The Amazing story of Kelvin Ofori: Denied playing in U17 World Cup by Ghana but now an emerging star in German Bundesliga Featured
09 Mar

The Amazing story of Kelvin Ofori: Denied playing in U17 World Cup by Ghana but now an emerging star in German Bundesliga

Kelvin Ofori arrived at Fortuna Dusseldorf’s Austrian training camp late in the evening of July 17. Club staff members and reporters mingling over a nightcap at the hotel bar lifted their heads in surprise. There had been some talk of a mysterious attacking midfielder from Ghana joining Fortuna for a trial. But they didn’t expect a slight, 5ft 6in teenager ambling past them in civilian clothes in a state of acute tiredness.
The boy’s legs were heavy from a 48-hour odyssey that had taken him from Accra in his native Ghana via Marrakesh, Casablanca, London and Munich to Maria Alm, the alpine village just south of the border with Germany where the Bundesliga side were preparing for the season. Ofori was a little apprehensive before his first session the next morning. He had never trained with adult professionals before.
Dusseldorf coach Friedhelm Funkel, he had heard, preferred to work with seasoned players rather than young hopefuls. And there was another thing. Following a mix-up, Ofori had come to his make-or-break trial without football boots. “That was a first for us,” Lutz Pfannenstiel, the club’s sporting director said. “Fortunately, we found a spare pair in a shed for him. Unfortunately, they were one-and-a-half sizes too big.”
Shortly before setting off on his long journey to Central Europe, Ofori shot a mobile phone video to document the life he was leaving behind. The clip takes the viewer through the door of a dusty red one-storey building and into the crammed children’s bedroom Kelvin used to share with his five siblings in Kumasi’s Maakro district. There is no furniture but for a couple of beds. A black star tiled mosaic adorns the wall.
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Ofori was discovered by a scout playing on a rubble-strewn red clay pitch a short stroll away, abutting the neighbour market. Kids run in between cars that use the clearing as a short cut. Deep furrows in the ground make controlling the ball on the hard surface a considerable feat. The two metal goals at either end have long lost their nets.
Where a corner flag might be, heaps of rubbish spread out like a malignant virus. Kelvin’s mother Mary could keep an eye on him and her younger sons from a nearby stall, selling plastic bags. Taking home one dollar was considered a good day.
Ill-fitting boots notwithstanding, Ofori’s pace and deftness on the ball in training the next morning were a revelation. Pfannenstiel instantly knew that inviting the former under-17 international to Maria Alm had been a very good idea. Ofori, an apprentice from the prestigious Right To Dream Academy north of Accra, “played like a natural, with a total absence of fear, and immediately held his own against accomplished Bundesliga pros”, Pfannenstiel said. “You could clearly see his talent.” Funkel, too, was won over by the Ghanaian’s irrepressible qualities.
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The 65-year-old agreed that Ofori should stay with the squad and then picked him to feature for the entire 90 minutes of a friendly against Anderlecht four days after his 18th birthday, on July 31. Kelvin’s father Michael, a car mechanic who had never seen his son play organised football before, proudly filmed the whole game on his mobile phone as the youngster scored the winner 12 minutes from time.
Joining Right to Dream (RTD), a social impact organisation that provides free-of-charge football training and top-level education for about 90 boys and a few girls from Ghana and neighbouring countries each year, had given Ofori a much better chance of making it as a professional athlete than millions of his peers. His right to dream came with the benefit of a strong safety net as well: those who fail to make the cut as athletes at RTD are sent on to scholarships in the US and the UK.
Ofori was considered the most gifted player of his age group and frequently shone at international tournaments. But in the summer and autumn of 2017, just as his development was entering a crucial stage, his hopes suffered an unexpected blow from which he very nearly didn’t recover. He missed out on going to the U17 World Cup in India — for reasons that quickly became obscured by a swirl of accusations and counter-accusations.
What can be said with a degree of certainty now is that few things are as they seem in Ghanaian football. The country’s FA was wound up earlier this year following allegations of high-level corruption. A press officer for the Normalisation Committee, which has been put in charge of the sport, declined to respond to inquiries from The Athletic, which made finding definitive answers about the player’s curious non-appearance at the finals complicated. At times, over the course of following up on the many contradictory claims, the exercise has felt rather futile, like holding up a magnifying glass to a muddy pond.
The Right to Dream charity was set up by Tom Vernon, a former part-time scout for Manchester United, in 1999. In 2010, Manchester City became financial supporters, making annual donations rising to “more than a million Euros”, over a 10-year period, as a Football Leaks document published by Der Spiegel revealed in November 2018. “MCFC was not guaranteed anything else in return apart from the opportunity to offer 18-year-old players a contract when they left the academy, just like any other club can,” Vernon insisted in a press statement in December 2018. “It was then, as it is today, the player himself who can decide 100 percent where he wishes to play and who he wants to sign a contract with.”
