Sports Features of 2014-06-06

Afriyie Acquah: From the streets to the World Cup

It is often said that sport in general and football in particular can be used as an agent for social change, and for an unlikely figure set to figure at the 2014 FIFA World Cup™, that is very true. Not too long ago, Afriyie Acquah was living on the streets of Sunyani, a town north-west of Kumasi in Ghana. The youngster was facing a difficult future, when a fateful meeting took place: he was spotted playing football.

Although only 12 at the time, Acquah showed promise that belied his age, and scouts of the Glentoran Academy were excited about his potential. "The academy saw me one day and decided to help me. [Christopher Antoh] praised my talent and soon gave me a chance to travel and train at Glentoran in Belfast [Northern Ireland], where I had the opportunity of training with the senior team," Acquah explains.

Like Acquah, Antoh was a homeless child living on the streets in Ghana and as with Acquah, fate intervened in Antoh's life. He was adopted by a Belfast school teacher and was hence known as Christopher Antoh Forsythe. Antoh loved football, but unlike Acquah, he did not possess as much talent and his involvement with the sport confined itself to being a supporter of Belfast club Glentoran. He returned to Sunyani as an adult and established the Glentoran academy to help other children.

Although Acquah made a huge impression with the Glens, stringent regulations prevented him from being signed, and he returned to Ghana. But far from it being the end of the dream for the shy 15-year-old, it was merely the beginning. "Everything happened so quickly and fast and soon my dream looked to be in sight. At some point, I trained with Bechem United and joined them on tour in Italy where my first contact with Palermo happened. They took me in, gave me opportunities which I took with both hands. Times were hard when I was growing up, but God has been good to me. I told myself the moment to make my dreams count had arrived, and I was unwilling to lose it; not to anyone, not to anything."

Settling down in Serie A The midfielder signed a contract with Palermo and played his first Serie A match in February 2011. He spent two seasons with the Sicilian club before being loaned to Parma. After spending just half a season with Parma, big-spending Bundesliga club Hoffenheim made an offer and the Ghanaian was on the move again. Unlike his time with Palermo and Parma, Acquah struggled in Germany, although he arrived with high hopes. "Moving to Hoffenheim was a very exciting moment for me. I have always dreamed of playing at the highest level and that for me was a step on that journey.

"It was very frustrating for me when I could not lock down playing time. I love to play; football is my passion. When I arrived in Germany, I had the opportunity of playing with the first team only days after my arrival. Soon I was named in the team for that weekend's game. That was very exciting for me but it was short lived because I never had the opportunity to play once in six months. It was difficult to take because I had not come all the way from the streets in Sunyani straight to Italy and then to Germany only to warm the bench."

Unable to break into the first team, Acquah asked for a loan and was allowed to move back to Parma, where he encountered a change of fortune, playing 27 Serie A matches and scoring his first professional goal in Europe. His success in Italy also saw him return back to the Black Stars' fold – having first played for his country in February 2012 in a friendly against Chile. He said that once back with Parma he started dreaming about the World Cup and said that he believed he had done enough to merit a call-up, without taking anything for granted. "Ghana has a lot of good players so I didn't think it was automatic for me to expect a call up.”

But just as scouts from the Glentoran Academy saw something in him all those years ago in Sunyami, Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah also saw something in Acquah and called him up into the squad for the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil. This prompted the 22-year-old to dream a different dream. “Playing at the World Cup will open more doors for me. It is such a big level and after that, one can be sure of attracting interest from bigger clubs. I dream of moving to a big club after the World Cup."

If he manages that, it will be another step in a remarkable journey that has taken the homeless boy from the streets of Sunyani to the biggest stage in world football: the FIFA World Cup.