A winger born in a refugee camp in Buduburam, Ghana, to parents fleeing the civil war in Liberia in 1999. A goalkeeper who escaped the Croatian war of independence at the age of seven. A forward born in New York and raised in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
A left-back and a striker, born to Nigerian families in England.
Nothing, on the face of it, ties all these men of diverse backgrounds. Yet, over the last four-year cycle, they came together to forge one of the biggest underdog stories in football.
On Sunday, Canada – a country that was ranked outside the top hundred in the FIFA charts not too long ago; that had qualified for the World Cup just once in its history, and that too 36 years ago – secured its berth for Qatar 2022 with a 4-0 romping of Jamaica. And it’s hard to imagine them achieving this feat without contributions from Alphonso Davies, Milan Borjan, Jonathan David, Ike Ugbo and Samuel Adekugbe – the stars who have one thing in common: they are all immigrants in a country known for its openness and tolerance.
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The Canadian football team, of course, isn’t the only one that has benefitted from its country’s immigration policies. At the 2018 World Cup, one in 10 players was born outside the country they played for, as per a Quartz research, while France’s triumph was hailed as a ‘victory for immigrants everywhere’ in a reference to 15 players with African roots in Didier Deschamps’ all-conquering squad.
Yet, few countries seem to have made such a policy intervention key to their sporting exploits as successfully as Canada. And their World Cup qualification is merely a continuation of it.
From an Indian point of view, the impact is visible every time Canada’s hockey team is in action – almost the entire team is filled with players who are either first-generation Canadians or born in India and relocated a few years ago.
But while Indians account for the highest number of immigrants to Canada, according to official data, different nationalities have contributed to their rise on the sports field. Sample this data from Statistics Canada 2016 Census:
2,855 immigrants work across the country as athletes, coaches, officials and referees;
· 16,075 immigrants earn their living as instructors and programme leaders in sport, recreation and fitness, and;
· 20 percent of Canada’s sports coaches are immigrants.
This has, over the years, reflected in the North American country’s achievements across sports – Donovan Bailey, Canada’s two-time 100m Olympic gold medallist, immigrated from Jamaica; Geraldine Heaney, considered to be a pioneer in Canadian women’s ice hockey, hailed from Northern Ireland; Bianca Andreescu, the first Canadian woman to win a Grand Slam (2019 US Open), is of Romanian heritage while another tennis star Denis Shapovalov was born in Israel.
In football, Canada’s unprecedented rise can be attributed to – as The Los Angeles Times noted – the country’s Refugee Resettlement Project which was established in 1978 as part of the United Nations’ Operation Lifeline. More than 300,000 refugees have been resettled in Canada in the last two decades under the programme, including the family of Bayern Munich star Davies, considered the best player in the Central and North American region at the moment.
Eight foreign-born players
Davies wasn’t on the field when Canada sealed their World Cup qualification on Sunday. The 21-year-old watched from his home, recovering from heart inflammation after contracting Covid-19, and dropped to the floor, bursting into tears after the final whistle blew.
For him, playing in the biggest single-sport event might have seemed a world away when he landed in Canada at the age of five with his family after spending years in a refugee camp, ‘struggling for clean water, food, and shelter…’ according to the Bundesliga website.
“It’s a true reflection on Canada as a whole,” the country’s all-time leading scorer Dwayne de Rosario was quoted as saying by CBC. “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 capitalised on that. If you look at Alphonso Davies’ story, the same thing. His parents left Africa in a tough situation, came to Canada for more opportunities and Alphonso definitely capitalised on that. And that’s the beauty of sport.”
Not just Davies. When Canada’s English coach John Herdman named his squad for the qualifiers, there were eight foreign-born players in his squad, including Charles-Andreas Brym (born in France), Jayson Leutwiler (Switzerland) and David Wotherspoon (Scotland) in addition to the five mentioned earlier. There are others, like the irrepressible Cyle Larin, who was born in Canada to parents who came from Jamaica.
Borjan, who fled during the Yugoslav war and arrived in Canada when he was 13, said he and others who have made Canada their home are just returning a favour. “We fight for what’s given to us. Canada gave us peace, better schools, a better life… better everything,” he said in January after Canada defeated the United States to all but seal their World Cup berth. “This (qualifying for the World Cup) is just the way for us to return it to Canada.