Jonathan Mensah grew up carrying the shoes of his older brothers as they gathered to play soccer in the streets of Ghana. Mensah dreamt solely of playing the game alongside the boys instead of supporting them from the sidelines. The defender never thought of the day that his brothers, along with the entire country of Ghana, would support him in a FIFA World Cup.
“I just wanted to play soccer,” said Mensah. “I was just a young boy carrying shoes around, you know my big brothers and the big guys in our area when they were going to play we would just carry their shoes to go watch them and support them. I was like ‘Oh I want to be like this guy one day, I want to be like that guy one day,’ but I didn't dream of playing in the World Cup because I just wanted to play. I was 18 or 19 when I got my first call-up to the senior national team. It was about how bad you want it. If you have the opportunity now, you just need to grab it. That is what I did.”
As the defender’s game improved and playing professional soccer became a reality, he began to set his sights higher than simply a passion to play.
“You would come home and your uniform would be dirty and [my mother] would be like ‘What?? Come here! Mommy's going to spank you,’” Mensah recalled. “When I started playing for my school it was like ‘Oh this is fun.’ I was seeing new players and different players on a whole new level. Now I don't want to be like this guy, I want to be like this one because he is playing here.
“So, I think when I signed my first professional contract I was still 17 and it was like ‘Wow, now I want to play for the national team, now I want to be like that, now I want to do this.’ It keeps growing because you play in the background at home and you know the local teams around and then [those players] start growing, they start training with other people they are like ‘Oh I want to be like Cristiano Ronaldo, I want to be like this, I want to be like that.' So, it grows as you keep growing. It got to a point where I was like ‘I want to play for the Under 20’s.’ Then, you play for the U-20's and you think ‘Oh, I think I can play for the U-23's... I think I can play for the Ghana national team.’ When you have the opportunity, that is when you come into play. You have to grow up in the opportunity and with us, that's what we did.”
Mensah began his professional soccer career at the age of 17, playing for Ashanti Gold Sporting Club in the Ghanaian Premier League. Mensah spent the next 10 years playing soccer in five different countries. The first foreign club Mensah played for was the Free State Stars, based in South Africa.
Mensah was on loan to Granada Club de Fútbol in Spain when he received the news that he was headed back to South Africa to be a member of the Ghanaian National Team in the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
“I am never going to forget [receiving my first call-up]. I think it was even more special for me because the first foreign country that I played in was [South] Africa,” said Mensah.
“I was still in Spain at the time, I think it was the end of the season — June/July. The provisional list came out and I was in. I thought ‘Wow.’ They announced it and the operations director of the national team called me and said ‘Hey, you've been invited on the team.’ That was after the Under-20 World Cup in 2009, I believe. So, in 2010 they invited 13 players from the U-20s to the senior team. We went to the African Cup in 2010 before the senior World Cup.
“So, after the season we were relaxing and then I got this call, and I saw on the internet as well, and I thought ‘Oh, I'm on the 35-man squad.’ That is something that as I started playing I was like ‘I am going to play on the national team’ and then ‘I am going to play in the World Cup.’ And now being on the provisional list I'm like, ‘Wow.’
“My mom was the first person that I called and I said ‘Mom did you see the news?’ and she was like ‘Oh I saw it. Your brother told me.’ It was crazy. Like I said, I was a young kid carrying boots of my elder brothers, following them and all that and now — I'm going to be... you know? It was an honor being on the provisional list and not that long until I was on the 23-man squad. It was something incredible for me. I had never thought of it but you are in the moment now so you just have to be there and just enjoy every moment.”
Despite being one of the younger players on the squad, Mensah set out to make an immediate impact.
“We went to the training camp in France,” said Mensah. “We started training and I was doing alright. I was one of the young guys from the U-team and being on the senior team you have a whole lot of responsibility because when you are good enough, you are old enough to be on the team. The coach had a meeting with all of us and he said ‘Hey guys, you don't need to look down on yourselves. If you are on this squad if means you have something we might need one way or the other.’ That was a boost for all of the young guys who had graduated from the U-20s to the senior team.
“It was incredible training with the big guys. They also made us feel comfortable. They were talking to us, letting us know where to improve and all that. It was like home. As a young guy, being on the team it would be like ‘Hey, you are the young ones go to that side,’ but it wasn't that way [with the National Team].”
As the 2010 World Cup began, Mensah started in two matches in the group stage. The Ghanaian native reveled in the opportunity to play in the South African atmosphere where his career took off.
“It was incredible seeing some of the fans that I used to see in the [South African] league. They were like ‘Hey, that’s that guy that used to play for this team... oh nice! He's in the World Cup... nice!’ It was extra special for me personally because that was where my professional career started as a foreign player. It was just incredible because knowing the atmosphere in South Africa already and now being in the World Cup — I knew the vuvuzelas because it was in the league already. I know this feeling because I used to play there and it was crazy so I knew with the World Cup coming there it was going to be bigger. I was like ‘Wow, I can't wait.’
After Ghana advanced to the knockout stage, the defender was again set to start in the Round of 16 match against the U.S.
“It was an emotional game because the first World Cup [game] that Ghana won I think they played USA and Ghana won 2-1 so it was like a revenge game,” said Mensah. “It was a knockout game so it's like win or go home. You have to put everything on the line. I remember committing the penalty on Dempsey and I'm like ‘Ooh’ and looking around and the guys came up to me like ‘No problem, no worries, you'll be fine.’ So then I think we were leading 1-0 and then they equalized from the penalty that I committed so I'm like ‘Wow.’ Then we went on to play 90 minutes, we went to overtime and we had a goal and it was like ‘Wow, we made it — We made it through.’
