Pa-Modou Kah: Reflecting on racism, and advice he gave Alphonso Davies in Vancouver

The past week has been like no other in both Canadian soccer and the broader sporting community.

Beginning on Sunday with Alphonso Davies’ historic UEFA Champions League win with Bayern Munich, and then culminating on Thursday as the Canadian Premier League’s players led a moment of protest against racism, it has not exactly been business as usual.

At the centre of it all was Pacific FC coach Pa-Modou Kah.

Kah has strong ties to Davies, having played with and then coached him at the Vancouver Whitecaps. Davies himself has mentioned Kah by name as one of the mentors that helped him to the heights he’s achieved.

Kah also, in the wake of the Jacob Blake shooting in Wisconsin, used his time on OneSoccer to make a powerful statement, condemning racism and imploring the broader community to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. reached out to Kah on Wednesday morning — the morning after his first professional coaching win, no less — to, ostensibly, hear the coach’s thoughts on his former protégé Davies.

What transpired was a long, poignant discussion between Kah and this reporter, as the Pacific boss reflected on it all and connected football to the global community. What was going through your mind last Sunday when you saw Alphonso winning the Champions League?

Pa-Modou Kah: Obviously first of all, It’s him. I’m so happy to see him win it, because as a kid that came to Canada as a refugee, with his parents, to go on and live his dream, wanting to become a football player, and actually go and achieve the dreams that he wanted. And to see it, really you can’t write a better story than that.

His desire, his resilience, and his character, and the upbringing he got from his family, that is for me the most important thing to see. To see that even though he’s there on that stage, he remains who he is. That’s what makes me proud, because he’s talented. And to be able to go and do it with a great team like Bayern Munich, you know that he’s in good hands. For me still seeing him just being Alphonso Davies, that makes me proud. You spoke on OneSoccer about Alphonso’s background as a refugee, and as a black man, and the element that adds to the story.

Kah: For me I’m honest, because you look where we are in 2020, we’re only waking up to negative news, or all of this stuff. We’ve all forgotten now what it is to be human. For me, being human is about respect for one another, treating each other with equality, because we are all the same. There’s nothing different. But to look at somebody, to look at a race and just make them feel so unworthy, make him feel like we’re worth nothing.

And everybody— I wouldn’t say everybody, but people turning their cheek. It’s nothing new. This is something that has been going on for over 400 years. We’ve been stripped away from our dignity, we’ve been stripped away from everything we have. And still to live right now, and still feel that every little thing you do as a black man, or a black woman, or a black child, you’re gonna be looked at as a black sheep. For any reason.

But when we do something good, like winning something or doing something, now we love. But as soon as maybe Alphonso will do something wrong, he’s not gonna be the Canadian. He’ll turn out to be Alphonso Davies, the refugee from Ghana. He’s not gonna be Alphonso Davies the Canadian boy. You understand what I mean?

For me it’s the bigger picture, and the bigger picture is what are we doing in society right now? We need to be the change. The history that has been written before, it’s not been written by the people that were suppressed. It was written by the people that had the power. So for me, in 2020 where everybody has technology, everybody can truly read about what history has been or what history is, and not read it through the people with power but read and understand it through the people that have been suppressed, that is, for me, the issue. The issue is to understand how I’m feeling as a person, how my people are feeling, because I am in a privileged situation. But not many other black women, black men, black children can wake up with the same privilege I have. They can’t.

Because you have a father who broke up a fight — which is a great thing to do as a human being, you’re breaking up a fight between two people, to create maybe love, compassion — you break up a fight. Police officers follow you to the car, you can see that this guy just wants to leave the scene and maybe go away, because he could sense what could happen. And he has three kids in his car.

He goes in his car and he gets shot seven times. Not once, seven times. They could’ve shot him anywhere in his body, but they decide to shoot him seven times in his back. And people want to say, they’re fearing he’s picking up something. But you have the possibility to shoot him anywhere if you feel he was gonna do something. Why do you have to shoot him seven times, and think that it’s okay? Why do you think that it’s okay to do?

Because that’s what I was talking about (on OneSoccer). Imagine the tables were turned. Imagine a black cop going around shooting white people. Every white person he encounters, he just shoots them. Imagine black people taking white people from their homes, strip them of their dignity, strip them of their names, put them in a ship for months, sail them to Africa, and let them be slaves and work in a cotton field. How would the world react to it? How would the white people react to it? Would they expect people to turn the other cheek?

For me in 2020, and we still have to have these talks, we still have to go through this as a black man. All we’re asking for is equality. It’s really the same respect, is it that much to ask? What makes us so different? White people say, ‘Ah, they’re strangers.’ I’m no stranger to you, Charlie. I’m really not. I’m a human being. For me, a stranger is somebody that’s not from this planet, that we don’t know nothing about. That for me is strange. That’s what strange means to me.

Strange doesn’t mean somebody from India, or Vietnam, or Africa. We’re still human. What we seem to forget as human beings is sometimes you might find somebody that is ten thousand miles away from you, and you talk one time and you have so much in common.

So let me just put it this way: Imagine me, a Gambian-born kid in Africa. James Merriman, born in Vancouver Island. We met for the first time in 2015. Who would’ve imagined that? And now we’re coaching together, a black man and a white man who only have love for football and love for football, and honesty and fairness, who see the game the same way.

For me, let’s educate. Let’s be open to learn from one another, because you may have something that I can learn from, which I would be grateful for. Let’s not listen to what is being said, because you have your brain to think for yourself. That’s what I mean, people see the difference between right and wrong. You know it down in your heart and in your soul, you know it. So why are you being quiet, and thinking, it’s an issue where I cannot raise my voice?

You’re raising your voice and demanding a change for humanity. If you are a human, that’s what you should demand, because you’re gonna look at another race and look at them as your own.

