The sudden rise and puzzling fall of Ghana starlet Felix Afena-Gyan


The sudden rise and puzzling fall of Ghana starlet Felix Afena-Gyan

The sudden rise and puzzling fall of Ghana youngster Felix Afena-Gyan
The sudden rise and puzzling fall of Ghana youngster Felix Afena-GyanProfimedia
Football can be a very fickle sport. One moment fans may be singing your name, the other you’re being heckled out of the same club. Stories of young talents rising meteorically only to fizzle out just as quickly are all too common. Even going by those standards, the case of Felix Afena-Gyan (21) is still particularly astounding.

It seemed like a fairytale story when the teenager burst onto the scene at AS Roma. In a few months, the striker had moved from playing high school football in Ghana to stealing the headlines in Serie A with Jose Mourinho’s Roma.

However, it’s all gone awfully quiet on Afena-Gyan. It’s been two years since he left Roma and the rapid ascent has stalled just as unexpectedly as it had begun.

But where did it go wrong for the 21-year-old?

A meteoric rise to fame

Afena-Gyan hails from the small village of Beposo in the Wenchi district of Ghana, where his passion for football took root from a young age. 

After completing his high school education at Berekum Presec in 2019, Afena-Gyan's talent was recognized when he was selected for the Regional School team following the 2018 inter-SHS games. 

However, his path to professional football was far from conventional.

Unlike many of his peers, Afena-Gyan did not have the opportunity to showcase his skills for any of Ghana's top-flight clubs. Instead, he honed his craft with local youth teams, featuring for Real Madrid and Watomba 11 in his hometown of Wenchi.

After graduating from high school, Afena-Gyan's fortunes took a turn for the better. He was invited to join the EurAfrica Academy, which proved pivotal, as it opened the door for him to go on trials with Italian giants AC Milan.

During his trials with the Rossoneri, Afena-Gyan showcased his goal-scoring prowess, catching the attention of scouts from across Europe. However, a potential deal with AC Milan fell through, and it was AS Roma who swiftly swooped in to secure the services of the promising Ghanaian striker.

The striker wasted no time in making an impact at his new club. Just a day after his unveiling on March 13, the youngster announced his arrival spectacularly, scoring a goal and providing an assist on his debut for Roma's under-18 side in a resounding 5-0 victory over Genoa.

His impressive performances continued in the following matches, as he found the back of the net in his next two outings for coach Aniello Parisi's side. Afena-Gyan's rapid progress earned him a well-deserved promotion to Roma's Primavera under-19 squad, where he continued to shine, emerging as the top scorer in Italy's Primavera 1 with six goals.

It was this scintillating form that ultimately paved the way for his remarkable breakthrough into the Roma senior team. Afena-Gyan became the second-youngest debutant in the 2021/22 Serie A season when he was brought on as a substitute against Cagliari, turning the game around and helping his team secure all three points after trailing by a goal.

This was just the beginning of Afena-Gyan's meteoric rise. In a subsequent match against Genoa, the Ghanaian teenager wrote his name into the history books by scoring two late goals off the bench, becoming the first player born after January 1, 2003 to score in Serie A.

His emergence had already seen parallels being drawn with Ghana’s all-time top scorer, Asamoah Gyan.

Notably, after his first-ever professional goal, he ran straight to Jose Mourinho to celebrate the moment with him.

The Mourinho relationship

After his two goals against Genoa, Mourinho was gushing with praise for the Ghanaian who had gone from obscurity to hero. The Portuguese insisted that the young striker has an incredible future ahead of him.

Meticulous planning had gone into deciding the right time to unleash Afena-Gyan and it felt like Mourinho and Roma had hit the jackpot.

Despite his tender age and limited exposure to professional football, the Portuguese tactician recognized the Ghanaian's raw talent and took a keen interest in nurturing his growth.

Afena-Gyan's decision to turn down his first call-up to the Ghanaian national team during the November 2021 international break was a calculated move, guided by his agent's belief that "player development is a partnership that cannot be rushed." 

The striker himself echoed this sentiment, stating, "I felt it was too early for me to answer the call from the national team because I need to grow, physically but also mentally and psychologically."

Afena-Gyan opted to remain at Roma's training ground, Trigoria, to continue honing his skills under Mourinho's watchful eye. This decision proved to be prudent, as the teenage prodigy essentially spent two weeks dedicated to fine-tuning his craft under the tutelage of one of the game's most decorated managers.

