Richard Apetor: “Football is in his blood”

The time on Richard Apetor’s wrist watch reads 4:15 p.m.; time then to wake up from his nap and make for the Railway Community Park in suburban Accra, Ghana, for a six-a-side football game. It is just another Tuesday. Not that a particular weekday alters his schedule in any way. Since opting to skip college and play football full-time two years ago, Richard Apetor has faithfully followed a long daily routine that centers on training and honing his skills in local games.

Born in the suburb of Abelemkpe to Thomas Apetor and Janet Ziwu on May 6, 1994, at a community hospital some 200 yards from the Apetor family home, Richard illustrated an early affinity for the game.

“He would juggle oranges, mangos, discarded thread rolls, anything round,” his mother, a seamstress, recalls fondly. “Football is in his blood…his grandfather, father and elder brother all played football.”

It was tough growing up in downtown Abelemkpe. “I remember walking long distances along the railway tracks to fetch water to bathe. If I wanted to use the public bathroom I had to join a long line and wait patiently till it was my turn,” says Richard.

The Apetor family home, where Richard currently lives with his brother Foster, 25, has running water now, but is still a very modest home – one of several two room houses crammed on inadequate land in the heart of the city. The outer room doubles as a living room and bedroom for Richard; the inner room serves a myriad of purposes – kitchen, storeroom, bathroom, bedroom and dining room – depending on the time of day. Lavatory facilities are shared.

The Railway Park, venue for this afternoon’s game, is one of two major parks in Abelemkpe, one of the oldest suburbs in northern Accra. The alternative pitch, Abelemkpe Park, is on the other side of town. Both have depressingly similar features: where there should be grass, a solid mixture of fine brown sand, interspersed with stones and pebbles, reside, symptomatic of the tough conditions in this neighborhood.

Richard immediately joins one of the teams, starting the game as a defender, given his height (6 feet 3 inches) and bullish strength. It is not his preferred position, though. He would rather play just behind the main striker. It is from there that his full array of talent, with or without the ball, becomes apparent.

Richard’s decision to choose football over further education was an easy one.

“I felt I had the talent. Dad understood me though mum was not happy. She felt schooling was better. I took her to the Abelemkpe Park to watch me play. I scored a goal that day after dribbling three players. She was excited,” Richard surmises, an impish grin on his face. “She knows I’m going to make it to the top.”

Richard’s team concedes a goal prompting a tactical rejig from the coach. Richard takes up his new position in midfield. Moments later a deft overhead flick and turn leaves his defender for dead, prompting chants of “Ibrahimovic, Ibra,” from onlookers. It is easy to see why Richard is compared to the towering and artful Swedish striker.

Richard’s day begins pretty early.

“I wake up as early as 5:30 a.m., grab my equipment and walk to the station. I board a vehicle to the Ajax park training ground, where my current team Legon FC trains.”

Richard has previously had stints with neighbourhood Colt team, Manal FC and third division clubs Coasant FC and Middlesbrough.

Training, preceded by an opening prayer, commences at half past seven and lasts for two hours. The players, Richard explains, relish the end of each gruelling training session:

“At Legon FC we are always given transport fares to return home along with a bread and salad sandwich…After training I stop by my mum’s shop on my way home. She asks what is going on in my life and how training was. mum gives me food and tips to keep me going.”

Back at home Richard showers, eats, watches his favorite television series on an archaic laptop and naps.

At 4:15 p.m., like clockwork, the short journey from the Apetor home to Railway Park is made.

Today’s game reaches a crescendo. Richard sets up a goal and moments later, scores to give his team a 2-1 lead.

Fading light coupled with the loud thrashing noise generated by the 6:30 p.m. train hurtling by, on one of two parallel train tracks straddling the pitch, are telltale signs that the game is up.

Richard heads home, where, in the company of his girlfriend Pearl and a couple of neighborhood kids, he engages Foster in a game of Pre Evolution Soccer on his Play Station 2 until bedtime at 9 p.m.

On Champions League nights, however, Richard and his friends meet at the Mainland Hotel to watch their idols battle for Europe’s biggest prize. They dream of one day being watched themselves.

And on the weekends, Richard’s routine makes room for church and community.

It is his insatiable love for kids that prompts him to coach kids of the One World Academy for two hours every Saturday. “I feel the need to help them out and learn from them. It is fun. I love this game,” gushes Richard after a training session with the kids.

Sundays are spent at the Teshie Dominion Power Community spiritual church, pastored by Franklin Bentum.

“Players like Richard look up to me because I pray for them. I motivate them and tell them they need to be humble,” Pastor Bentum says.

As Richard dozes off in perfect tandem with the 9 chimes of an old family clock hanging on the wall above his sofa-now-turned-bed, his favorite playlist of local and foreign hip-hop songs play softly from his laptop.

Canadian artist Drake can be heard rapping the hit song, “Started from the Bottom Now We Here,”—an apt tune, especially since Richard Apetor’s star is on the up and up.