“I don’t think I would have been here otherwise, to be honest,” admits Jonathan David. The Canada forward was six when his parents emigrated from Haiti to Ottawa to begin a journey that has led to their son becoming one of the world’s most wanted young players.
Before the coronavirus pandemic halted football, David had scored 23 goals in all competitions for the Belgian club Gent this season and was being linked with a summer transfer to the Premier League amid reports that Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham were on the long list of clubs monitoring his rapid progress.
That may have to wait given the disruption, although the 20-year-old has time on his side. David has scored an astonishing 11 goals in 12 appearances for his adopted country in a blistering start to his international career but he will never forget his roots.
“I still have a lot of affection for Haiti because it is where my family is from and that’s where I grew up,” he says. “When I moved to Canada, all I knew was life in Haiti; the culture and the way of living. It wasn’t easy – going somewhere you know really well to the unknown took a bit of time to adapt to. Anywhere you go in the beginning is always difficult. But my parents did it for us to have more security and opportunities. It was a sacrifice they had to make and I’m thankful for that.”
David initially found it hard to fulfil his passion in a country more renowned for producing ice hockey players than footballers. He eventually joined the local youth team Ottawa Gloucester SC at the age of 11 before moving to Ottawa Internationals and was called up for Canada’s youth programme four years later.
“It’s difficult in the winter because of the cold weather which means it can be hard to find somewhere to play. We would sometimes play indoors but the facilities were often being used by other sports. We had a great coach so he found a way for us to train and that was very important for me.”
David was spotted by scouts from Gent during a youth international and moved to Belgium in 2017 but he was restricted to training with the youth team because Fifa rules dictate that non-EU players must be at least 18. After six months that he believes were crucial in helping him to adapt to the style of play, he scored a last-minute equaliser on his league debut and followed that with another four goals in his next four games, ending his first professional season with 12 as Gent finished fifth.
“I am a long way from home and it can be scary because you don’t know what is on the other side,” David says. “But I knew that this was a sacrifice that I need to make if I am going to become a professional player. When I moved here I had to become a man because I was living on my own. I know my family is only one phone call away but I have to find solutions to problems for myself.”
Having signed a contract extension last summer, David’s performances this season had helped Gent to second place before fixtures were postponed. He missed several matches when allowed to return home in December after the unexpected death of his mother, Rose.
“It meant a lot to me,” he says. “It was a difficult situation and I needed the support of people around me. The club knew the best thing for me was to be around my family so they let me take the time that I needed and obviously I’m very grateful for that.”
David repaid them by getting his first senior hat-trick on 23 February before scoring in the first leg of their Europa League last-32 tie against Roma four days later – his fifth goal in the competition – only for Jess Thorup’s side to lose 2-1 on aggregate. The rumour mill went into overdrive but he is trying not to let it go to his head.
“I don’t really focus on that or think much about it. Right now I’m playing almost every minute of every game and that has really helped me get to the level that I need to be. I just need to take a good step where I can make sure I am getting enough time on the pitch to keep developing. I don’t want to go somewhere and just stay on the bench so it’s about taking the right step.
“I want to become one of the best strikers in the world. That’s my goal. The Premier League is the best in the world and most competitive so obviously that is somewhere I would love to play in the future.”
The prospect of helping Canada to qualify for their second World Cup is also high on David’s priority list. Along with Bayern Munich’s exciting left-back Alphonso Davies – born in a refugee camp in Ghana to Liberian parents escaping the civil war in their homeland – he is part of an exciting generation of young players who endured the disappointment of being eliminated by Haiti in the quarter-finals of the Concacaf Gold Cup last year.
David scored the first goal in a 3-2 defeat and insists there are no split loyalties. He also rejected the chance to play for USA, Canada’s fellow 2026 World Cup hosts together with Mexico, having been born in Brooklyn.
“Canada has given me a good life and made me the man I am today. I’m grateful for that and now it is really about giving back to the country which gave to me. That’s why for me it was a no-brainer picking Canada and really trying to do something special with the group we have now and put the country where it needs to be.
“For all of us the target is the World Cup in 2022, which I think we have a great chance of qualifying for. It would be amazing to play on home soil in 2026 but we know that is in the future.”