Harrison Afful: Ghana’s stalwart that embraced football’s global nature

Growing up in America, Harrison Afful was only known to me as a Columbus Crew player. As a fan of the New York Red Bulls – who rival the Crew – I came to be annoyed by Afful’s qualities: his perseverance, motor, skill, intelligence and general know-how that put him above so many of his counterparts in Major League Soccer. 

I appreciated his skill though, and he cemented a spot in my mind as one of the foreigners that were able to make a solid career in America’s league. I subconsciously assumed he had a rather uneventful career before coming to the Crew, as is the case with many foreign players who ‘settle’ for MLS. 

A few months ago when I was editing a piece on Esperance’s 2010-2013 side that reached the CAF Champions League final three straight times I saw Afful’s name pop-up, and I did a double take. The shock on my face was unexplainable. I knew he was Ghanaian, but the fact that he was a key player for one of the greatest African club sides of all time made me question my intuitions. How could this be? Is there another Harrison Afful? How did he end up in Columbus of all places? 

An initial look at his wikipedia page confirmed that the Harrison Afful who scored the *winning* goal in the 2011 CAF Champions League final to defeat Wydad Casablanca was indeed the same Harrison Afful who casually scored a rocket against the Chicago Fire five years later and acted like nothing happened.

For what it’s worth: Harrison’s perception in my mind immediately switched from MLS settler to intercontinental conquerer. 

I put off editing the article for a while as I entered a worm hole of researching his career. What first caught my eye was *checks notes* that he played for Feyenoord? Not exactly. 

Feyenoord – the Dutch giants – founded an academy for African players in the Ghanaian settlement of Gomoa Fetteh, just outside of Accra in 1998. The academy provided the young players with an education, and hopefully, a chance to play for one of Holland’s most storied clubs after graduating. 

Afful was spotted by the late Black Stars coach Sam Arday and was brought to the Feyenoord Academy. He made 148 appearances for the side of mainly teenagers that played against grown men, scoring 11 goals. His performances caught the eye of Ghanaian giants Asante Kotoko, who signed him on loan. 

He was initially set to be a bench player, with his diminutive figure (1.68 m (5’6)) discounting Afful before he even got a chance to play. However, a 10 minute cameo in a friendly impressed the manager so much that he earned a spot in the first team. 

He scored five goals in 68 appearances during his time at the club, in addition to being named the League’s Player of the Season award as his side won the Ghana Premier League in 2008.

After impressing on the domestic front he went on trial with Feyenoord, but was told he was too small and rejected. The same story occurred when he was close to a move to Danish giants København.

Afful made his Black Stars debut while at Kotoko, but arguably more importantly, playing for the Porcupine Warriors put him on the radar of Tunisian side Esperance de Tunis, who signed him on a three-year contract in 2009 after impressing at a trial. 

It was at Esperance that Harrison made a name for himself on the continental stage, with the Ghanaian becoming a regular fixture in their CAF Champions League sides.

Afful made his CAFCL debut in the first match and went onto play in every match as Taraji reached the final, where they were demolished 5-0 by TP Mazembe in the first leg. On the plus side for Afful he scored a consolation goal in the second leg. 

Afful made 10 appearances for his national team in the qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, helping the Black Stars qualify for the final tournament. He was then called up to the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations, but did not make a single appearance as they made a run to the final. Harrison was left off Ghana’s squad for the 2010 World Cup, failing to even crack the Black Stars’ preliminary roster. After appearing against South Africa in a friendly in August, Harrison would not earn another cap for nearly two years.

The next season he yet again played an important role in their CAFCL run as they reached the final for a second straight time – this time against North African rivals Wydad Casablanca. He played a cameo role in the goalless first leg but started in the second leg – making his mark on African football history when he scored a beautiful curling shot (on his weak foot) on the 22nd minute. 

The goal won the game for them as Esperance lifted their second ever Champions League title.

The next season Esperance reached the CAFCL final for a third straight time, defeating TP Mazembe on the way. He played 73 minutes in the first leg of the final as Tunis drew 1-1 with Al Ahly, but was suspended for the second leg due to yellow card accumulation as Tunis were defeated 2-1 in the return fixture. The following season he scored the game-winning goal against Sfaxien as Tunis claimed their fourth league title in Afful’s five seasons at the club, establishing a reputation as a big-game player.

Afful was selected for the Ghana 2014 World Cup squad, which was a fitting reward for his performances over the years. Despite having already played for the Black Stars, playing in the World Cup was a dream come true.

“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.” 

After being named in the squad Harrison was the subject of transfer interest ahead of the World Cup. Reports from Ghana claimed that French giants Olympique de Marseille had made an offer for the full back, but Esperance announced that Harrison would not leave the club until after the World Cup at the earliest so they could make the most money possible on a transfer sale.   

Afful impressed at the World Cup in spite of the Black Stars going out in the group stage. He even provided an assist in a draw against eventual world champions Germany. 

He continued to attract interest after the World Cup, with a reported 13 European clubs battling for his signature. Surprisingly, it was Emirati side Al Wahda who reportedly won the race for the defender. He underwent a medical with the Clarets, but the club canceled the deal after ES Tunis broke off communication and he returned to Tunisia. 

He ran down his contract in a trophy-less final season in Tunis. He appeared 172 times and scored 16 goals for the Eagles, picking up four Tunisian League titles, a Tunisian Cup, and CAF Champions League trophy along the way. 

Things continued to improve with his national team standing. He appeared in all six matches of Ghana’s 2015 Africa Cup of Nations qualification run, being named in the squad for the final tournament. He appeared in every match at the tournament, helping the Black Stars reach the final against Ivory Coast. He scored his penalty in the shootout as the Black Stars were defeated 9-8 on spot kicks. Once again, Afful receieved an AFCON runners-up medal.

With European interest dried up after Esperance’s shady tactics to squander any potential move for him, Afful made a shock move to Major League Soccer side Columbius Crew in 2015. He was motivated to join by a former Black Stars teammate making the move to America. In his first season he reached the MLS Cup final. 

At the Crew, Afful has established himself as one of the best full backs in the league.

He is known for his pace, defensive ability and consistency – which has made him a fan favorite by Crew fans and earned him the respect of rival fans like myself.

He resigned for the Crew last summer, saying: “I believe me coming here (that) I did the right thing ’cause back home, people always say coming into the MLS, it’s like you’re coming to retire or something. But when I came here I saw a different picture. The people of Columbus accepted me.”

It’s not often that you see a player dominate in two continents: let alone in Africa and North America. To me, Harrison Afful is a role-model player for Africans and for Americans. And for that, I thank him.