Refugee to Canada captain: Alphonso Davies enters Copa América spotlight


As he waited to take his oath of Canadian citizenship in June 2017, Alphonso Davies watched a documentary film in the government building.

Just 16 years old, barely one year after his first-team debut with Vancouver Whitecaps FC, the homegrown attacker watched tears stream down his mother’s face for the first time.

Created by the Whitecaps, “Becoming Canadian: The Alphonso Davies Story” encapsulated the moving tale of his family’s flight from the Liberian civil war to the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana, and eventually on to Edmonton, Canada, where he blossomed into a teenage phenom who joined the Whitecaps Academy at age 14.

“It’s the first time he saw his mom cry; he was learning [aspects of] his story just as the world was, so that's when my eyes were really opened,” Farhan Devji, who produced the film and went on to write a book called 'Alphonso Davies: A New Hope,' told

“My first question [to his parents] was, can you tell us about where [Liberia] Alphonso was born? And they actually said, 'No, he was born in the refugee camp, and he's never stepped foot in Liberia.'”

In the following days, he debuted for the Canadian men’s national team in a friendly against Curaçao and scored his first international goal at the Concacaf Gold Cup that summer. Even as an MLS starlet, few could have imagined the heights he’d rise to over the next seven years.

The second-youngest player in MLS history and the first player born in the 2000s to play in the league when he debuted in 2016, Davies rose from U-16 level to MLS All-Star in barely three years, scoring eight goals and 12 assists in 65 MLS appearances.

After starring for Vancouver, he was transferred to Bayern Munich at age 18 in a then-MLS-record, reported $22 million deal that, due to a sell-on clause, could still bring VWFC another windfall if Davies is sold to another club before his current Bayern contract expires next summer.

“Phonzie” has since won UEFA Champions League and Club World Cup trophies, five Bundesliga titles and myriad other team and individual awards as a game-changing left back and wingback for Bayern. He led the way as the CanMNT ended their 36-year World Cup drought in 2022, Les Rouges surging back into Concacaf's elite after decades of disappointment.

A new challenge

On Thursday, as Canada make their Copa América debut against Inter Miami’s Lionel Messi and Argentina in Atlanta, Davies begins a new test. He's recently been named captain, with FC Porto midfielder Stephen Eustáquio serving as vice-captain.

It's the stuff dreams are made of: An MLS academy graduate leading Les Rouges against the reigning World Cup champions and the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner, whose arrival has opened a new era in the league’s history.

“Even though I wasn’t born [in Canada], I felt like I was born in Canada because of how young I came,” Davies, who was 5 when his family arrived, told media ahead of this week’s opening match. “When we came to Canada, the country really took us in as their own. I love this country, and I think before the game, there’s going to be a lot of emotions, leading our team out against an opponent like that.”

Still the fourth-youngest player on the team, Davies already holds 47 Canadian caps and has experience in the global game far beyond his years. Yet it’s not the winning or goals that matter most to new head coach Jesse Marsch, but his emergence as an emotional leader in a formative era for Canadian soccer.

“He has a real presence and gravity in his personality and who he is,” the former CF Montréal and New York Red Bulls coach said of Davies, who played for the Whitecaps from 2015-18. “We know he’s still young and that he’s not a finished product as a captain... but the guys spoke, and they all said to him, ‘You don’t have to change; you just have to be yourself.'

“He’s a guy that cares a lot for this team and this country, and someone who wants to take on a bigger role, trains hard and leads by example.”

The full spectrum

For Davies, it’s a chance to lead a hopeful nation eagerly preparing to co-host the 2026 World Cup. On the other side, there’s Messi, the Copa’s reigning champion, widely hailed as the greatest player of all time, still riding the high of his breakthrough achievement at the ‘22 World Cup in Qatar.

“Alphonso is a young and experienced professional who has all the tools to be an excellent captain," Marsch said. "He has been in the spotlight from a young age and handled it very well. I know that he is up to the challenge of taking on a more expanded role with more responsibility.”

It’s a poignant moment, not only for Davies and his family, but the country he both inspires and epitomizes.

“I think Alphonso’s story represents the very best of what Canada has to offer in it,” said Devji. “It has opened its doors to a lot of refugees and immigrants – my parents as well.”

Davies knows how hard his parents labored to build a better life for the family; from a young age he cared for his siblings while they worked long hours in Edmonton. His talents might never have been discovered were it not for his participation in Free Footie, a cost-free after-school soccer program for youngsters whose families struggled to afford registration fees, equipment and transportation. He carries these experiences on the world stage like few others can.

“Being a Canadian is like having a chip on your shoulder,” he said this week. “Because, especially in the world of football, most people don’t think Canadians can play football.”

That chippiness within the Canadian mentality will likely be called into action against Messi’s mighty Albiceleste. They're expected to command the majority of the support from a crowd of 70,000-plus at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home of Atlanta United.

It won’t be the first such experience for Davies, who's played in Europe’s biggest club games and clashed with Messi during his time at Paris Saint-Germain. Meanwhile, Canada's 14 MLS-based players know a thing or two about facing Messi from his eventful first year with Inter Miami.

Canada’s first competitive match under Marsch could not be tougher. But with Davies taking the reins, the program is entering a new era and providing a massive stage for MLSers past and present.

“Every time we go out there, we want to prove the world wrong,” Davies added. “[Canada] can play the game.”

Charles Boehm contributed reporting for this story.