Zambrano feels the youngest-ever Canadian international is ready to contribute
By Matthew Gourlie
MONTRÉAL — Facing a bank of cameras and at least 40 members of the media, Alphonso Davies turned the tables for a second and asked the first question: “Who do I look at?”
The national spotlight is relatively new for the 16-year-old, but after a strong debut performance for Canada it is going to become increasingly difficult to shield Davies from attention.
On June 6 Davies passed his Canadian citizenship test and seven days later he became Canada’s youngest male senior international as he came off the bench in a 2-1 victory over Curaçao.
“I thought he came in and made a big difference. When we made the switch to put Junior Hoilett on the right side and him and the left side, that’s really when we began to click,” said Canadian head coach Octavio Zambrano. “Those are the kind of things that you can only assess during a match. It is by making those sorts of experiments and those tactical changes that you realize that they will work for you.”
Davies came on for fellow debutant Raheem Edwards in the 53rd minute. He looked comfortable and confident in his debut showing the same attacking intent he displays weekly in Major League Soccer with the Vancouver Whitecaps.
“I took a deep breath (before stepping on the pitch), but I thought about it like it was just a regular game: go out and play,” Davies said. “I learned that I need to just play my game. The other players were telling me to just go out there and play, don’t think about it too much.”
Davies managed to take four shots — including three full volleys — and two of those shots forced saves from Curaçao keeper Eloy Room.
“We did crossing and finishing in my first session when I got here. They told me to get in the box. Unfortunately I couldn’t get it in the back of the net,” Davies said.
He also won an 86th minute penalty that wasn’t converted but that sequence led to Anthony Jackson-Hamel’s winning goal less than a minute later.
Davies didn’t talk to the media a year ago by the Whitecaps during his rookie MLS campaign. Given the cautionary tales of the likes of Freddy Adu and Nii Lamptey, it is understandable to try to insulate him from hype and pressure to a certain degree.
Now that he is earning regular MLS minutes and is a senior international, the high school student is going to continue to learn about being a professional off the pitch as well.
Zambrano, for his part, adheres to the old adage of legendary Manchester United manager Matt Busby: “If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.”
“I think Alphonso is ready. I think he has already demonstrated that he is ready,” Zambrano said. “Youth has absolutely nothing to do with it. It’s how much you can contribute on the field.”
While Davies didn’t join the Canadian camp until he had his citizenship in hand, he arrived to room with Patrice Bernier from the Montréal Impact. The midfielder became the third-oldest Canadian international when he captained the side against Curaçao.
“He’s a top athlete and a top pro. I would be laying in bed watching a show on my laptop and he’s doing something to improve himself every day,” Davies said of Bernier. “I look up to him.”
Born in the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana to Liberian parents, the Davies family eventually settled in Edmonton. He became the first player born in the 2000s to play in MLS when he made his Whitecaps debut last season while still 15 years old. Only Adu was younger when he made his first MLS appearance.
Tuesday, Davies was 16 years and 224 days old when he made his Canadian debut. That eclipsed the previous record set by forward Domenic Mobilio who was 17 years old and 15 days when he made his debut against Paraguay in 1986.
“It means a lot,” Davies said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to play (for Canada). I was glad to get out there and get my first cap.”
He will likely only have to wait a few more weeks to get his next cap.
“He is a great addition to our team and it is going to be difficult to keep him off the field,” Zambrano said.
The new Canadian head coach said that after watching Davies in MLS and during the Whitecaps CONCACAF Champions League run, he felt Davies had experience well beyond his years.
“Surprising? No. I have seen him play for the Vancouver team quite a bit and I know that there is no fear factor form him,” Zambrano said when asked if he was surprised by Davies’ debut. “He has some incredible tools. Hopefully he stays healthy… but he is going to have an immense career ahead of him. We are just seeing the beginning of what he can give us.”