(Pause.) It feels almost silly to be asking football questions now—

Kah: Oh no, no, we can talk about football also, because that is sport. Sports bring people together. Yeah, that’s definitely true.

Kah: You can go anywhere in the world, you drop the ball. It’s 32 panels, and you stitch it, you add some air, anybody can play. That’s why, for me, education. The same people who are cheering for a black man to kick for your team, why wouldn’t you not treat him different in real life? When the game of football shows you respect, shows you love, shows you compassion, shows you togetherness.

Imagine the World Cup, how everybody mingles. Teams, people from different races, all together to celebrate. That’s what sport is about.

Canada's Alphonso Davies celebrates his goal against the United States. (Photo: Martin Bazyl for Canada Soccer).
Canada’s Alphonso Davies celebrates his goal against the United States. (Photo: Martin Bazyl for Canada Soccer). It’s really, more than any other sport, something that brings people together from all over the world, isn’t it?

Kah: Yeah! All over the world, everybody plays football. Everybody can make a little ball out of nothing, to kick a ball. Everybody does that. So if it’s played everywhere, and you can play with everybody, why can’t we live together in a normal society?

Sports is the most powerful thing we have as human beings. And it’s something that we should use to create a change as well. Look just at Alphonso winning a Champions League, how much it meant for the country of Canada. Now everybody’s talking about Alphonso Davies, a Canadian refugee immigrant who won the Champions League.

Because the only other Canadian that had the possibility to win it was Owen Hargreaves, he was the first one in 2007-08. But Alphonso Davies, from Edmonton, raised in Edmonton, is the first ever Canadian to win it. And their family came here with nothing. He fell in love with football, and now he’s the Canadian face of soccer. If that is not inspiring enough for human beings, and to understand what kind of message football can bring to society, then I don’t get it. I did want to ask a bit about your time working with Alphonso in Vancouver. Did you see something special in him back then, or was it the work he put in?

Kah: Alphonso has always been a natural talent, but also natural talents, what do they need? They need a chance. If Carl Robinson didn’t take a chance on Alphonso, as well as trusted me to act like a mentor for him, nobody would know Alphonso Davies. I know a lot of people who like to say, ‘Oh, we did this for Alphonso.’ Alphonso is a natural talent. He needed a platform to show his case, and guidance, and that’s what Carl Robinson provided for him, and he trusted me to do that for Alphonso, knowing that as a black man, playing in Europe, going through some stuff, that might be helpful for Alphonso.

He’s a very bright kid, and he goes out and he performs as well because given a chance, he wanted it badly. And when you want something badly, and you put time in it, and you put effort in it, the outcome will always be well-deserved. So seeing him is not new, because he had it. He got the guidance, and he understood what it is to be professional, and he’s understanding it more and more because now he’s at one of the best clubs in the world. So he can only get better and better.

But without Carl Robinson throwing him, as a 15-year-old, I don’t know. I don’t know if we would ever have heard of Alphonso Davies. So that’s why, me, I always give respect to Carl Robinson because, to do that, it had never been done besides D.C. United playing Freddy Adu at the age of 14 years old. To be thrown in, and year after year just keep on becoming better and better, it’s a remarkable story if you think about where he was four years ago. It’s a remarkable story. And also understanding his background, that’s what I’m proud of. That’s what makes me proud about his story, but also about him.

Because he knows where he came from, and he knows where he’s going. And when you know that as a human being, and with the help of God, everything will be good. So I’m a proud uncle, but I don’t say much to him. He would tell you that I’m more critical to him than I give praise.

CPL players taking a stand for racial equality and social justice. (CPL/Chant Photography)
CPL players taking a stand for racial equality and social justice. (CPL/Chant Photography) He has mentioned you as an influence, though; do you consider yourself to have been one of his mentors?

Kah: I was just there to give advice. For me it’s about helping, and it’s not only Alphonso. I try to help every young kid, but when you see something special, and like I said, as a black man who has been through the trenches, to see him as a young black man, all you want him to do is to understand that he can be an impactful young man, and a player. For me it was more about him as a human being first, because that was the most important thing, to make him understand that when he’s walking around, how he’s going to be perceived as a young black man. What his expectations are, and what other people’s expectations and perceptions are of being a black young man.

I told him, you may get a half a chance, while other people will get chance after chance. And he took it to heart and he did everything he needed to do. And that’s what makes me proud. His talent, and his head is on good shoulders. You don’t coach talent. You just guide them. Anybody has talent, but he put the hard work in, and he’s keeping putting the hard work in.

The most important thing is he’s enjoying himself doing what he loves, and that makes me proud. This approach to guiding young players, I assume it’s something you’ve brought over to your coaching at Pacific; do you talk about it a lot with your young players here?

Kah: For my young players it’s the same, because I don’t care where you’re from. But if we see talent in Pacific, we want to help you grow. We want to develop you as a person, so that when you are in society you can tackle society. And when you’re on the pitch you can tackle the adversity that’s gonna happen to you on the pitch. So we are not just looking for football players, we’re looking to teach and educate people to respect everybody. To come in and work hard for your dreams. To achieve your dreams you need to work hard, you need to do everything in your power for it.

And that’s why we like to have young Canadian players, or young talents from around the world. And also develop our own players from the Island, because the Island has a very rich football history. If you see the past players that have appeared for the Canadian national team, took the Canadian national team to the ’86 World Cup. We as Pacific Football Club want to bring that culture back to the Island. Because there’s a rich football history, and if we can bring it back — we will bring it back, not if — working together with all the clubs from all over the Island, because Pacific is not only for Pacific, it’s for everybody. Pacific is the Island.

So for us to build together as an Island community, helping every young player if we can help the club grow with the rest of the community. That’s what we’re looking for.