Alphonso Davies is the rightful face of Canadian men’s soccer.
The 22-year-old is an incredible talent, has won a Champions League with Bayern Munich and has an inspiring, remarkable life story.
Though he missed the final two windows of qualifying this spring because of a heart complication that arose after he contracted COVID-19 in January, he played a huge role in his country’s unlikely road back to the World Cup. He led a skilled, diverse team as they finished top of CONCACAF qualifying and clinched a return to the competition for the first time since 1986.
His World Cup did not start well. Davies missed an 11th minute penalty that would have given them the lead — and how it cost them. Try as they might they just could not score as Belgium won 1-0.
Canada started the match in brilliant fashion, harassing the No 2 team in the world rankings with reckless abandon and getting forward with zeal in the opening moments.
It only took until the eighth minute for their substantial pressure to pay dividends. Winger Tajon Buchanan, who plays in Belgium for Club Brugge and was a huge threat throughout, hammered a half-volley towards goal.
Belgium wing-back Yannick Carrasco blocked the shot, but a subsequent video review showed that he stopped the ball with his outstretched left arm. Canada were given a penalty, and, with it, a great opportunity to take a shock lead via their first goal at a World Cup.
Davies confidently grabbed the ball. He doesn’t have the same amount of penalty experience as star striker Jonathan David, who is nine out of 12 from the spot in his career, but Davies had converted two on international duty.
More importantly, he is the top male player in his country’s history, an $85 million man who, despite his young age, has done more to put the sport on the map in Canada than just about anyone else. He had every right to the penalty.
As it turned out, so did Thibaut Courtois. Davies rolled a weak attempt to his left that the star Belgium goalkeeper comfortably blocked with his towering 6ft 7in frame. The shot was relatively soft, poorly placed and easily read by Courtois.
Thibaut Courtois to the rescue for Belgium! He saves Alphonso Davies’s penalty and denies Canada a dream start
(via @FoxSoccer) pic.twitter.com/l45yTPEtoU
— SI Soccer (@si_soccer) November 23, 2022
Davies did not stop to take any questions after the match, but Canada head coach John Herdman spoke extensively about his star’s big miss.
Herdman is a charismatic and positive manager, an avowed believer in giving players ownership and agency in their team, which he regularly refers to as “the brotherhood.” That brotherhood, Herdman said, is in charge of sorting out who takes penalties.
“It’s down to them,” he said. “When you’ve got a $85 million player playing with that sort of confidence and swagger, you let him pick the ball up and take it. He practices his penalties like Jon David does, (Lucas Cavallini), they all practice their penalties, it just wasn’t his night. Courtois is a good keeper, let’s give him some credit.”
Herdman did not place any fault on Davies for the miss, instead showering him with praise for the decision to take on the responsibility of taking it.
“It was a big moment,” Herdman said. “We were waiting to get that first goal. And, you know, I’m proud of Phonzie — he just picked the ball up. It’s a big deal for any player to do that, you’re carrying the weight of a nation, 36 years of waiting, longer than 36 for the first goal. So, really proud that he picked the ball up. That takes a special character.”
Other Canada players stuck to that script, too, supporting their team-mate.
It was easy to wonder if it would derail Canada’s hopes and breathe life into Belgium. That it didn’t is a huge credit to Herdman, his players and their sense of unity and spirit.
Canada stumbled after the miss, but only just, rebounding quickly and staying on the front foot.
Unfortunately for them, the Davies miss became the defining moment. Though they outshot Belgium 22-9 and recorded 2.61 expected goals to Belgium’s 0.79, Canada, for all of their swagger and confidence, could not find the net.
Belgium, in contrast, scored on one of their few clear chances. Striker Michy Batshuayi ran onto an arcing long ball from center back Toby Alderweireld in the 44th minute, latching onto it in the left side of the area and slamming a shot past goalkeeper Milan Borjan.
Like his team, Davies responded after the penalty miss. He had several nice moments, especially in the final 20 minutes of the first half, taking off on a few of his long, trademark dribbles to create opportunities.
He never really clicked into his top gear, however. Herdman thought Davies was “brilliant,” but that was just a case of a coach praising a player who was no doubt feeling low. Both he and David, the team’s other leading light, were outperformed by several of their team-mates, including Buchanan, wing-back Richie Laryea, midfielder Stephen Eustaquio and winger Junior Hoilett.
That will likely need to change for Canada to have a shot at getting to the round of 16. They took it to Belgium, proving beyond dispute that they belong at the World Cup and no doubt becoming a feel-good favorite for many neutrals.
But the defeat leaves them in a tough position. They will be out of the running for the knockout phase if they lose their next match on Sunday against Croatia, who drew 0-0 with Morocco. Like Belgium, Croatia are an older side. They are likely past their peak, but they still have plenty of talent. Canada will need more from Davies in order to get a result.
Thankfully for them, Davies is more than capable of moving past the miss and coming back with a big performance. He is a remarkable individual, one who has been through much more difficult ordeals than missing a penalty.
The Canadian public, too, will likely remain behind him, buoyed by the team’s commendable performance and the knowledge that they may not have even made it to Qatar without him. If they are to extend their stay beyond the group stage, Davies will have plenty to do with it.
“He can be a big player for us,” Herdman said. “Him not scoring today will only make him even hungrier to score in the future.”
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(Photo: Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images)