Note: This piece first appeared on Allsports.com.gh, which is now Pulse Sports, on the 21st of November, 2013.
LIBYA QUARTERS, Accra – The retreating Sun spreads a beautiful scene across the clouds above Zurak Park as youngsters from as little as nine years of age upwards train passionately, every kick of the ball splashing the sand beneath and filling the atmosphere with dust as thick as their resilience to still carry on playing despite its potential harm.
Colts football – as Ghanaian grassroots football is termed – has long been considered a system that has lost its relevance and vibrancy in an ever changing footballing system. Though its fruits are ultimately enjoyed at the higher most echelons, it has been woefully starved of attention and support. All this notwithstanding, there are some people who still believe colts is the gospel that it really should be.
The grass-less, fenced Zurak Park – named after Alhaji Zurak, a prominent football administrator — is home to Top Ten Football Academy, a 20-year-old community football club inside Libya Quarters; a Zongo-like settlement just behind North Legon in Accra. This very team and this very field have changed the lives of many young footballers.
It is here that talents have been strategically spotted and systematically developed for the world market. Young boys whose families could barely afford three square meals have been developed here and turned into rich bread winners playing for clubs in Europe.
Yusif Raman Chibsah, who plays for US Sassuolo in Italy is one of such boys. He made his senior Ghana National team debut against Japan in a 3-1 friendly loss in Yokohama in September, aged 20.
“Oh Chibsah, my boy!” Mohammed Nurudeen, affectionately known as ‘Pounds’ – the coach of the Academy – cries out with a beam that tells a story on its own, the story of a proud man, as he sits down for an interview.
Pounds is a slim, middle aged man, a former footballer whose failure to make it to the highest level has motivated him to dedicate his life to grooming youngsters. “Chibsah is making all of us proud. I still remember him, right here, on this very pitch,” he adds, staring at the dusty pitch in nostalgia. “I always knew he’d make it, because his mind was big for his age. Maturity showed in his game-play very early in his development. He was so hard working. He never complained when most others did. God should bless that boy.”
Chibsah’s story has been an inspiration for most of the boys at Top Ten. “I don’t think there’s anyone here that doesn’t like him,” Emmanuel “Aduri Jay” Matti, a prominent u17 player, says. “He’s been through a lot. A lot. He used to live in a very, very small structure with his parents and siblings right down this path. Football has done a lot for him. He recently got his parents a fully-furnished apartment, I heard. They deserve. He deserves it.”
Everyone wants in on the fairy tale too; to make it out of the slums like Chibsah has done. Every day, when they gather to undergo energy sapping training sessions, their will to endure is fueled by the dream that a life in Europe as a financially well-to-do footballer at the very least is achievable. “We all dream of that. It’s difficult cos very few people will make it. If you don’t meet the right people and get favours, it’ll never happen,” Matti adds, rather gloomily.
Nothing coming back
Chibsah is not alumini of Top Ten living the dream, there’ve been others. Abass Alhassan, a highly rated youth player at Chibsah’s club, Sassuolo, also used to strut his stuff at the park too.
Then there’s the duo Mohammed Kasola and Razak Mohammed, 27-year-olds who have both naturalized for the Qatar national team after years of playing in the Qatari top flight. Both, defender and striker respectively, have notched up 48 caps between them for the 2022 World Cup hosts, with seven international goals in between.
Razak, who has been prolific at club level over the years, is the younger brother of Anas Mohammed, formerly of Asante Kotoko and who was one of the first footballers who player for Top Ten. “He was a goalkeeper,” Pounds reveals of Razak. “I used four months to turn him into a striker. And it makes me proud.”
In March 2010, Kasola made his debut for the Qatari National team, the Al Annabi, with Razak making his a year later. “Seeing them play for Qatar, though not ideal obviously, was one of my proudest moments. I had so many [phone] calls, ‘Pounds, your boys are playing for Qatar!.’ It was something else,” Pounds says proudly of his Qatari based players, who are raking in millions of euros, very little of which have found their way back to Top Ten.
“It’s sad,” says Pounds, summarizing a painful feeling that hovers around his thoughts daily, threatening to suck the kindness out of his heart. “We’ve had players buy balls and bibs, stuff like that for the various categories. But a significant expression of appreciation to me for all I’ve done? All the sacrifice? No, not at all. But I know it’ll come one day, because I believe. So far as more players are coming through. Besides, some might be thinking of doing something like that, but maybe it hasn’t materialized yet. Maybe they’re waiting. I always pray for myself and pray for them. I don’t like to complain too much. ”
That’s of course, trying to be diplomatic. Pounds is really hurt by the lack of appreciation, his unfair, ironical reward for close to 20 years of selfless dedication to build the future of most of his boys. Even though he has won countless trophies across all categories, churning out some really good players in the process, his labours don’t seem to have materialized to effect change in his standard of living. The hurt is visible.