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Twelve former RTD players have transferred to City but none of them have played for the English champions. Work-permit restrictions in the UK and the direct step up to the Premier League have in practice proved too daunting for RTD hopefuls. Rather than see them being lured away by agents and foreign clubs when they turn 18 and can walk away for free, the academy has, since 2016, instead offered them professional contracts at Nordsjaelland, the Danish first division side that Vernon and unnamed investors took over in January of that year.
King Osei Gyan, a former RTD graduate turned managing director at the academy, told The Athletic that this type of vertical integration serves a dual purpose. The co-operation with Nordsjaelland provides both a suitable entry point for budding professionals as well as a vital source of income for RTD that enables them to sustain their work, as any transfer fees Nordsjaelland eventually receive for RTD players are remitted back to the academy. Their outlay is considerable: they spend about $25,000 a year on a pupil.
“(Players) who leave for free are welcome to do so,” Gyan, a former professional on Fulham’s books, said. “But the ones who bring in a transfer are playing a major part in guaranteeing the same opportunity can and will be given to the next talented child with an unprivileged background. Just as they themselves were handed the same opportunity due to a former graduate’s success and ability to give back.”
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Ofori, too, was free to turn down the offer of signing a one-year-professional deal at the Danish club upon turning 18. But it didn’t feel like that when the proposal was put to him on August 4, 2017, three months before the U17 World Cup. He did not want to commit himself to moving to Nordsjaelland for a monthly salary of €3,000 rising to €6,000, so far in advance. “It didn’t make sense to us,” his uncle Benjamin Owusu Sekyere told The Athletic. “We didn’t know why RTD were stressing on him signing a new contract up to his 19th birthday. So they gave the ultimatum that if he doesn’t sign, he will not go to the World Cup. So we chose not to sign.” He added that a junior member of the Ghanian government twice phoned his brother Michael to invite him to Accra and “sort the contract issues out so that the boy’s name could be included in the squad”.
A spokesperson for RTD denied any knowledge of outside interference or pressure on the family. He referred The Athletic to a radio interview by Vernon from August 2017, when allegations about undue pressure on Ofori were first reported in the Ghanian media. “Talk of us using our influence with the FA to coerce players to sign a contract is not true because there’s nothing like that,” Vernon said at the time. “I don’t know what kind of influence I’m supposed to have over the FA, they’re independent and a governing body.”
Vernon insisted that it was the Ghanaian FA’s policy to only call up youth players who were contractually committed to RTD, in recognition of the charity’s financial needs (“we depend on the professional players we have nurtured in order to keep growing and keep offering opportunities to the next generation”) and to avoid players getting “taken away by people who are thinking about their own financial gains… to useless clubs where they can never be selected to the national team”. He underlined that the Ghanaian FA “only want us to recommend players who respect the development that has been given to them and who are going to be on the correct development path to make sure they become national assets”. As stated above, no GFA representative was available for comment.
Vernon, a contributor to the Common Goal project, sees himself as a positive agent of change. He has repeatedly stressed that all proceeds from player sales are funnelled back into RTD, and that no one is taking out any dividends. But at what point does a teenager’s debt to the greater good override his own wishes and aspirations? It wouldn’t be the first time that a well-intentioned system set up to counter the exploitative nature of the market becomes so restrictive that the people who are supposed to be protected by it feel trapped instead. Denying Ghanaian teenagers the right to represent their country unless they were willing to join a specific Danish club — for a starting salary that could be bettered tenfold in a bigger league — surely cannot be the most conducive way of fostering their development. At RTD, the right to dream appears somewhat compromised if there is compulsion to follow a preordained pathway on the ground.
Gyan, however, told the The Athletic that the contractual wrangle was not at the heart of the matter in Ofori’s case. “The Ghana FA picks the national team squads, so they decide the names, not RTD. Kelvin’s name was never on the list. In this specific case, it makes sense to us they didn’t include Kelvin at the time, since he had gone through surgery in Denmark just a few months prior to the selection and was not yet fully match fit at the time.”
This suggestion is problematic. Firstly, Ofori’s name indeed appeared on the initial squad short-list released by Ghana’s then U17 coach Paa Kwesi Fabin on June 30. (RTD’s spokesperson contended that this could have happened in error). Secondly, Ofori was fit enough to play as a sub and a starter for RTD in two games at the Super Cup tournament in Northern Ireland at the end of July.
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Most importantly, an email from RTD managing director Robin Bourne-Taylor sent on the day of the August 4 meeting with Owusu Sekyere emphasised that a decision on his future was urgent in light of the impending World Cup. There was a need, Bourne-Taylor wrote, to “continue the discussion formally, before the 10th August if possible, to maintain progress and open dialogue ahead of some time pressure set by the U17 WC administrative system”.
