UMM ŞALĀL ‘ALĪ, Qatar — Will he or won't he play Wednesday? The mystery around Canada star Alphonso Davies' fitness at the World Cup will soon be answered.
If not definitively.
The Bayern Munich star has not played since walking off the field clutching the back of his right thigh Nov. 6 in a Bundesliga game at Hertha Berlin. An upbeat Davies arrived late in Qatar, landing last Friday after remaining in Germany for treatment of a hamstring strain.
Bayern subsequently said his participation at the World Cup was "not at risk," which while positive was not exactly a timetable on return to play,
Canada Soccer has not made the 22-year-old from Edmonton available at its daily post-training media sessions. But Davies took the initiative Sunday, pronouncing himself fit in an interview with TSN.
"I'm ready to start,'' he said, referencing the 41st-ranked Canadians' mid-week tournament opener against No. 2 Belgium.
Coach John Herdman was far more cautious when he talked to the media Saturday. He said while Davies was able to take part in some of the contact work in training, "he's still building towards hitting his top speed.''
"He hasn't hit that top speed yet and when you have hamstring injuries that's always the key moment. That's when the hamstring is pushed to its limits.''
Davies appeared to hit one of those limits Monday during a warm-up drill when he grimaced and pulled up, seemingly favouring a leg. He returned to the warm-up but looked in visible discomfort for several seconds.
Media are allowed to see 15 minutes before training starts for real and they are dispatched back to the out-of-view media centre. That means they get to watch the players coming out on the field and warming up.
On Monday, they did that two fields away from the watching reporters, who needed the Hubble Space Telescope to see what was going on. A long camera lens unearthed Davies' moment of pain.
What happens after the warm-up is under wraps. Players could fire up a Hibachi grill and crack open a cold one with the travelling media unaware.
In the absence of any reliable intelligence on the Canada star, there are theories galore.
Was Davies' public pronouncement intended to put pressure on Canada to play him Wednesday in the wake of Herdman's public caution?
"My mission is to make sure he plays at this World Cup, it's a childhood dream for him,'' the coach said Saturday, before adding: "And not to put him in a position where he's unsafe.''
The Davies camp has shown it is not averse to rocking the Canada boat, as witnessed by the decision to ask — and make public — that sale of his jerseys stop until an image/name likeness deal is secured. Talks on such an agreement were ongoing but going public likely accelerated the process.
The Davies brand is carefully cultivated, with his management understandably extremely picky about whom he connects with in the business world.
Davies chooses products close to his heart — he's an avid FIFA gamer and just likes wearing Crocs.
A fan of the movie "Cars," he showed off his Lightning McQueen special-edition Crocs on a social media video in Doha. Montgomery (Lightning) McQueen is the protagonist of the animated Pixar franchise.
His portfolio also include deals with Nike, BMO and BioSteel.
Other teams at the tournament have 26 stars, who all have their own agendas, sponsors and advisers. While Canada has other elite players at top clubs, Davies is by far the team's marquee man.
He has 6.6 million followers on TikTok, 5.1 million on Instagram and 479,300 on Twitter. Not to mention an irrepressible joie de vivre.
On the field he is greased lightning, able to run down opponents and cause havoc among defenders. Health permitting, he is Canada's wild card and a real problem for opponents.
Of course, the decision on whether he plays could simply be made by the medical staff alone. One would hope so. Judging by Davies' expression during that one worrying moment Monday, he looked anything but ready to go.
Switching the competition to November-December, in midseason for most leagues, due to the unforgiving Qatar climate during the summer has increased the odds of players arriving with a knock
Herdman would not be the only coach at the tournament weighing the risk-reward of using a player recovering from injury in the first outing, given the concern that exacerbating the problem by using Davies too soon could mean an even longer absence.
And while Canada is here to compete, the odds of beating Belgium are not high. So is it better to sit Fonzie out and be safe rather than sorry?
Herdman also raised question marks over the health of midfielder Stephen Eustaquio and goalkeeper Milan Borjan. Both were on the training pitch in the part visible to reporters Monday.
Some have suggested it's all gamesmanship on Canada's part? That does not seem Herdman's style.
Or are Davies' comments just a reflection of players want to play, as suggested by someone in the Canada camp?
Perhaps so — especially on the world's biggest stage — but most players also know their bodies and understand that cutting corners can lead to an even longer layoff. And the optics of trumping one's coach hours after his news conference are less than ideal.
Asked Monday how Davies looks, forward Ike Ugbo replied: "Really sharp as normal." And left it at that.
Others offered a slight caveat
On Sunday, forward Jonathan David said Davies' declaration of fitness was "a big boost, because we know how important a player he is for us and what he brings to the team."
Then he added: "So, of course, if he's 100 per cent, we're all happy."
Said veteran midfielder Jonathan Osorio: "He's our star player. He's a very important player for us … We'll see what the medical staff (say) when they examine him along with the coaching staff. In the end they decide, along with Alphonso if he's ready to go."
Herdman, will be front and centre again Tuesday in the pre-game news conference. Davies won't be there, but he will be still be hard to miss.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 21, 2022
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press