"It was crazy for me knowing that as a young guy you just want to be part of the team and hearing the coach say ‘Hey you're here to take part. You're here to help the team’ and now you are on the 23-man squad, you're in the Starting XI — everything was just escalating so fast for me. I didn't take it for granted, I enjoyed every moment. It was just such a special moment for me.”
Ghana moved on to face Uruguay in the Quarterfinals, but Mensah had accumulated two yellow cards over the course of three games and was suspended for the match.
“[Having to watch] was crazy,” said Mensah. “You know, sometimes you get into something you start enjoying and now you have to sit out because of two yellow cards and all that so I was like ‘Oh, I cannot help because I'm in the stands.’ But then you know we went up a goal before halftime so I'm like ‘Oh we have hope! The boys are doing well,’ but then they equalized. So, last minute I think we had a chance -- we headed it in and Suarez just saved it with his hands and it was crazy. We thought the ball was in so we had a goal but the referee said penalty. So we had this penalty kick and we missed,” he recalled.
“So we went to overtime, no one scored we went to penalty kicks and we lost the game. So yeah, it was just crazy to end up this way. It was a great run for us. I think we were the second African team to get to the quarterfinals, we nearly got to the semifinals, so it was really emotional for us. It was in Africa and the entire continent was behind us because we were the last team left in the tournament. It was something that we all will never forget.”
After his first World Cup, Mensah returned to his normal routine, eventually signing with Ligue 1 side Thonon Évian Savoie Football Club in France. Mensah suffered a few injuries over the course of the following four years but his strong performances after recovery landed him yet another spot on the Ghanaian National Team headed to the World Cup. This time, the team traveled to Brazil for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
“The second time was a young kid growing into being a big boy,” said Mensah. “I did a couple of African Cups so now being with the national team for awhile — it's been four years, fast forward now we are in Brazil and now you are in the starting lineup. It was great knowing that you are in this kind of tough squad and you are going to play some of the best teams in the world. It was a big opportunity for me to grow and to learn.
“We were one of the groups in the Group of Death. Yeah — Germany, Portugal, USA, Ghana — and because of what we did in the last World Cup people were also kind of like ‘Ghana is a good team, so you don't have to take them lightly.’ We went into the tournament and we were confident I would say. Our first World Cup was in Germany and we did well, our second we did very well and now our third one is like ‘Oh yeah, we are gonna go through even though it is a tough group’. But then you know it didn't go as planned. It was heartbreaking for us not to make it out of the group stage.”
Ghana registered a draw with Germany and two losses to the U.S. and Portugal in the group stage, ending their World Cup run.
“The rivalry game against the USA happened again in Brazil so three consecutive World Cups we have played the United States. That was the first game and we were very hyped for that game. We lost 2-1 and it was a rivalry game so you have to go out strong, but we started very slow and we paid for that. But that was over and we moved on to Germany. They were one of the teams that was tipped to win the World Cup and it was a great game. It was one of the most exciting games in the World Cup as the stats say. From that game to - I think playing against the Portuguese team - we were done already.”
After the last match against Portugal, Mensah made one of his most memorable shirt swaps with none other than Cristiano Ronaldo.
“I was like ‘Can we change?’ and he was like ‘Yeah, sí sí! Sí, hermano!’, Mensah recalled. “I knew this guy, Daniel Opare, he was on our team and he played for Real Madrid youth and he knew him you know because Cristiano was on the senior team. So, he was on the World Cup team with Ghana and after the game he said [to Ronaldo] ‘Oh, my friend wants to change jerseys’ and Ronaldo was like ‘Yeah sure, sure.’ Then we just changed jerseys and it was like something casual.”
Mensah’s whole world changed as he became well-known on a global scene. The defender spent a season in Russia before landing his current spot on Columbus Crew SC’s roster.
“Growing up as a kid knowing that mommy is going to provide food for you, that is all you think about and now you are thinking of a different thing, a bigger thing. Seeing your name all over the TV, all over the news because of what you do on the field. Giving people chills and making people excited. That is a blessing, being part of an organization where you are going to be recognized worldwide. It's not just this generation but generations to come as well will watch your games and be like ‘Oh this guy played, this guy did this, this guy helped Ghana do this.’ So it is an honor and a privilege just to wear the Ghana jersey let alone see people wear your jersey and wave your flag and say ‘Oh you play for Ghana! Well done thank you for your service’ and all that. It is just a blessing.”
As his career continues, Mensah is eager to show his daughter his past and future accomplishments, as well as the general pastime of soccer.
“I have some videos, I have some tapes, I have some pictures and she will know all that,” said Mensah. “I am just going to sit her down and let her watch the videos and explain to her my life and what I do. She might want to do something else, you know. It's going to be something that she is just going to hold me up like ‘Oh, Daddy did this to raise me, to make people happy.’ It's just going to be incredible how she is going to see me afterward. They are kids now you know and when they start growing they start to understand what sports are about. It's not just about going out there and kicking a ball but what it brings out of people and the feeling that it gives people. Football can bring two enemies together, football can bring people who don't know each other together like ‘I don't know this guy; he is from Germany but we are playing together.’ Then we tap hands, high five, just because we are playing football together. It brings different feelings out of us as humans.