Winning Player of the Match and scoring a hat-trick on your World Cup debut with a stadium full of fans singing and cheering your name? Many footballers spend their entire career dreaming about this kind of thing ? but few get to live it.
Mukarama Abdulai has been able to achieve both. At the Under-17 Women’s World Cup in Uruguay in November last year, she gained a place in football folklore where only the select get their names etched.
“It was a special feeling to score a hat-trick and [win] Player of the Match award on my World Cup debut,” Mukarama’s pinned tweet said the day after her special showing. “Amazing team performance. Always proud of my girls.”
It said everything about what the moment meant for her. She had achieved a childhood dream, she was on a cusp of becoming a household name and she had put the international scouts on red alert.
“Tough but good”
“The U17 Women’s World Cup was my first tournament, so I hold it in high esteem,” she told me in an exclusive interview.
“I hold it deeply in my heart. The experience was nice. It was a chance to meet different people and also play against different countries. It was tough but good for me.”
Representing your country is a big deal for most footballers and even more so at the youth level, where winning is not the most important thing. It creates a different atmosphere, a different level of fun and camaraderie.
Youth tournaments are usually seen as a watershed – a rite of passage in the sport, a turning point for many of these young footballers, focusing mainly on development.
For Mukarama, though, it was more than that. It was a chance for her to make a name for herself.
“It was also a place where I showed many people that I could play,” she said.
Rough walk to stardom
Many young African girls start off in football without a role model; there is really no one to look up to. But for Mukarama it was different. Up in the North, where she is from, players such as Memunatu Sulemana, Yaa Avoe and Adjoa Bayor had blazed a trail in 2003 when they became the first set ever to represent Ghana at a World Cup.
The men tried several times and failed, but then the women, led by Alberta Sackey, made that long-overdue appearance. Abdulai, too, captained a Ghana side at the World Cup, an experience she describes as one of the best in her life.
She has a photo, stuck in a scrapbook she occasionally looks at, of herself walking out the team through the tunnel.
Yet the path to that point was bumpy. “The journey has not been so easy for her,” said her first coach, Sumani Basirudeen. “We have engaged her a lot in so many activities, and we thank God for where she is now.”
The last of eight children, Abdulai grew up in Zogbeli, a suburb of Tamale. The neighbourhood, about a kilometre west of the city’s central business district, houses over 2,000 residents.
It’s a boisterous area, with crowds of children playing together ? a vibrant suburb with many fields where kids kick about anything they can find. From coconut husks to bottle caps to balls made of rubber, they can play with anything. It was here that Mukarama’s love for the sport grew.
“She used to sell pure water on the streets of Zogbeli but it was not something she really liked to do,” Basirudeen recounts. “All she wanted to do was to play the game, so she would normally put the water down somewhere and go play with the boys.”
Abdulai’s beginnings are a far cry from where she is now. She was scouted for the Northern Ladies as a youngsterm while playing on dusty pitches in Tamalem by Evans Adotey, the Black Maidens’ head coach. He instantly liked how she played and her demeanour, and roped her into the national team. Now, she holds the golden boot from the U17 Women’s World Cup and the bronze ball as well (for being the third best player in the tournament), and also picked up honours for Rising Star and top women’s footballer in Ghana at the just-ended Ghana Football Awards.
“I always see it to be something I have worked for, and it motivates me to work harder. I know I can win more and I am working at it to achieve more.”
Dreams of going pro
Her insatiable desire to be better than she is now is what many champions are made of. Mukarama says it is a trait she got from her upbringing and family.
Being the last of eight, she has taken a long, hard look at the courses her siblings have charted and is determined not to make any mistakes they might have made while growing up.
“My family is a good one,” she says. “I cannot measure the amount of love I have for them. “I just know they will always be behind me and that gives me a lot of comfort.”
Mukarama is back in Tamale, where she is still in training with her parent club, Northern Ladies. She dreams each day of professional football in Europe: playing under the bright lights, in the cold, and showing a bigger fanbase her skills ? like her role model, the Nigerian star Asisat Oshoala, does for FC Barcelona Femení.
“Whenever Asisat is playing I try to watch. I like how she plays because she plays in the same position as I do and I want to look at the new things she would do so I can try in training.”
Pool the talent
Ghana, once a powerhouse in women’s football, has seen her place taken by countries such as Angola, Equatorial Guinea and South Africa. In November 2018, Mukarama painfully watched from home as the Black Queens hosted the Africa Women’s Cup of Nations, played abysmally and exited in the group stages.
A chunk of the blame was laid at the doorstep of coach Bashir Hayford. But really, what have we done as a nation to improve the state of the women’s game in our country? Are we taking it as seriously as men’s football? Is the payment structure for winning games in order?
There are many questions. It is Mukarama’s dream that all of this will change. She hopes that one day she will wear red, gold and green as a senior player and end the country’s many near-misses at becoming African champions of the women’s game.
“I feel sad about the state of women’s football in Ghana and I hope it improves so that people can know that there’s a wealth of talent here,” she says.
She has earned many admirers for her panache and technical skill in scoring goals, but the journey has had its ups and downs ? a journey that began in Tamale, took her to Uruguay and a journey that looks so promising. With her, Priscilla Adubea, Millot Pokuaa and Sandra Owusu Ansah, it is safe to say that the future of our women’s game looks propitious.