Belfast Telegraph

Italian giants Juventus vie for signature of Ghanaian star who started his career at Glentoran

By Michael Sheils McNamee

It could be one of the most remarkable journeys in sport - from the streets of east Belfast to the hallowed turf of an Italian football giant.

And one footballer may be about to complete that incredible step.

Afriyie Acquah (25), a Ghanaian who learnt his trade at Glentoran, has been linked with a multi-million pound transfer to Juventus.

When the 15-year-old arrived in Northern Ireland in 2007 from Africa as part of the Glens' academy programme, it was his first taste of European football.

Now he is a reported transfer target for one of Europe's most famous clubs.

"As Glentoran supporters, we were asked to contribute £20 for sponsorship, and as it happens I got Acquah," explained Gavin Campbell, remembering the circumstances that brought one of the summer's hottest footballing properties to The Oval.

"It's a strange thing I was picked out of the hat to sponsor him.

"I remember buying him shin pads and a few other bits and bobs. He was like a rabbit in the headlights. Everybody wanted to see this kid who came over from Ghana."

Much to the delight of the half-Italian Campbell, the player has gone on to have a fine career in Italy.

The Torino star has played in a World Cup and two African Cup of Nations, and now reportedly has the Turin giants and Newcastle United vying for his multi-million pound signature.

However, he hasn't forgotten the place where he started out.

"My wee girl Francesca was diagnosed with leukaemia on August 23 last year. After that he sent videos, his Torino shirt, tracksuits and other gifts. He kept in touch and asked how she was. Just those little things like that," Mr Campbell added.

"We sat in the hospital in Bristol watching every game in the African Cup of Nations. She was there telling the nurses: 'That's my friend, he sends me videos!' For a 10-year-old girl from Carryduff who isn't that interested in football, it is something. If he's playing she'll sit and watch it with her brothers."

The man who looked after Afriyie when he arrived in Northern Ireland is Sam Robinson, the vice-chair of the Glentoran Community Trust.

Back in 2007 he found himself on the phone with tribal chiefs in Ghana trying to rent land as part of the sponsorship programme.

"It's a bit strange when you're sitting in east Belfast and you're trying to deal with the Ashanti tribe in Ghana," he said, remembering the incredible circumstances that brought Acquah to Glentoran.

The scheme was originally set up by Christopher Antoh Forsythe, a child from Ghana who was adopted by a Northern Ireland school teacher and developed an affinity for Glentoran.

Forsythe returned to his country of birth as an adult and was keen to get the east Belfast club involved in the sponsorship scheme.

As part of the programme, the Glentoran Community Trust helped by paying food bills, rent, sending out kits and sponsoring 100 children from the Ghanaian city of Sunyani to travel to Northern Ireland.

Mr Robinson still clearly remembers the first night he saw Afriyie play. He said: "Anyone who was there can recollect it, we pitched him in with the Glentoran first team. Billy Spence - who was the scout at the time - just turned around to me and said that he was the brightest star we'd ever seen in the Glentoran colours.

"Not a flash player, just every pass counted, he was thinking about every move."

Part of Afriyie's current success, Mr Robinson believes, might be down to some of our culinary delights.

"There's a lovely story, he had never tasted ice cream. So we took him to the Elk Inn in Dundonald and fed him chicken, chips and ice cream almost every evening.

"So we like to think that might have helped develop his constitution a bit."

The two remain in regular contact, and Robinson said that he has "always considered him like an adopted son".

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