Once touted as one of the brightest talents in world football, Clifford Aboagye has fought for the relevance his talent deserves after a difficult period in his career
Paul Pogba, his left thigh heavily strapped, was in the game of his life. In the calm, stylish manner that had brought him early fame at Manchester United and then global attention at Juventus, he was pacing his talented French compatriots past a very game opponent in the semi-final of the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey. Pogba was used to playing high stakes football on weekly basis. He was used to being considered the best player on a football pitch and thus far during this tournament, he had not disappointed.
On this hot summer’s day in July however, the Ataturk stadium in Bursa had thrown up a worthy adversary and he was the direct opposite of Pogba in every possible way.
Where Pogba was a strapping, mountain of a player, even though still a teenager, the other player who was making him work for his reputation was a bandy legged rover who barely cleared 1.6m. The French star was noted for his propensity to make the most elaborate of passes from anywhere on the pitch with all the effort of a multimillionaire on a beach front during a vacation. His opponent was a never stopping bundle of energy with quick feet and the brain of a surgeon.
Pogba was already a bona fide star, strutting his stuff alongside legends like Pirlo. His opponent was barely out of high school and was yet to play in the elite division in his country. On this day, however, all that did not matter. Football is one of those rarities in modern day life. Its a leveller. The young prince of Paris had met his match in a school boy from Teshie.
His name, Clifford Aboagye.
France would eventually beat Ghana 2-1 in that match en route to winning the world title. Pogba would go on to be named the tournament’s best player with Aboagye coming in third place. A significant achievement, considering he was the last player picked before the team’s selection was closed.
It’s been seven years since the events in Turkey. Aboagye finds himself in Tijuana, Mexico, and is the happiest he has been for years.
“ Mexico has been kind to me as a footballer in the three years I have been here. I just didn’t show up . I considered a lot of things at the time the opportunity came from Atlas FC. There were options, but I chose that one to become the best version of me. People back home did not understand it, but it is what it is.”
Ghana is a tough place for a footballer. Football fans are invested in the lives of their heroes on the pitch. Decisions about where a footballer plays, especially one considered the most talented among his peers are not for the individual alone. In a way they are snobs. Only the popular, normally European destinations matter.And they are hard on their players. Especially ones who have gained global recognition at a young age. There is a lot of pressure to become a certain kind of player who will lead the senior team. Denigration comes very quickly if these expectations are not met. Ransford Osei,Dominic Adiyiah and now Aboagye have all been victims of such expectations.
The expectation on Aboagye was higher than most and it is not hard to figure out.
His playing style.
There is a myth about a Ghanaian playing style that is mirrored on the legendary “ginga” style of Pele and the mighty Brazilian team of the 50’s and 60’s. It is a free flowing, playground style that is considered the purest version of the game. Ghanaians calls it “agoro” and have always been enamored by players who have the ability to drift past an opponent with very little effort and free style outside of a tactical strait jacket.
Baba Yara,Mohammed Polo, Abedi Pele, Odartey Lamptey ,Charles Taylor and Emmanuel Yartey are the Mount Rushmore of this style in Ghana.
In Aboagye, fans saw a natural heir and his performance in Turkey against the best the world had to offer validated this expectation. He was in trouble from then.
“Well I think people were rating and comparing me to players like Pogba and Nico Lopez because we all had the same platform. But in professional football terms these guys were way ahead of me because they were already playing club football at a high level. All I had going into that tournament was positive energy and an understanding that my whole career was ahead of me. How could you compare an Inter Allies player to Juventus and Marseille players? Even in the Ghana team, only Addico and myself were not playing division football. I was just there to learn.”
The lessons were to be taught by Serie A side Udinese. Loaned out to their Spanish subsidiary, Granada, he would endure a mixed four year stay.
“As a footballer, nobody knows where they will end up in the future. Look at Ighalo for instance. He has ended up at Manchester United via China.I was brought up to appreciate the value of education so I went to Europe after the World Cup ready to learn . It was my first experience of European club football and I must admit it was not easy. The language barrier, the food and the adaptation. These are things every young player who is heading to Europe must be mentally ready for.”
Spanish football prides itself on a process of assimilation for foreign players that has not changed in decades, especially for players who hail from African leagues. This process will happen irrespective of the reputation of the player involved. Truth be told very few make it to the heights of La Liga from this process. Most end up in the Segunda and Tercera” leagues. There is the stay with the “cantera” or academy as a soft landing and an introduction to Spanish culture and its football idiosyncrasies. If a player survives this, he heads to the reserve team which normally plays in one of the lower tiers of Spanish football. This is the biggest hurdle and is where many fail to make the mark. A player can spend an entire five year contract at this level without ever appearing in the senior team.
