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OPINION: From Haiti to Gloucester, to Europe & Qatar: Jonathan David’s World Cup moment arrives

By Dan Plouffe

I recently dug up the first interview I ever did with Jonathan David. It was after the biggest win of his soccer career up to that point – when his U15 Gloucester Hornets beat the defending-champion Ottawa South United Force for the first time ever.

Pretty hilarious to hear him talking about the “big crowd” they had for that game. You bet, the lawn chairs did go a couple deep down the sideline next to the drainage slope. Nowadays, 50,000 fans is more his norm of course.

Jonathan David 2015 Ottawa Sports Pages interview – Gloucester Hornets U15

People sometimes ask me if I could tell that David would become a global star from watching him play locally when he was younger. I start by correcting the pronunciation “it’s Da-veed – he’s French.”

Then I add the disclaimer that my technical knowledge is too low to make predictions on an athlete’s potential or where they might sit internationally. But Jonathan David was unquestionably the most dominant male player I’ve ever seen in youth soccer.

Opposing teams would devote a player or two to covering only him and it wouldn’t matter. He was faster – absurdly faster – than anyone else.

He wasn’t the tallest of course, but he was already exceptionally strong, powerful and determined. He was explosive, and the killer instinct was there any time there was an opportunity.

His inner confidence shone through even if he wasn’t outwardly boastful. Coaches said he was an absolute beast on the pitch, and a gentle soul off it, much like his family.

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Humble, soft-spoken and gracious – I got that impression from the first time I interviewed him, and I think those traits are still evident now too as a global star.

Jonathan David with the U15 Gloucester Hornets. File photo

His professionalism was clear as well. I remember thinking it was different that a teenager – who wouldn’t have yet done media training or anything – was standing tall with hands held behind his back for our interview (like a pro would on TV). Very respectful, and also personable.

I also note that David is a product of the era when soccer was really first starting to get taken seriously in Canada. The passion previously reserved only for hockey had come boiling out when the Canadian women were robbed of a semi-final win against USA at the 2012 Olympics.

Aspiring players began practicing most days of the week, youth soccer was getting more organized and professionalized, with paid coaches and staff, and more opportunities emerged for players to train in high-level environments.

There was a fair bit of debate at that time about what David’s next steps should be – move to one of Canada’s Major League Soccer academies, farther, or stay at home? With his talent and work ethic, I’m not sure there was any holding him back regardless, but given where he’s ended up, it’s hard to argue that it was unwise to stay with Louis-Riel high school and the Ottawa Internationals.

Cheer for our underdogs

Jonathan David at the centre of teammates singing O Canada at a March 27 World Cup qualifier in Toronto. Photo: Beau Chevalier / Canada Soccer

Maybe it was partly a product of being hidden a little in Ottawa, but I don’t think David ever quite got the attention and recognition he deserved in his hometown before he went overseas. We are talking about possibly the best male athlete the capital has ever produced.

(We admittedly haven’t interviewed David nearly as much for the Ottawa Sports Pages since he made his senior national team debut in 2018 and became a star overseas – largely because our focus is more on the grassroots and less on the pros, and finding coverage on him in other media is now not difficult).

Kevin Bourne’s opinion piece for the Ottawa Citizen titled “Let’s celebrate Ottawa’s Black achievers, not just its white ones” speaks to the racial inequities in play – that’s got to be part of the reason too, along with connected issues around income, and old traditions/networks. There is a tonne of work left to be done in these areas, period.

And many Canadians will no doubt feel conflicted watching the World Cup in Qatar (Declan Hill lays out the host country’s appalling human-rights record in his Globe & Mail column titled “I love soccer but I won’t be watching the World Cup“.)

It’s such a shame that leaders have hung this horrible cloud over the event when athletes are about to hit this peak moment in their careers. Because David’s rise is a major success story worth celebrating, and many of the people who helped him push past the barriers he faced along the way will certainly be extra proud to see him play at the World Cup.

Fans at the January 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers in Hamilton. Photo: Alejandro Quintero / Canada Soccer

I make sure to explain to people why I love cheering for the Canadian men’s soccer team, beyond the excitement of sport. David’s family came to Canada from Haiti when he was six years old, and he isn’t the only player on the team who’s had that kind of journey. It’s really first- or second-generation Canadians who have powered our return to the men’s World Cup.

Yes, we can do better, but I’m still proud that Canada is more welcoming to newcomers than many other countries. Seeing players like David excel provides piles of hope and inspiration.

Now, it’s a little unrealistic to expect our World Cup rookies to make it too far in the tournament, so I do always finish by telling people about Annabelle Chukwu. She’s winning U15 provincial scoring titles by even bigger margins than David did, and she just got a shot to dress for the reigning Olympic champions at age 15. That’s definitely a story worth following.

But for the men, getting to the World Cup is already a triumph. It’s a huge victory for David, who’s earned every bit of the glory and spotlight the World Cup provides. Let’s enjoy his big moment.

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