From living in Haiti to becoming a star in Ottawa, Jonathan David’s rise is a unique journey in the world of football. This is his story.
They were sitting in a room embroiled in a fierce conference call. It was Mike Lanos, Jonathan David and his mother.
On the other end, the directors of the Vancouver Whitecaps were trying to make their point.
Their pitch was impressive. The Vancouver Whitecaps had a magnificent track record with their academy. They were a solid Major League Soccer club. They had North America’s brightest young star in Alphonso Davies and they were looking to grow even further.
Vancouver had watched David closely. They were convinced he’d be one of the linchpins of the side for the foreseeable future.
However, there was one obstacle the Major League Soccer club did not anticipate.
‘They were speaking to me and to Jonathan’s mother, and she was vehement that they were not in a rush. She wanted Jonathan to get his education,’ Mike Lanos, Ottawa Gloucester Hornets’ former technical director recalls to First Time Finish .
David and his mother turned down Vancouver’s offer.
‘Vancouver were very disappointed not to get him.’
Some would have Jonathan’s refusal as a mistake on his behalf. But for Jonathan David it became the catalyst to his success.
Jonathan David grew up in Haiti. He lived in the Carribean Island’s capital Port-au-Prince until the age of six. It’s a crowded and bustling port city filled to the brim with colourful huts.
The weather is always sunny too and the sandy beaches have an alluring appeal.
It must have been a culture shock when his parents emigrated to the exact opposite of that in Ottawa. The Canadian capital was cold and harsh.
Snow and ice suffuses the land for much of the year. The grass is rarely green. It’s almost always frozen and leaving your home without a coat is rarely advised.
Kids grow up playing on ice rinks and chasing pucks with sticks.
‘Soccer is not a sport here that you can play year round for free. There’s no lit fields in Ottawa where you can just go to the park and play with your friends,’ Jay Da Costa the technical director of Ottawa Gloucester Hornets (Jonathan David’s first club) tells First Time Finish.
In spite of the limited environment Jonathan David grew up with a dream. He didn’t want to chase pucks and skate on ice. He wanted to play on fields like the Camp Nou and emulate players like Thierry Henry.
Mike Lanos remembers the first time he heard of the young star.
‘I got a phone call from his grade four teacher, who said he had a kid at school who was just unbelieveable. We took him in right away. He was as good as any ten year old I’ve seen. He had all the physical attributes.’
But a young Jonathan wasn’t just impressive in the technical sense. His attitude also stood out.
‘What struck me was how calm and chill he was. Nothing fazed him.’
Becoming a star in Ottawa
There aren’t many soccer fields in Ottawa. Most of them are sheltered inside structures called domes. The large inflatable constructions contain a full-sized soccer pitch and provide a shield from the harsh Canadian winters.
It is on fields like these where Jonathan David played for the vast majority of his childhood.
‘We only have a handful of domes here in Ottawa, and those dome times get used up not just by soccer, but baseball and football and other organisations. It’s hard to get that time and usually when you get it, you’re definitely only training on 1/3 of the field, sometimes even 1/6,’ Jay Da Costa explains.
For Jonathan David it was usually the latter and the tight space proved to be the perfect environment to help him hone his skills.
‘When you get the ball you’re under pressure immediately, you have to learn how to play quickly,’ Jay adds his insight.
It prepared him for the big leagues early on. In a crammed space inside the domes, Jonathan was able to practise his close control and you can see the remnants of that training in the way he skips past players today.
It wasn’t long until Jonathan was playing in Canada’s provincial leagues and scoring goals for fun.
‘He was extremely good, scoring bags of goals,’ Jay recalls. ‘By 16 he was starting to dominate the mens league and he finished as the top-goalscorer. Anything near the goal, the guy would just put in, you couldn’t give him an extra yard around that 18 yard box. ‘
Making the next move
‘By that point, people were telling him, you need to get out of here,’ Jay remembers. ‘He was just far too good.’
But Jonathan took an unusual stance.
Throughout his teenage years, Jonathan David resisted the lure of MLS academies. It wasn’t just the Vancouver Whitecaps who wanted him, teams like Montreal Impact and Toronto FC all made him offers and watched him closely.
‘He turned them all down. Everyone else in the Canadian national program was either in MLS academies or playing professional elsewhere. Jonathan was the only one who was just part of a community club,’ Jay recalls with pride.
It was a bold decision. Part of it was influenced by his mother’s insistence on Jonathan completing his education and another on the level of coaching he was already receiving in Ottawa.
‘He thought he was getting a good level of training here, he was part of the national programme too so he didn’t feel like he need it to leave.’
Another part of Jonathan also had his eyes set on Europe.
He caught the eye playing for Canada’s youth teams and it wasn’t long before he was going on trials to Red Bull Salzburg, Stuttgart and Gent. In the end he opted for a move to Belgium.
The right support
Ottawa might be cold and harsh but the people who inhabit it are far from it.
Much of Jonathan David’s rise can be attributed to the sheer brilliance of his local community. They spotted a raw talent in him and they gave him the platform and the means to express and develop his skill.
‘Football in Canada is expensive,’ Mike Lanos explains ‘Jonathan would not have been able to make it without the community’s support. His family didn’t have a lot and they were very grateful for what the community gave them. ‘
‘The teacher who spotted him sponsored him for a year, the next couple of years I sponsored him and then the club sponsored him for the remainder of his time.’
It wasn’t just the community who gave Jonathan support. His family too were all behind him. He had a special connection with his mother especially.
‘She was a lovely woman,’ Mike recalls. ‘Jonathan is a respectful and polite young man, he’s just a wonderful character. If you met him he was very much his mother’s son because she was very respectful and thankful. ‘
Sadly, Jonathan’s mother passed away late last year which was understandably an emotional period for the young man.
After returning from her funeral, he scored twice on his return game for Gent against Mouscron. He celebrated both goals by poignantly lifting his fingers to the heavens in her memory.
‘In my head I thought, this one’s for you. This one’s for my mum.’Jonathan David via TSN
A bright future
His formative experiences have shaped Jonathan David into a character with great mental fortitude. He comes from humble beginnings and he has the right support behind him which helps him to keep his feet on the ground.
His incredible rise at Gent from an amateur 18 year old to one of the brightest stars in world football in the space of six months is a testament of his talent.
The hefty price tag now weighs on his shoulder at Lille but in time he will live up to it. Despite the slow start, he has shown glimpses of his class and once he manages to settle into the new environment, he will flourish yet again.
In the Canadian national team he has a phenomenal record.
‘He kind of came out of nowhere, showed up in the roster and scored a couple of goals and people started asking who is this kid?’ Mike chuckles.
No one’s asking that question now. 11 goals in 12 international caps has helped to put his name on the scene.
‘We hope he will end up becoming Canada’s greatest striker of all time,’ a proud Mike Lanos concludes.
Jonathan David has already achieved far more than any kid from Ottawa would hope to achieve in football and at just 20 years old he has all the tools to go even further.
Alongside, Alphonso Davies the pair of them can establish a new Canadian football dynasty.
One thing for sure, Jonathan has already repaid his mother’s hard work and the community’s support in ten folds and there is much more to come.