There are diamonds all over Africa, but that doesn’t mean that African economies thrive because of that. African diamonds very often become blood diamonds – means to obtain enough money to go to war against someone.
Minerals from Africa in most cases go to Europe and drive Europe’s economy. And in football, the situation is pretty much similar.
Shiniest and the luckiest African football diamonds go to Europe and become important players in important teams. But not all talented kids have that kind of luck. This is the story of a boy that eventually succeeded, and got a chance to shine in the Champions League final. But this is also the story about all of the kids that never got that chance.
Thomas Partey – A boy with football in his veins
Thomas Teye Partey was born in June 1993. He was the oldest of five children in his family, but he has 7 brothers and sisters altogether. His mother had 3 kids before meeting his dad, who is a football coach and a former player.
From an early age, everyone in the family played a game. Thomas and his brother Frank started playing for their local team, that was coached by their father.
Playing in the dirt of his hometown Krobo Odumase in south Ghana, there was no real prospect of playing professional football. In the small town far away from capital Accra people worked hard in a glass factory, but poverty and unemployment were widespread.
Thomas’ father worked with the kids in a local football club and even brought food to his poorest players sometimes. Partey always wanted to succeed in football, and it’s clear that football was in his veins. Apart from him, his brother and two sisters took up football, but he was the most talented.
His father knew how slim were the chances of succeeding. Because of that, he pushed his son to finish schooling, but Thomas just wanted to play football.
Hundreds of kilometers just for a goal and win bonus!
Finally, at the age of 17, a bigger club came calling. Partey signed for Tema Youth, a team from Ghanian second division. He helped his team reach promotion, but money wasn’t there. He played for a win and goal bonuses, so his struggling parents had to support him.
The thing that he didn’t know at the time is that his father constantly tried to raise money to send him to Europe, in order to have a trial at some club. But that was really hard in Ghana. With an average salary of 275 dollars, it’s nearly impossible to feed a family of 10. And a trip to Europe is a luxury.
Thomas wasn’t even the best player in his team. But he took the risk, worked hard and succeeded at the end. It could have been a lot of different, though.
A trip to the unknown
It was 2011, and a Spanish guy named Jose Gimenez came to Accra, where he was on a search. He was looking for young talents to represent in future careers. Gimenez didn’t have any plan or previous scouting reports. He just went from game to game and watched.
When it was turn to watch Tema Youth, two guys sparked his imagination. And Partey wasn’t the first name on Gimenez’s list.
“There was someone better than me, a forward who scored all the goals. But he did not want to come to Europe and wanted to play for a team in Ghana” explained Partey in an interview for Marca.
And this decision was really a smart and cautious one. Ghana is one of the centers of African “football slave market”. Culture Foot Solidaire (CFS) is a non-profit Parisian organization which is tackling this problem, and their stats are mind-blowing.
They claim that various “agents” ask between €2.000 and €7.000 to arrange young Africans with trials with European clubs. Then they leave them on the street with no documents or money. CFS claims that from 2005. to 2014. only in France, we had more than 7.000 boys that were left on the street like this. Up to 2020, they assume that the number has risen to 20.000.
But Partey decided to take a gamble. He wanted to play football and felt that this is the opportunity he couldn’t miss.
“So my turn came and when he asked me what I wanted I said to triumph in football so as to help my family. He asked me who was my father and he went to speak to him to ask if he could take me to Spain for a trial, but never said which team. I went with the agent who did all my papers but I had nothing to do, I just trained, ate and slept until the day arrived when I had to travel, which I did not know when it would be or what time.”
Partey had his papers arranged, but he didn’t have time to even say goodbye to his parents and friends. He was put into a situation where he had to choose between staying in Ghana or departing for Spain right away.
“I got into a car, they took me to the capital, they gave me my passport and said: ‘Today you travel.’ My dad wasn’t at home, nobody from my family knew anything, nor that I was going that day because if they were told then it would cause a lot of problems. I traveled to Spain and it was six or seven months before anyone realized that I wasn’t in Ghana“, said Partey later.
Yes, you read it properly. Seven months his parents didn’t even know he was in Spain. And this is exactly the same scenario that happened to those 20.000 boys that were left hungry, homeless and hopeless on the streets of France by their agents.
Agents have these shock tactics – it’s take it or leave it. They don’t leave any time to players or their parents to get any information about agents. In this situation, impoverished African people in search of a better life often take the gamble. And often get fooled.
It could have easily been that kind of scenario for young Thomas. Luckily, it was quite the opposite.
A fairy tale with a lot of sweat, and a sold house
Jose Gimenez turned out to be a good guy. He is Partey’s agent to this day, and back in 2011, he took him to Atletico Madrid in order to get him a deal. They landed in Spain’s capital at 5 a.m. and training was scheduled just an hour after that.
But Partey knew this is the crucial moment. He knew he had just one opportunity, and he was determined to grab it.
“Waking up early in the morning, with the cold, the language, the people, to understand how to play their football and everything. But then I told myself that this is where I want to be, and I need to work hard every day to get to where I want to be, to the first team. After two months they gave me the chance to stay.”
He had been lucky enough to have Diego Simeone at the club at that time. Argentine coach liked the kid from the start, liked his hustle and helped him progress.
