The thought of representing his country at a World Cup never seemed plausible to Jonathan David when he was growing up. “I just wanted to play,” the Canada striker says. “Have fun. I was nowhere near thinking: ‘One day I’m going to be playing in a World Cup with my country.’ All this was just a dream.”
Not any more. For Canada’s men, this is their first appearance on the global stage since 1986. Football’s popularity has grown thanks to the emergence of an exciting generation of players who reached Qatar after excelling during qualifying, and David is buzzing. “I’ve thought about that first game,” he says. “What it will feel like to walk on the pitch for the first time. To see the fans, the stadium and to see the big team you’re facing.”
The draw has not been kind to Canada. Group F contains Croatia, who were beaten finalists at the 2018 World Cup, and an ageing but dangerous Belgium. Morocco are also an awkward proposition and yet, as David thinks about the prospect of taking on Luka Modric and Kevin De Bruyne, he is keen not to leave the impression Canada will be suffering from an inferiority complex.
The message is that Canada have no intention of making up the numbers. They have made rapid progress since appointing John Herdman as head coach in 2018. Herdman had performed well with the women’s team, guiding them to bronze medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, and the 47-year-old Englishman has had a similarly galvanising effect on the men.
Canada, who face Belgium on Wednesday, will back themselves. They value possession, fly forward on the break and, in David, possess a forward key to Lille stunning French football by winning Ligue 1 in 2021.
“We haven’t been to a World Cup for 36 years, but I don’t think teams are thinking we’re not a good team,” David says. “I don’t think they’ll underestimate us. It would be a mistake to do so. It’s going to be very hard because our group is very tough. But we have the belief we can get out of the group.”
David praises Herdman. “I think the biggest secret to our team is our coach. He came at a great time, right after the 2018 World Cup, so we had four years to prepare. One of the first things he told us was: ‘We’re going to qualify for the World Cup.’ Obviously at the beginning we didn’t know what to think because we hadn’t been to one for so long.
“But he really brought us together. He brought in a brotherhood, with everyone working for each other and working hard. Over the years that grew and got us where we are today. From what I heard from the older players who who were on the national team before me, before John came the group wasn’t united. There were some here, some there. He brought everybody together. And tactically he’s very detailed in what he wants and how he wants to achieve it.”
When did David realise that something special was happening? “When we played the USA at home in 2019 and won 2-0. The first time in 34 years that we beat them at home. That was like: ‘Woah, something is happening here.’”
Canada’s rise is a triumph for openness and diversity. Their flying left-back, Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies, was born in a refugee camp. David was born in Brooklyn to Haitian parents and spent his early years in Haiti, where he caught the football bug. “I already loved the game before I got to Canada,” he says. “I was playing with my dad, watching him play, playing in the street with friends.”
David, who supported Barcelona and Brazil, moved to Ottawa when he was six. He wears the Canada shirt with pride but he loves the multicultural aspect to his identity. “The American part is what I have least because I didn’t grow up there,” he says. “But the Haitian part and the Canadian part are what make me who I am.
“My Haitian part is always working hard. Never giving up, no matter what situation you’re in. From the Canadian standpoint it’s just always work hard as well but know that what you have is something that other people don’t have.”
It has been a long journey to the top. David joined his local side, Ottawa Gloucester SC, at the age of 11 before moving to Ottawa Internationals and was picked up by Canada’s youth programme four years later. Focus was key. “I had doubts here and there,” he says. “You have a lot of people in your ears when you’re young, telling you this and that, and when you’re young you’re very gullible and want to believe everything.
“I was lucky enough to have the right people around me. The best piece of advice might have been: ‘Just remember in the beginning what you set out to achieve and you have to be a man of your word.’”
David stuck at it after moving to Belgium to join Gent in 2017. He kept the homesickness at bay and took his chance when he finally made his first-team debut, coming off the bench to score a last-minute equaliser. “After that everything happened very fast,” he says.
Blistering form led to David joining Lille at the start of the 2020-21 season. The early months in France were tough, but he soon hit his stride. “We came back from the Covid period,” he says. “I came very late to Lille. I didn’t get a pre-season and had to get to know the team.”
The results were devastating once David settled. Managed by Christophe Galtier, Lille took on Paris Saint-Germain. “When I first arrived I didn’t think about winning any league titles,” David says “I just thought about getting myself into shape. But as the season goes on and you think anything’s possible. It’s incredible to finish in front of PSG given the finances they have. It will stay in my my mind for ever.”
David’s improvement was crucial. He scored 11 times after Christmas and opened the scoring when Lille clinched the title by beating Angers 2-1 on the final day. “The whole day leading up to the game I was nervous. This is the game that would define our whole season. You lose this game and all the work you did was for nothing. Everybody was a bit nervous.”
Fortunately David is adept at controlling his emotions. The disappointment for Lille is that their rise was unsustainable. The team broke up – Galtier manages PSG now – and it would not be a surprise to see David move on next summer. He has played well since Paulo Fonseca’s arrival at Lille. Fonseca’s attacking style has brought the best out of David, who has 10 goals this season.
It is important for David to feel free on the pitch. He analyses the art of finishing. “It’s when you have more time to think that you have doubts,” he says. “When a cross comes in I think it’s all up to instinct. It’s more when you’re going through against the goalkeeper and you have space to think about what you’re going to do that it becomes more difficult. But if it’s touch, finish, there’s no time to have doubts. Every game is an experience and you become better for it.”
David’s hero was Thierry Henry. The former Arsenal striker once said he valued an assist more than a goal. “I see where he’s coming from,” David says. “But for me it’s not at the same level. The goal is more! But the assist is close.
“My job is to score goals. But playing well and being involved in the game is what’s going to get me my goals. Getting my touches, combining, making my runs in behind. After that everything is set.”
Few players are better than De Bruyne when it comes to making chances. “All this guy thinks about is: ‘How can I assist my striker?’” David says of the Belgium midfielder. “To play with a guy like that would be a dream. You just have to run and you’ll get the ball. We just have to find a way to stop him.”