Aboagye’s situation was between these two with a dose of business.
He had opportunities with Granada when he arrived, playing with the second team and training with the first team. It was not long before he made his debut against Sevilla and also traveled with the team to some Copa matches. It looked like the process was working until mid 2016 when the news broke.
Gino Pozzo, owner of the club along with Udinese and English club Watford had decided to sell the club off to a Chinese businessman, Jiang Lizhang, and his Link International Sports conglomerate.
It would signal the beginning of the end of Aboagye’s love affair in Spain.
“ The new owners came in with their own project with almost two years left on my contract. The whole scenario changed. They were coming in with their own stuff. I was not a player of theirs. I belonged to Udinese. Suddenly,I was no longer training with the first team and at a point I was not even allowed to play with the second team. Can you imagine that? The new coach came in and told me plainly that my level was too high for the Segunda B so I needed to find a club because he was developing a new team. By then I had been playing at that level for three years and had a lot of experience. When a coach tells you this, how are you supposed to take this?”
Aboagye found himself at a low point in his career.
“This is where the growing up comes in. I had agents calling and asking me to go on trial with third division teams in Italy. Can you imagine. How does a footballer handle such lows? I was on a good salary because of my Udinese contract, but there was virtually no club willing to pay me to play in Europe at the time. It’s either you take a salary cut or you drop to an even lower division where if you are unlucky your salary will not even come.”
Out of options and with no suitors, Aboagye was recalled to the Granada fold to help steer their team before the start of the 2017/18 season. Once he started playing, an offer for his services was made in December. It came from Mexico.
“ It was in December of 2017 when the Technical Director of Atlas FC flew to Spain to watch me play a game in Madrid. He was impressed. Looking at my situation and what I had gone through prior to getting recalled, I had to give it some proper consideration. In Ghana nobody knows about the Mexican league, but it is very competitive. It’s strange how people rate the MLS in Ghana yet in the region, the Mexican league is the best. They also spoke Spanish, which meant I did not have to struggle with language. Then there was also an improved Altogether it was a great new challenge. I did not look at what people will say about heading to Latin America. I could have stayed in Granada and not get anywhere to play. I have colleagues who stayed in Segunda B and are still playing Segunda B.”
That is how Aboagye’s Spanish adventure ended. Aged 22 when he was expected to be in his prime, plying his trade in a league with global stature and a list of well known stars, he rather packed his bags and headed to Mexico.
That kind of change is not new for Aboagye especially when it comes to his football career.
As a prodigious pre-teen talent in Teshie, a coastal suburb of Accra, he was the target of some of the country’s best academies. The best known of these were the Feyenoord Academy (now WAFA) and the Right to Dream Academy which was then based in Dawu. A two day stint with Right to Dream meant he missed a promotion examination at the school he was attending at the time, Calvary Preparatory School. Asked to repeat his year group because of that missed test, young Aboagye and his family chose to change schools to Ford Schools Limited so he could continue his education at the same level and play football.
Now aged 25, Aboagye’s rebirth in Mexico is almost complete.
Tijuana is his third club in three years. He is a very different player from the slight, nimble footed kid who left Ghanaian mouths agape with his skill as a teenager. His slight frame has filled out, replaced by a wiry workaholic still capable of producing moments of magic. Too bad the rebirth’s Ghanaian audience is limited, a fact he does not contest.
“People underestimate me and how well I have played the past three years because its Mexico. Interestingly I hear Ghanaian fans regularly talk about players in Denmark,Sweden and other places etc which in truth are below the Mexican league in terms of quality, infrastructure and any other metric you have. Those who watched me back then will admit to a maturity to my game. Playing in front of 40,000 fans weekly is amazing and comes with a whole new level of pressure.I did not enjoy that in Spain because the crowds are very limited in the lower tiers. I have been used in deeper positions and that also adds to the confidence that I feel.
It has been half a decade since he last wore the colors of his country on a pitch. It is a situation that Aboagye carries a philosophical approach to.
“Well to be frank, I know Ghana has never forgotten about me. I know Kwasi Appiah paid attention even though I could not get the chance to play under him. I am not frustrated. I know when my time comes I will deliver.”
A player once considered the heir apparent to the greats has to convince an unimpressed country of his talent and standing all over again. It is no easy task with the country in the middle of a talent boom especially in mainstream European football. But as he has shown time and time again, to write off Clifford Aboagye can be a fool’s errand.
By Godfred Boafo