A Ghana-born foursome leads the defensive charge as Columbus Crew SC kicks off the 2017 season
In a recent series of phone interviews, the Ghanaian contingent of the Columbus Crew SC revealed a habit of describing distances within their homeland in terms of driving hours from the capitol city of Accra.
Incoming center back Jonathan Mensah was born in Accra but grew up in the mining town of Obuasi, which he said rested a “four-hour drive from the capital.” Similarly, Mohammed Abu, a fellow defender and another recent addition to the team, noted he grew up in the northern part of Ghana, “a six- or seven-hour drive from the capital,” and later trained at a prestigious soccer academy “just an hour drive” from Accra.
Mensah and Abu, along with fellow Ghana natives Harrison Afful and Lalas Abubakar, are now teammates in Columbus, a city located roughly 5,586 miles from Accra, or a waterlogged 86 hours by car.
But even this distance hasn't stopped the four defenders from injecting the Crew SC with a spirit for the game that they've seemingly carried in their bones from birth, nurtured by a nation where football is life.
“Everyone in Ghana loves football. It's the number one sport; people love it so much,” said Mensah, 26, who got his professional start as a teenager training alongside a team sponsored by his father's mining company and most recently played with Anzhi Makhachkala in the Russian Premier League. “I couldn't stop playing soccer every day, unless I'm hungry, then I'd have to run to my mom and say, ‘Mom, I'm hungry now,' and afterward we would go back to playing again.”
Abu, 25, a defensive midfielder signed this past offseason through the discovery process, which allows Major League Soccer (MLS) teams to scout and sign players who are not yet under MLS contract, comes to Columbus from Norway's top league, where he played for Stromsgodset. Like Mensah, Abu started playing soccer as a young child, leaving his family at 11 or 12 years old in order to attend the Right to Dream Academy, an African football academy founded in 1999 and designed to create opportunities for talented West Africans to escape their impoverished roots.
“I had to leave my family, and then you stay there and go to school,” Abu said. “The academy makes sure you are OK and eating and sleeping good, so all you have to do is train and go to school. I started to notice, if I give up everything, something good can happen for me and my family. I was very lucky, because some good players over in Ghana don't get the opportunity.”
Both Abu and defender Harrison Afful expressed a strong desire to create similar opportunities for their countrymen both now and in the future once their playing days are done. “I've been in that [situation] before, and I know how it feels like to not have a chance,” Abu said.
He also knows what it's like to bounce back from professional failure, having endured one unsuccessful training camp with Manchester City before signing with the English club in 2010. “I went there and I had my difficult time, blah, blah, blah, and then my boss told me, ‘It's time to give the opportunity to a different person,'” said Abu, who utilizes “blah, blah, blah” in conversation in much the same way the “Seinfeld” cast deployed “yada, yada, yada.” “At that time, I was like, ‘Wow, what's going to happen to me next?' But I kept waking [up] and then another opportunity came and they gave it to me.”
Meanwhile, Afful, 30, now entering his third season with the Crew SC, was named the MLS ambassador to Ghana after meeting with US ambassador Robert Jackson at the embassy in Accra earlier this year, and he said he looks forward to taking on a more active role in his homeland.
“It's all about helping kids through soccer,” said Afful of a planned social program. “Even though I had a scholarship through soccer, not everybody will get that opportunity. … I want to help the young ones out there who are the future, who are the talent. I will always be available for them.”
Growing up, Afful, who also plays alongside Mensah on the Ghanaian national team, embraced soccer solely for the fun of the game — “We didn't even know there was money involved,” he said, and laughed — an attitude that has shifted slightly through the years as the sport has evolved from child's play into a professional career.
“Soccer puts food on my table, and I can help my family through soccer,” he continued. “Now it's my job, so I'm always focused. I'm always determined.”
But while some pressures have increased on the players — the spotlight on any professional athlete can't be underestimated — certain concerns have lessened.
Take safety, for one. Afful played professionally in the North African country of Tunisia for six years and said, “In terms of security, [Tunisia] is very dangerous.”
Life in MLS also offers the players increased financial security and access to top-notch equipment and facilities, all of which, at times, could be an open question growing up in the West African nation.
“Ghana is not like here. There's a lot of difficulties,” Abu said. “Sometimes to even get a football to kick is difficult. And sometimes you have to help your family before you [play]. It was a difficult situation, but my family was so supportive and I was able to come out of it.”
Now united in Columbus, Abu, Afful and Mensah, along with the No. 5 pick from the January MLS SuperDraft, 22-year-old defender (and fellow Ghanaian) Lalas Abubakar, hope the chemistry already on display off the field will start to reveal itself in the team's play once the Crew SC kicks off a new regular season with a home game against the Chicago Fire on Saturday, March 4.
“It's really good and very fun to have Ghanaians around. It makes me more comfortable,” Abu said. “Most of the time we are together, having fun and training and speaking our language. It feels like a more comfortable place. You feel like home because the people around you understand you more.”
“For me, I'm just happy seeing my countrymen here. They're my brothers,” Afful said. “I think we all want to work hard [and] fight hard to help the club achieve big things. It was a good choice for us to be here together.”