Pele. Maradona. Ronaldo. Eusebio. Kaka. Zidane. Neymar. Socrates.
Soccer is full of great players known by one name, many of them Brazilians. Sometimes, even people who know nothing about soccer have heard of them. By the time the current World Cup is over, Canada could have one of its own.
Such are the expectations — and the talent — that Alphonso Davies brings to Qatar for only Canada’s second appearance at what in most of the world is known as the greatest event in sport. If his name was George, or Kevin, maybe not. But it’s Alphonso. Perfect.
Davies has already been ordained as this nation’s best soccer player — ever. He has been called a human thunderbolt, a phenomenon, a road runner and the 11th-fastest player on the planet. He is 22. Maybe the only thing that will stop him on the world stage is the hamstring injury that caused him to miss the two games on the road to Qatar, after Canada qualified as the best team from North and Central America and the Caribbean ( CONCACAF).
Canada’s first World Cup team, 36 years ago, also had some players who could be recognized by one name: Branko and Igor and Tino. Alas, it was only because no teammates had the same name.
That was just one of the dis-similarities between the 1986 team and the one in Qatar. Five players on the ’86 Canadian team played abroad, compared to 16 this year. Davies, one of them, admits to being in awe of world-class players Robert Lewandowski and Coutinho (a one-name Brazilian), who were his teammates at Bayern Munich. Members of the 1986 Canadian team were also in awe of world-class players…Michael Platini and Jean-Pierre Pain, who were their opponents.
That Canadian team was a by-product of the North American Soccer League, which gave Canadians a place to play — and get better — against global stars of the past like Franz Beckenbauer and Pele. The NASL’s demise, a year before the World Cup, led to another competitive vacuum for Canadians and an absence of soccer heroes. The worldly achievements of a super star like Davies will inspire young players at home, as will any upsets by a Canadian team that’s ranked 41st in the world and last in Group F behind Belgium (2nd), Croatia (12th), Morocco (22nd) .
Yet upsets happen at the World Cup, starting with Saudi Arabia’s 2-1 shocker over Argentina this week.
In 1986, Canada almost drew (1-0) with tournament favorite France, while Mexico knocked out both Belgium and Bulgaria. Last year, Canada was chosen FIFA’s “most improved” team. More upsets to come?
So unlike ’86, hopes border on expectations. To finish second in Group F and advance to the knockout round. To win a World Cup game for the first time. And with youthful scoring depth from Tajon Buchanan (23) and forward Jonathan David (22) it’s pretty much a given…to score Canada’s first World Cup goal.
When Canada came closest to scoring 36 years ago, it was from the feet of a defender, Bobby Lenarduzzi, who has since chuckled: “Whoever scores that first goal for Canada — and someone’s going to do it in Qatar — should thank me for them having that honor. Because I should have scored.”
Thanks would be best if it comes from Canada’s best, the man with one name.