The attached documents proposed two ways in which the player could provide “contractual security” that was “aligned with U17 national team selection policy”. He could either sign the aforementioned deal with Nordsjaelland for 2019 or “wait until after the U17 World Cup to assess interest from other clubs” if he extended his RTD contract by two years, with “an increment on salary in the last two years” and a payment of $20,000 to the family. There was no mention of any fitness concerns in the correspondence. Ofori’s call up, “contractual security” provided, was treated as a given. The player’s camp also dispute him being injured.
Asked by The Athletic why the player failed to join up with the squad for training in August before heading off to India in October, Ghana’s then U17 coach Paa Kwesi Fabin did not make reference to his contractual situation or any injury. “Kelvin never responded to our invitation,” he said. Attempts to seek any additional information only reaped silence.
Not going to the U17 World Cup was one of the reasons Ofori’s stock wasn’t higher this summer. There had been some interest from Manchester United, who proposed sending him out on loan to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s old club Molde. But there weren’t many European clubs willing to take him on for their first team. Unlike Pfannenstiel, who had been tipped off by contacts in Ghana about Ofori’s qualities, most of them simply weren’t aware of him.
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Not being allowed to go to India had a demoralising effect on the player. His training performances had suffered. As the eldest, there was pressure on him to do well, to provide for his family. To keep his spirits up, a friend of the family asked Leroy Sane to offer a few words of encouragement. The Manchester City winger agreed and wrote a series of long, heartfelt WhatsApp messages with detailed tips, imploring Ofori to continue to work hard, especially on his first touch and his weaker right foot. “The best is to be two-footed,” Sane explained. “To be honest the only guy who I know now that is would be (Ousmane) Dembele from Barca and that’s crazy! The defenders never know how to defend! And that’s a sick weapon!”
After his form had rebounded, RTD continued to offer him a move to Denmark. But he feared getting lost among his many compatriots at Nordsjaelland. The club currently have eight RTD graduates on their books. Towards the latter stages of last season, he felt as if he was being frozen out and given only limited game time. Gyan confirmed that Ofori was not included in an overseas tour in spring 2019 but denied that his contractual situation played a role in that decision or that he was treated differently in any way. “Kelvin had access to every single training, every single class in school, every educational exam, every meal and every necessary or requested treatment by the medical staff,” he said.
In April of this year, RTD and the Oforis discussed extending Kelvin’s contract until December 2019 or February 2020 to enable the academy to receive a transfer fee — a release clause of $500,000 was mooted — and let the player partake in trials in Europe immediately. The family also asked for compensation “for the pain (we) went through for denying Kelvin the opportunity to play in the national team”. Replying to the email, RTD Group Counsel wrote: “Our proposal is to extend Kelvin’s contract for a short period to allow him to undertake trials now. This extension would be on the same terms as his current contract. If Kelvin or the family are requesting some form of other terms or compensation, then we do not have anything further to discuss as it will not be agreed.” (As a trainee, Ofori received a monthly allowance of $30.)
Kelvin was still under contract when his father wrote to RTD requesting they released his passport in early July to start a convoluted visa process. By then, the game was up. The academy formally allowed him to train with Dusseldorf. A mere two weeks later, everything he had strived for since leaving Kumasi to join Right To Dream at the age of 10, became a reality at last. He signed a three-year-contract with the senior team. In his first competitive game, he scored again, to help Fortuna overcome fifth division Villingen 3-1 in the German Cup in extra-time.
Ofori is reluctant to voice any negative thoughts about his time at RTD. He considers many of the teachers and coaches his friends and is extremely grateful for the education they have given him. “I knew that in the end of the day, with God’s help, I make my own destiny and other people will not take it away from me if I stay strong and work hard,” is all he’s prepared to say on the record, understandably. The present is far too exciting to dwell on the past.
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“We are extremely pleased that Kelvin chose Fortuna. We believe we can provide the right environment for him to grow and fulfil his potential here,” Pfannenstiel said. Three more Ghanians in the squad — Kasim Adams, Nana Ampomah and Bernard Tekpetey — will make it easier for Ofori to settle. It helps as well that there’s a sizeable Ghanian expat community in Dusseldorf and a restaurant serving Ghanian cooking in the city centre.
How Ofori made it — or almost didn’t make it — from the banks of the Volta River to North-Rhine Westphalia’s poshest city will remain contentious, but the fact that his life has already changed beyond recognition isn’t. The magnitude of the opportunities that still lie ahead are clear, too. With a little bit of luck and plenty of hard work, his first few weeks in Dusseldorf will only prove the beginning of a fairytale ending.
-The Athletic
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