Soccer·Analysis

Canadians are making an unprecedented impact in European club soccer

The success in France's Ligue 1 by rising Canadian soccer star Jonathan David is part of a larger trend of Canadian excellence across Europe's top men's and women's club competitions — and it could bode well for the men's national team's hopes of reaching the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Jonathan David's recent success bodes well for World Cup hopes, former goalkeeper says

Rising Canadian soccer star Jonathan David scored one goal and helped set up the other Sunday as Lille sealed the French Ligue 1 title with a 2-1 victory over Angers. (AFP via Getty Images)

Paris Saint-Germain is one of the richest soccer clubs in the world and a true sporting juggernaut — but the team's quest for a fourth consecutive crown was thwarted by a rising Canadian star.

Bankrolled by the Emir of Qatar, PSG boasts the most expensive roster in French soccer, featuring global stars such as Neymar and Kylian Mbappé. It's no surprise they have dominated Ligue 1, winning the French championship in seven out of the last eight years.

But on Sunday, Lille OSC forward Jonathan David, a 21-year-old from Ottawa, scored and helped set up another to defeat Angers SCO 2-1 on the final day of the season. The victory allowed Lille to finish in first place, just one point ahead of PSG, to claim its fourth Ligue 1 championship and first in a decade.

That David starred in helping Lille to seal a remarkable title win was a just reward for a player who came to France at the start of the season amid great fanfare, but who looked like he was going to be a major flop.

David joined Lille last summer from Belgian club KAA Gent, where he scored 26 goals in 50 games. Lille reportedly paid a club-record $35 million US transfer fee for David, making the forward the most expensive Canadian transfer of all-time.

WATCH | Jonathan David helps Lille lift Ligue 1 crown:

Ottawa's Jonathan David stars as Lille claim French Ligue 1 crown

5 months ago
1:23
Canadian Jonathan David helped lift Lille to a 2-1 win over Angers to secure the French league title over PSG by one point. 1:23

Life in France didn't agree with David at first; he went without a goal in his first 10 appearances. But David eventually found his footing, scoring 13 times — a record for a Canadian in a top-five European league in a single season. The previous record was held by Tomasz Radzinski, who had 11 goals for Everton during the 2002-03 English Premier League campaign.

David's perseverance is what particularly impressed Craig Forrest, a former goalkeeper with the Canadian national team and a member of the Canada Soccer Hall of Fame. 

"He came to Lille for a hefty transfer fee so expectations were huge, and he's still young and it was a big change for him, so you could see it didn't go all that well for him at the start," Forrest told CBC Sports. "You could see it was affecting his game and he looked a bit desperate.

"But once he got a few goals under his belt, that's all it took. He gained more confidence and fought through it all, and has been sensational for Lille."

Canadian success across the continent

What's encouraging is that David's success at Lille isn't an isolated story of a Canadian making good in one of the best European leagues this season.

In fact, these are unprecedented times for Canadians plying their trade in Europe, as more members of Canada's men's national team are playing for top cubs across the continent, and were key figures in their teams' successes.

In Germany, Alphonso Davies is coming off another sensational campaign with Bayern Munich, helping the Bavarian giants win their ninth consecutive Bundesliga crown.

Davies, last year's co-winner of the Lou Marsh Award as Canada's best athlete, has now won nine major trophies in just three seasons at Bayern. At just 20 years old, he's already earned a reputation as one of the best left fullbacks in the world.

Canada's Alphonso Davies, has won nine major trophies in just three seasons with Bayern Munich. (Andreas Gebert/REUTERS)

In Turkey, veteran defender/midfielder Atiba Hutchinson and forward Cyle Larin were front and centre for Beşiktaş as the Istanbul-based club won its first Süper Lig title in four years, and lifted the Turkish Cup for the first time in a decade.

Larin, a 26-year-old from Brampton, Ont., bagged 19 goals to finish tied for second in the Turkish league scoring race. Hutchinson, a fellow Bramptonian, was a true workhorse as Beşiktaş's captain; the 38-year-old made 40 appearances in all competitions and inspired the club to its first "domestic double" since the 2008-09 season.

In Serbia, 33-year-old Milan Borjan backstopped Red Star Belgrade to a fourth consecutive SuperLiga crown as the club's undisputed starting goalkeeper.

In Scotland, midfielder Scott Arfrield was part of a Rangers side that won the Premiership title, ending Glasgow rivals Celtic's streak of nine consecutive Scottish league titles. Also in Scotland, David Wotherspoon played a starring role in St. Johnstone winning both the Scottish Cup and Scottish League Cup.

On the women's side, Canadians Jessie Fleming and Cloé Lacasse won league titles in 2021 for Chelsea and Benfica, respectively. And back at PSG, Ashley Lawrence and Jordyn Huitema are on the verge of winning the French women's league.

Since joining Chelsea earlier in the year, Jessie Fleming, centre, has helped the Blues clinch the Women's Super League title as well as reach the final of the Women's Champions League. (Andrew Couldridge/Reuters)

Forrest, who earned 56 caps for Canada between 1988 and 2002, can't remember a period in history when so many Canadians were making names for themselves in European club soccer.

"If you just look at Alphonso alone, that would be beyond anything that anybody has ever done in Canadian soccer. But then you add in the other guys — Atiba, Larin, David — these are unprecedented times," said Forrest, who played professionally in England with Ipswich Town, Chelsea and West Ham United.

Forrest is hopeful that all of the success at club level by Canadian players across Europe could benefit Canada's men's team next month when it resumes its Concacaf qualifying campaign for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Canada is attempting to qualify for the World Cup for the second time; it's only other appearance came in 1986 in Mexico.

"There's no reason why Canada shouldn't be sticking its chest out against any team in Concacaf," Forrest said.

"You look at some of the talent that Canada has, they're setting such a high standard in some of the top leagues in Europe, so it bodes well for World Cup qualifying."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for a number of media outlets, including CBC Sports, Sportsnet and Sun Media. During his time at CBC Sports, John travelled to South Africa to cover the 2010 FIFA World Cup for CBCSports.ca. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of the Canadian game.

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