“I have a quarter plot [of land] on which I’ve always planned to come up with just a single room structure,” he says, emphasizing ‘single’ by raising his right index finger, sadness in his eyes. “Just so I can finally, finally stop paying rent and have a small place to call my own. But man, I haven’t been able to do so all these years. I have single-handedly funded under 10, under 12, 15 17 up to the senior team, and nobody, nobody helps out. Boots, jerseys, transportation, even food sometimes. It’s hard. My family always complain ‘you’ve been in this business for years and we aren’t seeing anything!’I’ve sacrificed for so many people and most of the time all I’ve got is betrayal.”
“But we’re still in it, and we’re hoping,” Pounds, who still proudly rides a bicycle, adds, nodding. “We know that hopefully one day, one player will come through and help out. I remember a year before Chibsah left for Italy, a move to Qatar had fell through and it crushed him. He cried. I remember jokingly telling him. ‘Chibsah, I know if I had nine cars you’d add one to it to make ten. That if I had 99, you’d make it 100.’ He laughed. I know that thing is still in his mind.”
Pounds’ tone changes when the topic shifts to another one of his famous products, Inter Milan’s Joseph Alfred Duncan. Affectionately referred to by his local name Ato, Duncan was part of the bronze-winning Ghana Under 20 team at the World Cup in Turkey earlier this year as a high profile member, and is now playing on loan at Livorno, though he’s already represented Inter at senior level.
“Hmmm,” he begins, in an effort to be tactful. But he lets go in the end. “He was my captain, for the u17s. He won the league with us and later, he told me he was going for a justifier, so I released him. Later, he said they were camping and the people there wanted to help them travel and all that, and I was like ‘oh, don’t worry.’ I was even calling him for league games as and when, like he did when he was in boarding school. I was told if he’d be picked, the people would come and negotiate. Then it all happened. I had travelled to Wa and upon my return, he was gone,” Pounds becomes silent, looking away.
“I was confused. He’s gone to Italy? How? But at least, I should have been given a notice or something?! I was like, no, no, no no no. This shouldn’t be like this. I can tell you, up till today, I still don’t understand. People are fighting over his monies, whilst we, the owners of the player, are just here. All we’re asking is a little to help us push the rest of the boys here. But we have taken thankfully taken measures to get what’s due us, which is in the pipeline.”
There’s more to the Duncan saga. On his official profile, there’s not a single trace of Top Ten Academy. Pounds believes it’s a grand conspiracy to deny the club of the mandatory, FIFA sanctioned solidarity payments when he’s transferred. The Solidarity payment is a rule that stipulates that if a professional player transfers to another club during the course of a contract, 5% of any transfer fee, not including training compensation paid to his former club, shall be deducted from the total amount of this compensation and distributed by the new club as a solidarity contribution to the club(s) involved in his training and education – from his 12th to 23rd birthday -- over the years.
Conspiracy? By who? Apparently, it’s a common practice within grassroots football. Faceless agents manipulate records of players to deny the people who groomed them their share of the financial bounty that the players’ transfers generate. These scheming agents, who weave their way deceitfully via connections with power players on the Ghanaian football terrain, hog all the cash; a classic case of ‘monkey dey work, baboon dey chop.’
Pounds says he’s been through that many times previously, but he and Top Ten were too personally involved with Duncan’s development to just let go.
“These people hijack the players from us and turn them against us. Ato [Pounds refers to Duncan by his alternative local name] once granted an interview where he was asked where he was discovered, and all he could say was; 'they picked me from school',” Pounds says, a contagious feeling of disappointment helplessly discernible from his speech. “When I was told, I was like are you sure?! How?”
“I remember thinking; This boy has been very ungrateful. At least, raise the image of where you started from; it’s only right. Even if you won’t give us anything, to recommend or endorse us is even better. What he did meant we’re nothing. That all that we’re doing amounts to zero.” At this point, his eyes seem like they are preparing to be welled up with tears, but he keeps his cool amidst the outburst.
Denying the past
Joseph Duncan (first from right), from his Top Ten Academy days. There’s no record of this on his profile, sadly.
“Now, I have to say this,” Pounds pulls himself together. “I want the media and everyone to know this. This is bad! People go to the FA to clear people’s records so they can sell and benefit selfishly. That is enslaving. It’s bad! It means people are being made to look like fools amidst their labour. Look at the number of these kids we took from the streets! We try to give them guidance and training. Nobody pays us. And when it’s time to get rewards for our efforts? Nothing. If it were you, how would you feel? How would you? The people need to be brought to book, if not, very soon Ghana will lose a lot. Because most of these players will be made to look like say Italians or Germans when they lived and played here.