Partey jumped through the ranks quickly. From Juvenil B then to Juvenil A, and then to senior football with Atletico C team. A couple of months after his arrival, he had jumped from playing for Tema Youth in Ghanian second tier to playing for Atletico B, in Tercera Division in Spain.
And young midfielder had to work hard, harder than the most kids. Even in Spain, it’s hard for black players from Africa to succeed. To this day, Partey claims that racism is very present in the game.
“The most important is to have the talent,” he says. “But then there is already a European in your position. You have to work harder than them, double or triple as hard. That’s the only way for African players to be successful in Europe.“
Eventually, when he was already in Atletico B, his family found out that he wasn’t in Accra, and that he went to Spain. A month later, his dad sent him money to buy new shoes and all the things needed for his career.
Without telling his son, Partey senior sold his belongings. He even sold his house in order to get his son just a couple of the most important things for basic life.
Loans and hard work
Partey’s hustle was always appreciated by Simeone, and he regularly asked young dynamic midfielders to join first-team training sessions. In Atletico youth and reserve teams, Partey became a great friend with two hot prospects – Oliver Torres and Saul Niguez.
The thing that followed would demotivate most of the people, but not young Thomas. Mallorca was freshly relegated from Primera, and they needed new faces in order to get back into the top tier.
It didn’t start great at all. On 18 August, he made his professional debut, in a 0–4 away defeat against CE Sabadell FC. In a desperate Mallorca team which avoided relegation by 2 points, he was by far the best player.
It was yet too early to get a chance in the first team, so Simeone shipped young Partey to Almeria next season. In 34 Primera games, he scored 4 times and proved to be one of the best players of the team that season.
With declining Tiago and Gabi in the team at defensive midfield positions, Simeone needed fresh blood in the middle of the park. Now Ghanian had to prove that he has what it takes to play for one of the best clubs in the world.
He made his first-team debut for Atleti on 28 November 2015, replacing Luciano Vietto in a 1–0 home win against Espanyol. Ghanian was that high energy midfielder, deployed in various positions to press opposition midfield or defense or to be an anchorman.
Partey often replaced more offensive players, forwards and wingers, and got into the games late on, to get that extra boost for his team. Atletico had a terrific season. They finished third in Primera with 88 points, just 3 behind champions Barcelona, and 2 behind second-placed Real Madrid in one of the tightest title races ever.
In the epic Champions League season for Atleti, Thomas played his role. He came on for the last 15 minutes of both quarter-final legs against Barcelona. In semifinals versus Bayern Munich, he was also subbed in twice.
Just four years after having to come to Spain without any assurance that he will find a club, a job, or even a place to stay, without having time to inform his parents he heads to another continent, Thomas Partey played Champions League final.
Sergio Ramos gave Real Madrid the lead, and Carrasco leveled things up in 79th minute. Match has gone into overtime, and in 119th minute a Thomas Partey entered the game. Koke couldn’t play anymore, and Simeone sent his physically most prepared player on the pitch. Real Madrid won its 11th title after penalties, but one African boy lived his dream.
This could be the happy ending of this story, but it isn’t. This is just the start of another climb. Thomas Partey first climbed from obscurity and poverty to normal life and successful football career. Now he is targeting greatness.
A complete midfielder – a homegrown legend
“I hope to stay in the club, I would like to retire here, but you never know what can happen. I want to stay here until the club doesn’t love me.”, said Partey.
In the colossal need of today’s media for transfer rumors, Partey has been often linked with a number of clubs. From rivals Real Madrid to Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and almost every English top club. But he doesn’t want to leave.
Ghanian midfielder developed a great relationship with Diego Simeone and answered all of Argentine’s tasks. At first, Simeone didn’t put him in deeper midfield roles, because he didn’t trust his composure and contraction.
Then he improved technically. Even though he isn’t a goalscoring threat in Atleti jersey, he developed his offensive skills in a fantastic way. Since that lost Champions League final he won two major European trophies with Atletico and learned from Gabi, Rodri, Koke and Saul how to became complete box to box midfielder.
It could be seen in recent games against Real Madrid and Liverpool, where he impressed. Nowadays Simeone finally puts his trust in Partey to start, and he starts as the deepest midfielder. The amount of space that he can cover is fascinating. He is also composed, don’t lose balls in the middle of the park, and has an eye for through passes.
His long balls are becoming more and more impressive, and after completing more than 150 games for the club it’s safe to say he is on his way to becoming Atleti legend.
Could have been different
Don’t let this story fool you. Thomas Partey succeeded against all odds. He had the talent, work ethic and mental strength needed to succeed in football. But most of all, this is the story of luck, and it has a darker side.
Partey came upon an honest representative. One who cared about him and managed to get him into the perfect place in the perfect time. Just look at Diego Simeone’s football and if one guy represents it – it’s Thomas Partey.
He succeeded. The other side of this story is the guy that stayed in Ghana, a guy that scored these goals when Jose Gimenez came to Tema Youth game. And that’s the brighter another side of the story. The darker another side is one with 20.000 kids left on the streets of France to take care of themself without money, documents, place to stay or anyone to go to.
This shouldn’t be the case. Not only that every kid that loves the game deserves a chance if he has the talent, but football shouldn’t be like that. Football should be about joy and sheer happiness of loving the game.
If you want it to make it like that again, we have a solution and it’s called Fenomeno. A place where you can support young talent just like Thomas, to have a career just like Thomas has.
And to get a profit out of that, too.