where winning was expected.
Successful national set-ups – in whatever sport – don’t stay that way because they have access to more gifted people. Canadians are not naturally able to skate better than everyone else on Earth. They are successful because winning begets winning.
Winning creates an expectation, which drives interest, which attracts money, which draws the highest-value young athletes from other sports, and around and around it goes.
The men’s team didn’t provide any of that encouragement when the players of right now were high-school aged. Rather the opposite. As they matured, our best soccer players fled Canada like the country was in flames.
After the women’s team took bronze in London, the men’s team went on a two-year winless streak. While the men’s team foundered, the women’s team moved from strength to strength. The London generation was mixed with the Brazil 2016 generation to become the Tokyo 2020 generation. It wasn’t a straight line to gold, but even embarrassments, such as flunking out of our own World Cup in 2015, were valuable. They showed that Canada cared. Caring is contagious.
Caring makes soccer cool. If you care long enough, caring will jump hosts, from the women’s set-up to the men’s, even if there wasn’t much there to infect at the time.
The carer-in-chief has been Davies (heavily abetted by the one concrete link between the women’s and men’s set-ups, manager John Herdman).
The most important moment in recent Canadian men’s soccer was the day Davies became a citizen of this country. The head of Canada Soccer showed up at the swearing-in ceremony. He brought a national-team jersey, just in case anyone could possibly miss the point.
That was more than four years ago. At the time, the hope was that Davies could ensure that Canada would not embarrass itself at the 2026 World Cup, one which we will likely qualify for automatically as co-hosts.
Obviously, the timeline has moved up some since then.
Davies is one part of that. The women’s team is the other. It’s just not on for one half of the national program to winning gold medals, and the other to be so far off the radar it couldn’t say what medals look like.
It’s not hard to see the progression – the women break through/Davies joins the national team, luring others along in his wake; the women win gold/Davies & Co. are suddenly the most fun underdog in world soccer.
Right now, the men’s team is the women’s team, 10 years behind schedule. There’s still a lot of work to do before this can be declared a success. But if and when it is, we’ll know who started the real fire.