The impact of Mourinho's mentorship was evident in Afena-Gyan's performances immediately after the international break, with the striker already exhibiting noticeable improvements in his game by scoring his first two goals for the club.

Mourinho's keen eye for talent and his ability to nurture young players have been well-documented throughout his illustrious career. In Afena-Gyan's case, the Portuguese manager recognised qualities that set the Ghanaian apart from his teammates, particularly his desire to exploit space and his aggressive pressing style.

After handing Afena-Gyan his debut against Cagliari, Mourinho highlighted the importance of integrating the youngster into the first team, stating, "He's a player who looks for opportunities that we don't often try to exploit. We have a lot of players who want the ball at the feet; we don't have many who look for the spaces to run into."

The bond between the two was evident in the way Afena-Gyan celebrated his first goal for Roma, running straight to his manager to remind him of a promise to buy the young striker his favorite pair of expensive shoes. Mourinho's fatherly gesture not only fulfilled his promise but also emphasised the close relationship he had cultivated with his protégé.

This nurturing approach is not uncommon for Mourinho, who has a track record of fostering paternal relationships with his players, particularly those of Ghanaian descent. Michael Essien famously referred to the Portuguese as a father figure during their time together at Chelsea, while Sulley Muntari was a trusted lieutenant during Mourinho's tenure at Inter Milan.

By the time Afena-Gyan was leaving Roma, he had won the UEFA Europa Conference League at 19 years, had made his national team debut, was ranked 21st on Goal’s NXGN 2022 list of the 50 best youngsters in world football, and was part of the 100 nominees for the 2022 Golden Boy Award.

Life after Roma

Despite signing a contract in July 2022 to extend his Roma contract to 2026. Cremonese’s offer of €7million was just too good to turn down. Afena-Gyan in an emotional farewell message thanked Jose Mourinho stating: “My utmost love to the manager Jose Mourinho. The last seven months with you have changed my life. Thank you for believing in me.”

At the time, Cremonese had been promoted to Serie A and the prospect of Afena-Gyan playing regularly was higher. However, that wasn’t the case as the Ghanaian only managed 816 top-flight minutes in the 2022/23 season without a goal or assist.

In the national team, Afena-Gyan was left out of the 2022 World Cup squad after featuring prominently in the months prior including key games against Nigeria in the play-offs. No explanation was offered for leaving out one of the country's most exciting young prospects.

Since then, the 21-year-old hasn’t been called to the Black Stars, and understandably so as he continues to struggle for form.

One would have imagined taking a step back with Cremonese to Serie B would have seen the striker regain confidence but if anything, his situation is worse now.

Instead of reviving his stalled career, the move has only compounded his struggles. Afena-Gyan has only started one game and come off the bench six times.

Afena-Gyan speaks to Mourinho
Afena-Gyan speaks to MourinhoProfimedia

So far, he’s managed only 227 minutes in Serie B this season. He missed 11 games after fracturing the base of the fifth metatarsal of his left foot in training last September. However, he’s been on the bench for 17 matches where his services were not even required.

The playing opportunities he craved when Afena-Gyan moved to Cremonese have barely materialised. In two seasons, the former Roma striker is yet to score a league goal. All of his three goals have come in the Coppa Italia.

Since playing 13 minutes against Südtirol in March, Afena-Gyan has been on the bench five consecutive games and on two occasions hasn’t made the squad. A player blessed with such immense potential once at the highest level is now stuck in limbo without a clear path forward.

In Ghana, some have speculated that the baggage of excessive hype and an overinflated ego stunted the young striker's development. There were rumblings of disciplinary issues at Roma as well.

Others have pointed to Afena-Gyan's struggles with consistency and end product. For every moment of brilliance, there were lengthy scoreless droughts and wayward finishing to match.

Whatever the reasons, it's an ill-fitting reality check for a player who seemed destined for greatness just a couple of years ago. Barring a sudden rejuvenation or blockbuster transfer, Afena-Gyan now faces the harsh reality of his career fizzling out completely.

The unfortunate scenario serves as a sobering reminder of the razor-thin margins and unforgiving nature of life as a professional footballer. One minute, you're the anointed "son" and darling of an all-time great manager. The next, you're cast aside and fighting just to get back on the field.

Owuraku Ampofo
Owuraku AmpofoFlashscore


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