Growing up in Nungua, a small town in Ghana, soccer was always significant to Harrison Afful. However, the defender never truly thought about earning the chance to represent his country in a FIFA World Cup.
“To be honest with you, I didn't even think of playing for the national team because back in the days when you were young you just played for fun,” said Afful, “To me, being in the World Cup was something special. I trained very hard and I was willing to play all the games. I told myself even if I get one minute to play, I will make use of it.”
The Ghana native spent his childhood playing soccer for entertainment and eventually went on to play for Feyenoord Academy in the Central Region of Ghana. Afful was transferred between academies while in school and was able to earn scholarships to cover all of his school fees.
“When I was young, when I was in school, it was through football that I had a scholarship from one school to the other,” Afful explained, “We didn't know there was money in football, soccer as you call it here. In the academy, they provided everything for me. They had to transfer me from one school to the other. I didn't pay any school fees. We had a football team and every season we used to play different schools in the region. So, anytime we had training, my mom would escort me at dawn to pick up a cab and she would make sure I was safe and then she would come back and go to work.”
After spending over four years in the Feyenoord Academy, Afful had a try-out to play with their senior side in the Dutch First Division, but he was told that he was too small. He was instead sent on loan to Asante Kotoko of the Ghanaian Premier League. During his time with Asante Kotoko, Afful played well enough to earn a call-up to the Ghanaian National Team, earning his first cap in 2008.The following year, Afful headed to Tunisia to sign with First Division side Esperance Sportive de Tunis. This was the first time the Ghanaian had played soccer outside of his home country. Playing soccer was always a hobby more than a job to Afful, even as he began a professional career.
“I used to watch the Black Stars on TV — like we would be in a group and someone would be on the table, someone on the chairs and we would be supporting the national team. Anytime I got the opportunity to play, I was always happy because I see the ball as my baby. I need to take good care of the ball. So I am just always happy to play the game. I didn't even dream of playing for [Ghana] because anytime I was called for the U-20's they would always kick me of because of my size and my body, you know? But I never gave up because I know I have the qualities, the abilities, I have the talents and then I have the brains. It is a god-gifted thing to me.”
Shortly before his final season with ES Tunis, Afful was called up to represent Ghana in the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
“It is every player’s ambition to play in the biggest stage, most importantly the World Cup,” said Afful, “I trained very hard and I was willing to play all the games.”
Ghana’s first match was against the United States and Afful was set to watch from the bench. Coming into the group stage, Ghana was labeled as the underdogs in the “Group of Death” — consisting of Ghana, the United States, Germany and Portugal.
“When we got there, there were ups and downs. I was not able to start the first game against the U.S. but that didn’t stop me. I kept doing my own thing -- making sure I did what I know how to do best and listened to the what the technical team had for me on and off the field. I told myself I needed to work hard and make sure I played in the next game. When I didn't start, everyone was talking in Ghana ‘Why didn't I start’ because the right back at that time wasn't fit and he wasn't training fully. Back when I was in Tunisia -- the experience wasn't there, that's what they were saying but I told myself I could do it because that is the dream I had. And then to be part of the group in the World Cup, I told myself I have to play the game but it was the coach’s decision.”
Moving on from the loss against the U.S., Ghana faced Germany and Afful was ready to make his first start. The Ghanaian players were focused and aimed to keep their spirits up ahead of the match against the eventual World Cup winners.
“Everything aside we are the players, we make sure we motivate ourselves with singing and dancing... even against Germany. I think we were late but as soon as we got to the stadium we were singing, even though we were late! They were surprised. That's our culture, we have to sing and get motivated to make sure we do our best. But that is how the team is and then we went in and tied the game. I will say, we had a couple of changes and we should have won the game but it happens. Life itself is always ups and downs. We just have to keep going every time. We are still here and we keep learning everyday.”
Afful notched an assist on Ghana’s first goal again Germany and was honored as Man of the Match. In their next game, Ghana was to play Portugal and Afful was again named to the Starting XI. The defender was also set to mark Portugal’s best player — Cristiano Ronaldo.
“Playing against Ronaldo is something big,” said Afful, “I told myself there's nothing to lose because he is already there and I am just an up-and-coming star. This was a good opportunity for me to play my game and help my nation so that’s what I did and I think I did it well.”
Ghana was not fortunate enough to make it out of the group stage but Afful was able to experience a lot that Brazil had to offer in his first visit to the country.
“I see Brazil like Ghana in terms of weather and people playing football in the streets,” said Afful, “Old men and women, kids — everyone loves football. The weather was also nice and all people were nice to us. I had some of the food and it was nice. We went out on the streets and had some coconut.”
After his time playing in the World Cup, Afful returned to his club in Tunisia and shortly after, joined Columbus Crew SC as a Discovery Signing. The Ghana native still sees support for his home country even in American stadiums.
“Even here in Columbus I see a bunch of Ghana flags everywhere,” said Afful, “It means wherever you are people are with you, supporting you. That should tell you to keep working. It makes me feel like a piece of home is with me.”
For Afful, playing in the World Cup announced him on the global stage, introduced him to some of the biggest names in soccer and took him to new places in his career.
“Coming from Tunisia, nobody knowing me and then I went straight to the World Cup — it was something great,” said Afful, “Playing the whole thing was special to me.
“[The World Cup] introduced me to big players. No one gets that opportunity but when you do you are humble, respectful and grateful. I think you can go far and meet good people and nice people. I appreciate that.”
As he looks back at his career at the club and international level, Afful is eager to share his experience with his children.
“Actually, I'm thinking about writing a book because it is one thing I want my children to know,” said Afful, “I didn't get that opportunity. My father used to tell me he played soccer and he was good at it. Anytime I go home on vacation and I give him the ball he is able to juggle but I never see anything else. The opportunity of a book to tell [my kids] what I did and am still doing would mean a lot.”