Northern Ireland

Afriyie Acquah: East Belfast roots for Ghanaian star chasing Africa Cup of Nations dream

Afriyie Acquah Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Afriyie Acquah has played a key role for Ghana in their run to the Africa Cup of Nations final

He is one of Genoa's newest citizens after signing for top Italian team Sampdoria, and Ghanaian footballer Afriyie Acquah has had a journey that one of its most famous explorers, Christopher Columbus, would be proud of.

Acquah was living on the streets in his home country when an academy, supported by east Belfast club Glentoran, helped turn his life around.

He has since carved out a professional career in Italy, with Palermo and Parma among his previous employers.

On Sunday, the midfielder hopes to inspire Ghana to their first Africa Cup of Nations success in more than 30 years, as they take on the Ivory Coast in the tournament's final in Equatorial Guinea.

Sam Robinson, of the Glentoran Community Trust, has kept in regular contact with Acquah since hosting him as a teenager in Belfast, where he bonded with his two youngest sons.

Robinson says he is still amazed at the transformation in the player from shy youngster to African soccer star.

"It is the fairytale that keeps on giving," he said.

"It was great him reaching the World Cup Finals with Ghana last year, but now he is on the cusp of something very special.

"Ghana have not won the African Nations tournament for 33 years.

"For the World Cup finals we had a party in my back garden with a big screen, we will be looking at doing something similar indoors for the Africa Cup of Nations final.

"A number of other people in east Belfast are trying to organise watching the final via social media, they have all been part of this lovely journey."

Acquah trained with Glentoran's first team during his two-week spell in Northern Ireland in 2007 and Robinson said his talent was immediately evident.

'Emotional'

However, he said it was the pace of his progress that had surprised him.

This was brought home when he caught up with the Ghanaian in Verona last year.

"He has gone from this shy, happy-go-luck teenager we met in Belfast to this footballing star in Ghana," he said.

"I think we will see him in the Premier League in England sooner rather than later and the more he plays for Ghana, the easier it will be for him to get a work permit.

""In Verona, it was the first time I had met him in over six years, I met him at the team hotel and saw him play for Parma against Chievo.

"I had a big lump in my throat it was really emotional.

Image copyright Sam Robinson
Image caption The 23-year-old international midfielder met up with Sam Robinson in Verona last year

"The last time I had seen him physically was waving him off at George Best Belfast City Airport and I had not known then if I would see him again.

"I had left him as a scrawny, wiry kid, who I brought to the Elk Inn for chicken and chips, and here was this athlete stepping towards me to shake my hand."

Robinson said he was in contact with Acquah "three to four times a week" and had spoken to him after Ghana's semi-final triumph over Equatorial Guinea which was marred by violence off the field.

'Worried'

"We would often speak before a game and then after, he would still ask about Glentoran and my kids," he said.

"He still talks about the club and the people he met when he was over here.

"I was talking to Afriyie on the morning after the Equatorial Guinea semi-final, he was delighted with the win.

"We were worried because of the trouble, but it did not seem to worry him, it didn't affect him in the slightest."

The Glentoran fan hopes his next meeting with his friend will be in Belfast and if he returns as the champion of a continent, then all the better.

"He desperately wants to come back to visit Belfast again, it is part of him and he is always thankful for the Glentoran experience and what people did for him," Robinson added.

"If he came back to Belfast with a winning medal from the Africa Cup of Nations tournament, that would be the icing on the cake."

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