“Let me tell you something else; you see Chibsah? His youth career section reads Bechem United. He has never played for the club before, as far as I know. It’s the work of the same people. People working with other powerful people within the FA. There should be processes where time is given publicly for people to lodge complaints about players and ownership during international transfers. Otherwise, this kuluulu (underhand dealings) will continue.
Duncan’s denial of his past – whether done under blackmail, influence or duress – has not hurt only Pounds. Many other boys in the team are disappointed with how everything has turned out. Some are even disappointed for different reasons; according to them, that sort of behavior is not beyond Duncan, who they opine has been greatly influenced negatively by all the money and fame. “Ei Duncan,” one player, who prefers to remain anonymous, exclaims as he shakes his head in disbelief.
“It’s hard to understand. It’s hard. He doesn’t even come to say hi when he comes around. Last time, we saw him in the area when he’d come for the vacation. Can you believe he just walked past us? Not even a wave. Last, I called him and he told me not to call him again. I thought he was joking so I whatsapped him just to be sure and he went like; ‘is it English you don’t understand?’ My jaw dropped. I just couldn’t believe it.”
“He’s changed. He doesn’t seem to be as humble or respectful anymore. There’s been rumours that it’s his friends who in a bid to win him over and enjoy some of his cash have turned him against all of us. Others also say his father is putting things in his head. There are so many theories. It’s messed up,” another former teammate adds. “For some of us, it’s not that we want him marching around here splashing money. Sometimes, it’s the little acknowledgement; the little respect. You see, Chibsah comes around and he greets everybody, even people he doesn’t know. Anytime he’s around, we’re happy and proud. It feels like he’s not forgotten us.”
Duncan’s attitude seems to have sparked a wave of disapproval and dislike amongst his former comrades. There’s an argument for the fact that it might just be an innate character that his new found status has unleashed after years of dormancy, but at the same time, there’s every chance his whole psyche has been tampered with by the agents who call the shots in his professional life, the very same people that have turned him against his humble beginnings and denied Pounds and Top Ten their due.
'ɛbɛyɛ yie' [It shall be well]
Fortunately for Pounds, he has evidence of Duncan’s involvement with Top Ten; pictures, videos, his colts card…the whole nine yards. “I have it. It’s in my possession now. Even he knows.
“It really hurts. If you asked him to point where I lived, he wouldn’t be able to. He doesn’t even know where I live. But I don’t mind. I won’t look for him. You know why? Let me tell you this; when a child comes back from school, he has to go to his father, his father doesn’t go looking for him. Except when he’s lost. If the child knows where you are, why should you go looking for him?”
Despite all he’s been through, there’s an optimism about Pounds that is admirable. There’s a chronic temptation to wake up one morning and go “Ok. I’ve had it!” but someway, somehow, Pounds has managed to evade this for years. “I have promised to help my community raise talent for the benefit of their family and people in their surroundings,with all my strength and wealth no matter how rough and tough the situation will be; either by reward or by criticism; I shall be there for my community because that is were I belong,” he wrote on facebook a few weeks ago.
He seems to be addicted to his job, and will soldier on till the day his efforts finally get rewarded with a few thousand pounds.
“The younger ones won’t disappoint. I know they’re planning for me one day to stop taking money from my pocket to finance the club. They’ll soon come to sponsor the club themselves,” he says as a group of under 10 players fascinatingly pass the ball around, innocently oblivious of what their coach is going through.
As night falls and the players disperse, disappearing into the darkness, Pounds' eyes are blood-shot from constant stress and tiredness as he gets up from a small bench by the pitch. We walk out, diagonally across the sandy pitch, where a Christian prayer group have arranged plastic chairs in preparation for prayers during the night.
“Come and join us and let’s pray one of these days,” the evangelist laughs, addressing Pounds as we walk by. “We have to pray so that more of your boys make it. Last I saw Ato on tv and I was so, so proud. I believe most of these boys are too good to still be here, let’s pray and make it happen. After all, it’s the same God we serve. Or?”
“Yoo mate [I’ve heard you],” Pounds, a Muslim like many others in Libya Quarters — an Islam community — smiles. “I’ll pray for the boys,” the Evangelist waves.
The success of the boys at Zurak already seems to be a unifying collective desire, transcending boundaries with sensitivities very well-documented.
"Yes,It’s the same God,” Pounds whispers as we bend beneath the torn fence entrance cum exit. “That’s true.”