For Canada's Jonathan David, heroics-filled run with Lille is just the beginning

Lille's Jonathan David in action during the Europa League Group H soccer match between Lille and Celtic Glasgow. (Michel Spingler/AP)

Canada’s Jonathan David enters the 2021-22 season with sky-high expectations and a prime opportunity to steal the spotlight on soccer’s biggest stages.

The 21-year-old has already shown he has the grit and resilience to shine in the toughest moments, proving himself to be a giant killer in the French league last season.

In his first season wearing Lille OSC’s red, white and blue, the Ottawa-raised striker played a crucial role in dethroning the perennial Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain – a team with roughly eight times Lille’s payroll.

Only a month after winning Ligue 1, he was sporting the maple leaf alongside Alphonso Davies, propelling Canada’s men’s national team into the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying for the first time in 24 years.

Now it’s up to the quiet, confident, hardworking young talent to build on those accomplishments at the pinnacle of his sport -- in the upcoming UEFA Champions League campaign and the next round of World Cup qualifiers.

David says he knows what he needs to do:

“I am well aware that scoring and assisting goals will be key, and I look forward to scoring more than I did last season.”

Big challenges lie ahead, but if David’s past season has shown anything, it’s that he’s up to the task.

A heroic season

With stakes at an all-time high and odds stacked against him, David produced the defining moment of Lille’s season.

On Apr. 3, the North of France club entered PSG’s home grounds for a crucial match with both teams tied atop the table with eight games remaining. But to solidify a genuine chance at becoming title usurpers, Les Dogues would have to pull off the near-unthinkable and defeat the Parisian juggernaut at Parc des Princes for the first time in 25 years.

In the 17th minute, David suffered a devastating tackle from PSG midfielder Idrissa Gueye but carried on, determined to make his stamp on the match before being subbed off.

“After the tackle, I tried to continue,” said the 21-year-old over email. “It was a massive game, and I didn’t want to go off.”

Three minutes later, while hobbling on one leg, David buried the eventual game-winner in a 1-0 victory to put the pipe dream of a league title within reach. He was substituted 15 minutes later, unable to stay on the pitch, and required two weeks to recover from his injury.

Stéphane Carpentier, a Lille beat reporter for French outlet La Voix du Nord, recalls seeing David’s bruised and bandaged ankle following the match, and still wonders how he held out for several minutes and managed to score.

“That day David became kind of a hero here in the North,” said Carpentier in French.

“There is still this culture in Lille, where people like warriors on the pitch,” continued Carpentier, “that day, Jonathan David really sparked an admiration because to stay on the pitch playing on one leg and succeed in scoring a goal, you have to show more than technical strength, you have to show pretty incredible mental strength.

“It was one of the great moments of the season, that's clear.”

An imperfect start and early struggles

Lille's Jonathan David reacts during a French League One soccer match between Lille and Strasbourg. (Michel Spingler/AP)

David arrived at Lille before the 2020-21 season on a club-record €27 million transfer after two strong seasons with KAA Gent of the Belgian league. Though David says he didn’t let the expectations that come with that price tag bother him, his start to the season caused concern – he scored just twice in his first 25 appearances.

A few factors were at play. The pressure, of course, but David also hadn’t been on the pitch in several months after the pandemic derailed his final season in Belgium. By the time he got to France, he was out of shape and didn’t have enough time to adapt to the higher level of play.

“At the beginning, I wondered why they put €27 million on this player,” said Carpentier. “I was afraid it was a casting error, to be honest, and I was not alone.”

But his effort never wavered, and manager Christophe Galtier remained confident in his young striker.

Although David was snake-bitten to the point that he struggled with the most straightforward goal-scoring chances, he contributed to winning in all other areas of the match and energized the team with his high work rate.

“I just tried to keep my focus and commitment,” said David. “I told myself to just keep working and my time would come.”

He began building momentum after the Christmas break and bailed out the team with late-game heroics on numerous occasions.

“He always managed to be in the right place at the right time to take the thorn out of the team’s side,” said Carpentier.

So when Lille entered the final game of the season versus Angers needing to win as PSG trailed just one point behind, David was poised to step up once again. He says his ability to maintain focus and manage his emotions is why he thrives in these heightened moments.

“There were nerves, of course,” said David. “It felt like not winning would have meant an entire season gone to waste. I didn’t really go in visualizing that I would score, but I was ready if any chance came my way.”

His knack for staying cool, calm and collected in high-pressure moments has inspired Canadian men’s coach John Herdman to label David the “Iceman.” David continued building on that reputation by opening the scoring and drawing a penalty in Lille’s 2-1 victory to clinch the league title.

By season’s end, the striker had scored 13 league goals, the highest single-season total by a Canadian international in one of Europe’s top five leagues.

An opportunity to shine on the biggest stage

Lille's Jonathan David, left, celebrates with team mates after scoring his side's opening goal during a French League One Soccer match between Rennes and Lille. (David Vincent/AP)

So what does this season hold for David? A chance to truly become a household name.

Despite his recent exploits, David has yet to receive anywhere near the same level of recognition in Canada as Bayern Munich superstar and countryman Davies.

The fact Davies came up through Major League Soccer while David went straight to Europe might have something to do with it, but Davies has also played in (and won) the Champions League – the biggest stage in European club soccer.

As champions of France, Lille will play in the Champions League this season, and though they can’t compare themselves to the German giants, David isn’t selling his expectations short.

His goal is to advance into the Champions League knockout rounds and repeat as Ligue 1 title winners this season, knowing he'll have to be even better than last season.

The fans expect more goals from David, according to Carpentier, who adds that Lille’s former president Gerard Lopez projects a 25-goal season from David.

Reaching those goals will be a significant challenge as David is goalless, and Lille has two draws and one loss to show for three games into its Ligue 1 campaign.

Galtier and sporting director Luis Campos, who recruited David, are also no longer with the club.

That’s not the only thing that’s changed. PSG has suddenly added perhaps the greatest player to walk the earth in Lionel Messi, along with Spanish legend Sergio Ramos and World Cup-winning goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, as if the squad wasn’t already overpowered with talent.

Rumours of David being on the move are circulating as well. The striker has drawn interest from Arsenal and Liverpool in the past, and Carpentier says Lille might sell him if they receive an extraordinary offer, especially due to well-reported financial difficulties facing Ligue 1 soccer at the moment. But he says that offer is more likely to come next off-season if David continues his current development path.

Quest for Canadian soccer history

David will undoubtedly be one of the first names on the team sheet when Canada enters the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying “Octagonal” final stage, which begins Sept. 2 and runs through March 2022, especially after pouring in performances like this to help get them this far.

Though reaching the “Octo” is a tremendous achievement in and of itself, David and the Canadian team are aiming higher, hoping to qualify for Canada’s second men’s FIFA World Cup berth ever.

With David and Davies playing among Europe’s best and a plethora of young talent bound to follow in their footsteps, including Club Brugge’s recent record signing Tajon Buchanan, Canada is entering a golden generation for men’s soccer.

Many expect that will bode well for the 2026 World Cup on home soil, but David feels confident that he, Davies and the rest of Canada’s squad can bring Canadian soccer to new heights as soon as 2022.

“We are there to perform in order to bring our country to the next level of world football, not only myself and Alphonso but the whole team,” he said. “We have fantastic chemistry, everyone is very focused on the main goal, and that is Qatar 2022.

“We feel like we owe it to our people … and we will do everything possible to achieve that goal.”

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