Alphonso Davies is an FC Bayern pro today, but the forward, who was born in a refugee camp in Ghana 19 years ago, has travelled a long and difficult path – and his family suffered a lot. The son of Liberian refugees came to Munich via Canada and Major League Soccer. To mark his 19th birthday on Saturday, we look back on his remarkable journey .
The dressing room comprises a tiny bit of shadow and a big plastic bag. After kick-off the players’ street clothes are in a bag, stored in the sand. A goat sniffs it, women balance bowls with nuts and dried fruit on their heads. On the pitch a player makes a very rough sliding tackle. The surface is more like stone than soil, baked by the sun. The forward evades the tackle with a pirouette in the dust. “Nice football,” a spectator shouts, appplauding.
The bleak “Children Better Way Park” at the Buduburam refugee camp meets the international norms of a football pitch despite its shortcomings. It takes only a few scattered, bare clay huts, crooked wooden barracks and austere brick structures to show things get even more rudimentary. The “Pupu Park,” a cinder pitch with two goals without nets, is located between the barracks. In former times it was the only area where people could play football. Aloysius Kleah says: “That’s the slum.”
The 20-year-old took his first steps as a footballer here, together with his cousin, who was born in Buduburam, 45 kilometres west of Ghanaian capital Accra, on 2 November 2000. “We were very little, but he was fast with the ball even then,” says Aloysius. At the age of five, his cousin went to Canada with his parents. They talked on the phone once but the connection was cut. At some point they lost contact. The people in Buduburam have been following the boy on Facebook, YouTube and on TV since then. He is a Bayern player today. “We’re all very proud of him,” Aloysius says of Alphonso Davies.
His family have travelled a long way
4,800 kilometres away, Davies hardly remembers his first few years in Buduburam. Repressing memories is human. The family never really talked about the time in the refugee camp, he says. The Liberian civil war lead to more than 250,000 casualties between 1986 and 2003, and more than a million people fled, including Davies’ parents, Debeah and Victoria. They later said they had had to climb over corpses to get food. People needed weapons to survive in Liberia, but his parents refused to get one. Alphonso was born when they fled. His mother is crying when she watches her son play, because she thinks of what they have gone through and achieved for their son. She still calls Alphonso her “refugee baby.”
From refugee baby to football star: Davies’ arrival at FC Bayern is the happy end of a unique story so far. “I’m so grateful to my parents,” says Davies. “Life wasn’t easy back then, but my parents brought our family to a safe country.” If they had not had the courage to leave Africa, “I would never have been a pro footballer.” None other than Zlatan Ibrahimovic predicts Davies will have a bright future. Davies made his first MLS appearance aged 15, the second-youngest debutant in the league’s history. FC Bayern signed him from Vancouver Whitecaps for €11.5 million last winter. Back then he only knew the Bayern stars from the games console, they were not real as such. Now he is one of them, in reality, at the Säbener Strasse.
The hut where Davies and his parents lived for the first five years of his life still exists today. It is not much larger than a minivan. The walls are made from chipboard, chicken wire is where windows should have been. Dirty curtains are a shield from dirt and the sun. Stones on the roof, which is made of corrugated iron, protect against gusts of wind. A can of drinking water is beside the hearth in front of the door. The living conditions are still dire today, but they were horrendous back then, says Davies’ uncle Daniel Crotai Blawah, who lives around the corner. “Water, food, clothes: you needed money for everything.” Money almost nobody had. “We blended a few leaves with curry for soup, we didn’t have more. We’re glad Alphonso is doing well now.”
From refugee baby to idol
More than 50,000 Liberians lived in Buduburam at times. Some of them returned home later, others began a new life in Canada, Australia, Norway or Sweden. Around 20,000 people stayed there. Buduburam became a town with police, a fire brigade and a hospital. There are schools, cafés and even discos. “We work hard,” says Obdieh Arnold, the head of administration whose office is a converted construction trailer. It was much more dangerous in Davies’ time, accoring to Arnold. There was no real order in the camp, everyone was concerned only with themselves. People from nearby villages collected rice and fish and brought plastic dishes, but took a lot of time until everyday life became bearable. “Football is an important part of social life here. It unites families, clans and different villages,” says Arnold: “And Alphonso Davies is a big idol for the people here.”
Last spring, Martin Gyambrah, a professor at Accra Sports Academy, sent a team to Buduburam to reconstruct Davies’ life. “Because he’s an incredible inspiration for the people here,” he says. It was not easy for the scientists as several children named Alphonso were born in 2000. It took a photo to find out Davies was one of the so-called “Zone Two Babies” in the camp, which was divided into 12 districts. “Football is very popular in Ghana, they follow the Bundesliga and FC Bayern very closely,” says Gyambrah, who is in close contact with Munich’s International Football Institute. It is important to tell Davies’ story, according to the professor. After all, it can change things: “Alphonso Davies helped himself when he was a refugee. The message is: You can achieve your goals and dreams. No matter how badly off you are, you have a future.”
A new life in a new world
Alphonso Davies’ future began in Edmonton, Canada. “I can remember it from then on,” he says. Football played a decisive role from the start: “I was shy, I didn’t dare to get in touch with others – but everything was easier out on the pitch.” After only a few days a boy suggested he should drop by the local club for training. “I didn’t have boots, no real jersey, but I was so happy,” the 19-year-old says. The coach told him after his first training session: “Congratulations – this is your team from now on!”
Davies quickly became a leader at Edmonton Strikers. In addition, he played for Nicholas Junior High Soccer Academy for three years, clinching the championship title every year. His picture adorns the cover of the academy’s booklets to this day. There is a video where Alphonso says it is his dream to be a football pro one day. His coaches thought he could do it. They were impressed by Davies, aged 10 back then, who looked after his two small siblings in his leisure time, whereas others played video games. His parents worked, so Alphonso had to take responsibility: “I had no choice, I grew up quickly.”
Vancouver Whitecaps signed him in 2015. “It helped that I was more mature,” says Davies. At first his parents did not want to let him go to the coastal city, which was more than 1,000 kilometres away. His mother had watched on TV how easily teenagers can go astray. “She was afraid, as is usual for mothers, that I might meet the wrong people and drop out of high school.” He father asked him to make a promise: “Stay a good lad, respect everybody.” Alphonso promised. Debeah Davies makes sure his son stays rooted with his dry sense of humour, even today. When he scored his first Bundesliga goal away to Mainz in spring, his father called from Canada, asking: “Oh, so you’re playing for Bayern now?” Davies laughed when he told the story. “I said, dad, I’ve been playing there for half a year now!” But the quips helped. Davies sent his father a Bayern jersey. An Arjen Robben jersey. Why not his own? “Because Robben scored so many goals,” says Davies. He still has plenty of work to do.
Dominic Wisseh addresses his team after the final whistle in the match at “Children Better Way Park” in Buduburam. The coach played in the Liberian first dividion at one time. Today he coordinates the nine teams in the camp. The first team represents the refugees on an international level, beating Sierra Leone 1-0. “Look at Alphonso Davies”, Wisseh tells his players: “He’s patient and deferential at Bayern, he listens to the others. He got nothing for free, he’s one of us. We want to see him at the top.”
A few metres away Robert Akapu is preparing to lead his team out on the pitch for the second match of the day. Of course he knows Davies, the 13-year-old captain says: he trains every day and wants to be a football pro. “I’d like to be like Davies. It’s my dream to play for FC Bayern one day.” Then he runs onto the pitch. His street clothes are in a big plastic bag stored in the sand. Robert Akapu is wearing an FC Bayern jersey.