Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 2 October 2014

Glentoran, Ghana - and now Brazil: Afriyie Acquah's journey from Oval to the World Cup

Changed times: Afriyie Acquah in his Glentoran days with the Irish League club’s former under-15 captain Conor McGrattan
Changed times: Afriyie Acquah in his Glentoran days with the Irish League club’s former under-15 captain Conor McGrattan
Education: Parma's Afriyie Acquah has cherished memories of his time spent at the Glentoran Academy in his home country Ghana

"We did it" – three simple words from Afriyie Acquah to Sam Robinson, board member of the Glentoran Community Trust, that confirmed another significant step in a remarkable journey.

When Ghana wrestle with Germany, Portugal and the USA in World Cup Group G in Brazil next month, the Black Stars can rely on passionate support from Glentoran fans.

It's a daunting challenge ahead for Afriyie but the Glens have given the 22-year-old the belief that he can live the dream and achieve more than he ever could have imagined.

The Irish League is often ridiculed but this heart-warming fairytale underlines how the beautiful game can transform young lives.

Afriyie now plays for Italian Serie A side Parma, where he is on loan from German club Hoffenheim, but it was Glentoran who fuelled his teenage dreams.

Even though he has now reached football's biggest stage after being named in Ghana's preliminary 26-man World Cup squad, the midfielder will never forget his education at the Glentoran Academy in Sunyani where he was born and raised.

Living on the streets and dreaming of a better life, the Glens laid out that path for him. The Glentoran Academy was established by Christopher Antoh Forsythe, a homeless boy from Ghana adopted by a Belfast school teacher, who developed a love for the Glens.

He later returned to the Ghanaian city of Sunyani to establish the academy to help street children.

The Glentoran Community Trust agreed to help by paying food bills, sponsoring 100 kids, providing kits and paying rent.

Afriyie was sponsored by a Glens fan in Belfast who is half-Italian – so naturally he ended up at Palermo.

Glentoran's financial woes prevented the club from maintaining it's commitment to the Academy and it is now run by a British agency called Sillsport though Mr Forsythe, who moved to England, still backs the project that aims to nurture the best African talent in preparation for a move to Europe.

Afriyie came to Belfast in November, 2007 as a shy 15-year-old and he spoke little English but a bond was established with the club – and Sam Robinson – that remains as strong as ever. Robinson welcomed the new arrival into his family home and the relationship became so close Sam considered adopting the teenager he and his sons adored.

Afriyie sprayed passes around the Oval pitch with a huge smile on his face and that smile returned yesterday when the Ghana World Cup squad was announced.

"The Glentoran supporters love him," said Robinson.

"He has attended supporters' club functions and he once told how he cried himself to sleep one night he was so grateful for all the help we have given him.

"I'm absolutely thrilled for the boy and he has had a great season at Parma so he deserves it.

"It's a fairytale story for him to get this far in the game.

"He sent me messages saying 'we did it' and I would keep in contact with him through Skype. He's a very driven boy and I'm just delighted for him.

"He has a girlfriend now, he is focused on his football and enjoying life.

"I went to Italy in January to watch him play for Parma against Chievo and the World Cup was the sole thing on his mind."

Afriyie will no doubt be sharing his wonderful memories of Belfast with comrades wherever his career takes him.

"He calls me the Godfather," added Robinson.

"My kids love him but communication was difficult as he spoke little English. Adoption did cross my mind but it would have been a very complicated process.

"We brought him back to Belfast to train with the Glentoran senior team in 2007 and he loved the experience but it was a substantial commitment to bring the kid over.

"But all he wanted to do was go to the Oval and knock a ball around."

Sadly, financial problems closer to home forced the Glentoran Community Trust to devote most of its energies into keeping the east-Belfast club afloat but the legacy of their work at the Academy lives on.

"The Academy was a big cash commitment we could not sustain at a time when Glentoran were suffering serious financial difficulty," said Carryduff man Robinson, a Glens fan for 40 years.

"It was a case of charity beginning at home and it was the right time to leave the Academy in good hands. The Irish League gets a bad press at times but fairytale stories like this just make you smile.

"The Academy was set up as a humanitarian project and we never had high aspirations it would produce significant footballing results."

Milan's Michael Essien is also included in the Ghana squad after being selected for his second World Cup. Injury ruled him out of the 2010 tournament.

Robinson added: "The BBC did an article on Afriyie and quoted Michael Essien.

"He phoned me and asked 'Did Michael really say that?' He's just a humble boy who is proud of everything he has achieved."

Afriyie has indicated he hopes to return to Belfast to embark on a new chapter in his life after football – or maybe even before he hangs up his well travelled boots.

"At the end of his career Afriyie will be in a Glentoran jersey," added Robinson.

"Maybe we'll see that happen when he's about 37.

"This is a great story for local kids who start off in life with a lot more than what Afriyie had. Drive, determination and talent has got him this far, all the way to the World Cup."

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