World Cup·Analysis

Memory of Alphonso Davies's goal should outlive sting of Canada's losses at men's World Cup

It is no small thing to come to a World Cup, men's or women's, and it's an even bigger thing to score. Had Canada not found the net here, particularly after the missed chances against Belgium, that would have been the real disappointment.

Play final game vs. Morocco on Thursday after being eliminated from contention

Alphonso Davies celebrates after scoring early in Canada's 4-1 loss to Croatia, making history as the first Canadian man to score in a World Cup. (Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

Chris Jones is in Qatar covering the men's World Cup for CBC Sports.

The first World Cup goal in the history of the Canadian men's soccer team began during a civil war in Liberia. Debeah and Victoria Davies fled the violence for Buduburam, a desperate refugee camp in Ghana. They lived in a tiny hut made of chipboard and corrugated iron. There, they had a child, a son, Alphonso.

When Alphonso Davies was five, his family immigrated to Edmonton. Davies played soccer from the start and impressed nearly as quickly. At 14, he went to Vancouver and enrolled in the Whitecaps residency program. At 15, he made his debut in Major League Soccer. At 17, he was transferred to Bayern Munich, and at 18, he first took the field for the German giants.

On Sunday night, at 22, he started his second World Cup game for Canada against Croatia.

It was only the fifth in the history of the entire men's program, after a goalless three-and-out performance in 1986. Canada's opening loss to Belgium in Qatar — during which Davies had a penalty saved, his first chance at glory thwarted — made the game close to a must-win. When the opening whistle blew, the sun had long set, and there was a nervy crackle in the air.

After Croatia kicked off and soon lost the ball, Alistair Johnston, playing right back, found it. He made a simple pass back to goalkeeper Milan Borjan, another refugee, whose family fled the Croatian War of Independence for Hamilton when he was 13 years old. Borjan kicked the ball up the middle of the pitch.

Coach John Herdman leads the Canadian team in applauding fans at Khalifa International Stadium on Sunday. (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Cyle Larin, the only fresh starter named by head coach John Herdman, was waiting just over half, barely onside, when he controlled the long ball beautifully.

He passed it to Tajon Buchanan, streaking up the right. Buchanan, unmarked, tore down the touchline, winning ground the way a storm consumes coastline.

Buchanan fired a perfect cross to his left, into the box. Davies, driving forward, met it with his head, powering the ball down and past the outstretched Croatian goalkeeper, into the net.

The goal took 67 seconds.

It took 36 years.

It took forever.

WATCH | Davies makes history for Canada:

Alphonso Davies makes history with first Canada Soccer goal at a Men's World Cup

2 months ago
Duration 2:39
Host Andi Petrillo is joined by former Canadian men's international player Jimmy Brennan to break down the historic first goal scored by Alphonso Davies at the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The Canadians could not hold their remarkably early lead. There was too much game left, and the experienced Croatians cut through Canada's sometimes lapsed defence, scoring twice before halftime. The Canadians couldn't find their way back. 

They lost eventually, painfully, 4-1, joining Qatar as the only teams already eliminated from contention for the knockout rounds. They have one last game for pride against Morocco.

Johnston did not have his best night. Atiba Hutchinson, Canada's 39-year-old captain and the oldest outfield player in the tournament, looked it, unfortunately. His 100th cap was spoiled as a result.

Some of the Croatians ran to the grass in front of Herdman to celebrate their first clinical goal, their devastating response to his "Eff Croatia" comments after the Belgium game.

"We demonstrated who Eff'd whom," Andrej Kramaric, who scored Croatia's first and third goals, said after. That didn't feel good.

But with any luck, any grace, the memory of that first-ever goal, the joy that it gave and the thrill, might outlive the sting of Canada's grander failure here.

Davies didn't stop in the mixed zone to talk about it after, but some of his teammates did, particularly those who have waited what must have felt like an eternity to see it.

"We've wanted that for our country for a very long time," Hutchinson said. "I always dreamt to play in a World Cup and see the ball hit the back of the net."

"Oh wow," Johnston said. "It was special. It was a special moment. To finally knock that one off, it feels like a big steppingstone for Canadian soccer."

It is no small thing to come to a World Cup, men's or women's, and it's an even bigger thing to score at one. Had Canada not found the net here, particularly after the missed chances against Belgium, that would have been the real disappointment.

Canada's Kamal Miller is consoled by Milan Borjan after their 4-1 defeat to Croatia at the men's World Cup on Sunday. (Alex Grimm/Getty Images)

To come all this way and not have had that moment would have felt like reaching the summit of a mountain only to find it enveloped in fog.

Instead, 67 seconds into the biggest game of their lives, this heart-strong group of players gave themselves the chance to celebrate, and an entire country celebrated with them. It was fantastic. For a few minutes after, everything felt so good, pure, and fun. This whole adventure has been so much fun.

It's a shame that it will end after only one more game.

WATCH | Soccer North — Canada vs. Croatia post-match reaction show:

Canada vs. Croatia post-match reaction show

2 months ago
Duration 36:07
Watch as Andi Petrillo and guests take a look at the Canada vs. Croatia game at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Next summer, however, the Canadian women will get their turn. And in four short years, the men will be back as co-hosts, no less. At 25, Alphonso Davies will lead his team once again, this time at home, in a stadium filled to the top with Canadian fans.

He and they will know that some journeys never really end, but they all have beginnings, and it's important to remember how they started. It's only in the looking back — at tiny huts made of chipboard and corrugated iron, at frozen soccer fields in Edmonton, at floodlit stadiums in Qatar — that you can appreciate how special every step was.


Watch Soccer North live immediately following each of Canada's games on CBC GemCBCSports.ca and the CBC Sports YouTube channel

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Jones

Senior Contributor

Chris Jones is a journalist and screenwriter who began his career covering baseball and boxing for the National Post. He later joined Esquire magazine, where he won two National Magazine Awards for his feature writing. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine (RIP), and WIRED, and he is the author of the book, The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics. Follow him on Twitter at @EnswellJones

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