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What Impact Does Immigration have on Sports?

Opinion by Alexander Stoney. This piece is part of Behind the Game, a series by Alexander Stoney on the intersection of sports and public policy.

Sports fans around the world are waiting in anticipation for the biggest soccer match of the year. On May 29, Manchester City will face off against Chelsea FC in the Champions League Final live from Estadio do Dragao in Porto. This marks the second time in three years in which two English teams have met in the final. The match also marks one year since FC Bayern Munich won their historic sixth Champions League title. While the match a year ago will be most fondly remembered in southern Germany as a triumphant victory over arch-rival Paris St. Germain, the match also holds an important place in Canadian sports history. For Canadian sports fans, it will be remembered for the performance of then 19-year-old Bayern player,

Alphonso Davies, who was the first Canadian soccer player ever to lift the esteemed Champions League trophy. Born in a refugee camp and raised in Edmonton, the star wingback’s journey to stardom involved many challenges and steep adversity. Davies’ story not only shows incredible personal talent and drive but also illustrates how changes in immigration and global movement are changing sports.

Davies’ story began in a refugee camp in Buduburam, Ghana, born to parents fleeing the civil war in Liberia. Davies has spoken about the hardships of his early life including the struggle for clean water, food, and shelter. "It was hard to live because the only way you survive sometimes is you have to carry guns," remembers Alphonso's father, Debeah. "We didn't have any interest in shooting guns. So, we decided to just escape from there.” [1]. Davies’ family immigrated to Canada where they settled in Edmonton. Evenin elementary school, Alphonso Davies began to attract attention for his athletic ability. "There was something special about this boy," Marco Bossio, a local soccer coach, said. "He had lightning-quick feet and speed with the ball. I knew that was something special at that age. [1]Alphonso quickly moved up through the youth divisions and began to garner attention from Soccer Canada.

At 16 years of age, just one week after obtaining his Canadian citizenship, Alphonso Davies made his debut for the Canadian National Team. "That was a great moment for the family," Davies said. "I'm glad I could get [my citizenship]. It's going to mean a lot, representing the country I've lived in for most of my life. Having that [Canadian] crest on my chest playing for them is going to mean a lot for me."

From 2016 to 2018, Davies starred for the Vancouver Whitecaps in the Major League Soccer (MLS), the most senior league in North America. In January 2019, after two years of success with Vancouver, Davies signed a 5-yearcontract with Bayern Munich in Germany, one of the most successful and historic clubs in Europe [1]. Fast forward to 2021 and Alphonso Davies has won 3 Bundesliga Titles (Germany’s top football league) and the monumental achievement of winning last year’s Champions League Final. As he continues his rise to international stardom, he continues to play for Bayern Munich every week and on the national team for Canada, all at the age of 20.

Apart from his incredible personal story and rise to fame, Davies embodies the powerful impact of immigration and human migration on sports, both in club competition and in international competition. The increase in globalization and mobility have resulted in national teams and iconic clubs made up of players from diverse and complex backgrounds. Perhaps no sport is as global and diverse as soccer. Indeed, the Canadian National Soccer Team has many players who are either first-generation Canadians or, like Davies, were born on a different continent but settled in Canada. Canadian star forward Jonathan David, also 20 years old, was born to Haitian parents and moved to Ottawa at the age of six [2]. Dwayne De Rosario, the 42-year-old midfielder who owns Canada's men's national team all-time scoring record, grew up in Scarborough, Ont., the son of Guyanese parents. "It's a true reflection on Canada as a whole. The reason I say that is because my family left Guyana to come here for a better life and more opportunity and I think I've capitalized on that," said De Rosario. He went on to add that the success of the three immigrant Canadian players is “the beauty of sport." [2].

It is not only the Canadian National Team that is characterized by the diversity of its players. When France won the 2018 World Cup, soccer’s premier competition, it was referred to as “a win for immigrants” [3] as much as a win for France. An astounding 19 players out of the 23-man roster were either immigrants or the children of immigrants. The majority of players traced their heritage to Africa, the product of France’s post-World War II labour policies which brought an influx of immigrants from former colonies [3]. The result was a World Championship Team more multicultural and multi-ethnic than ever seen. One of the French stars, 19-year-old Kylian Mbappé, is the son of an Algerian mother and a Cameroonian father and was raised in the immigrant suburb of Bondy near Paris. Another star, Paul Pogba, is the son of immigrant parents from Guinea and is a devout Muslim. [3]

Some readers will ask why this matters. After all, it is a reality of the modern world that there is increasing immigration and human mobility than ever before. So why are the stories of these soccer players worth reading about? There are two key reasons for highlighting the success of Alphonso Davies and other immigrant and refugee sports stars. First, they and their families deserve recognition for the incredible success they have achieved in the face of many difficult challenges. Their triumphant careers are an inspiration for all, within the sports world and outside it. However the second reason is more sobering: for every immigrant like Alphonso Davies, there are millions of others who do not have the same opportunities and regularly face xenophobia, racism, and multiple barriers. In France, even as the World Cup victory was being celebrated, right-wing leader Jean-Marie Le Pen made comments about France's “immigration problem” and took aim at the players on the team whom he labelled as “foreigners” who “don’t know the national anthem” [3]. In an increasingly nationalist and protectionist world, where right-wing politics and anti-immigration sentiment are rife, the money and adulation won by a small number of immigrant sports stars can raise difficult and uncomfortable questions about the wider treatment of immigrants and refugees and the exclusive and sometimes race-driven definitions of nationality and belonging.

However players like Alphonso Davies share their stories and celebrate the diversity of their teams and countries, there is cause for hope. In 2021, Alphonso Davies was named a global goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) [4]. Players around the world, like Davies, are taking leadership positions to push back against racism and anti-immigrant sentiments. Davies is using his platform to help refugee organizations around the world and help displaced families just like his own. To conclude, immigration has become a big part of all sports and especially soccer due to the global nature of the game. Star athletes have the power to make a difference and spread positive values and inclusion through their platforms. This idea was summed up by Canadian National Team head coach John Hurdman who stated that “Alphonso Davies is somebody that all our players can aspire to become. He underlines what Canada is. It is a country that accepts all." [1]. Canada, and indeed every country, must strive to live up to this description.

  1. Bundesliga. (2018, November 29). Alphonso Davies: From refugee camp to Bayern Munich, via Edmonton and Vancouver Whitecaps. -the official Bundesliga website.

  2. Dichter, M. (2020, August 28). Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David are 'a true reflection' of Canada: Dwayne De Rosario | CBC Sports. CBCnews.

  3. Bose, R. (2018, July 17). A Win For Immigrants: This is What France's World Cup Winning Team Looked Like. CNN-News18 Breaking News India, Latest News Headlines, Live News Updates.

  4. Davidson, N. (2021, March 24). Alphonso Davies named UNHCR global goodwill ambassador | CBC News. CBCnews.

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