CHRISTIAN Atsu conducted an interview at Newcastle United’s training ground yesterday in his role as an ambassador for the charity, Arms Around The Child.

As Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson discovered, it proved an emotional occasion for the Magpies midfielder


IT was the memory of the family and friends he left behind that got to him. At first, it was just a solitary tear that trickled down his cheek, then it became a steady procession that grew impossible to wipe away. By the time the interview was sympathetically abandoned, Christian Atsu was unable to speak, such was the depth of his despair.

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You can have all the trappings of celebrity you like – the ripped designer jeans and limited-edition trainers that Atsu was wearing or the high-powered car that brought him to Newcastle United’s training ground – but if you have anything about you, you don’t forget who you are and you don’t forget where you’ve come from. Remembering can be a source of both hurt and inspiration. In Atsu’s case, the pair go hand in hand.


THE interview actually started fairly routinely. Atsu was meeting a handful of local journalists to promote a gala dinner in March that will raise funds for Arms Around The Child, the children’s charity that counts him as an ambassador. Operating in India, South Africa and Atsu’s homeland, Ghana, Arms Around The Child provides homes, protection, education and support to children who have been orphaned, abused, affected by HIV/Aids, trafficked, sold or are living in child-headed households.

Sometimes, as a journalist, you are invited to similar events and within a couple of minutes, it becomes clear that the invited sportsperson or celebrity has not got the slightest interest in what they are being asked to promote. Once, I even had someone break off an interview to ask the charity’s name.

From the minute he opened his mouth, however, Atsu was different. Childhood poverty in Ghana is not some fashionable affectation for the Newcastle winger, it is something he has lived through. He doesn’t have to imagine what it must be like to live six to a bedroom, scavenging for food, he just has to delve into his memory bank. So we spoke about his childhood memories of growing up.

The Northern Echo:

“I was born in Ada, which is a village in Accra (province),” said Atsu, whose softly-spoken personality stands in contrast to the brash exhibitionism that characterises his wing play on the pitch. “My parents were farmers, my father was also a fisherman. He did a lot of different things to try to get by, and his life was always hard.

“We grew crops like tomatoes and corn, and we would also go fishing to try to get things we could sell. It was difficult, but then one of my older brothers moved to the city (Accra). Some years later, he said we had to go to him so we could go to school.

“That is when me and my twin sister went to Accra. We were seven by then, and that was the first chance we had to go to school. It was hard because my brother was working, but often it was difficult for us to eat. We were living in a hall in Accra that had one bedroom and then a sitting room where you had your tea.

“My mother joined us, so I was with my mother, my twin sister, two other sisters and then my brother, all sleeping in this one room. We were there, but things became very hard. We couldn’t pay our house rent, so my mother had to go back to the village. That was probably the hardest time when she left.”

The Northern Echo:

By then, though, Atsu had been spotted playing football for his school team. The Dutch club, Feyenoord, had a feeder academy in Accra, and Atsu was offered a place in the youth set-up. It was a chance of escape, but more pertinently, it was a chance of survival. While most of his family members returned to their home village, Atsu was clothed and fed, and given the means to train twice a day.

He was the fortunate one, although his life was not without sacrifice. For a start, he was denied the opportunity to see his father before he passed away.

“When I was in the academy, my father became sick,” he said. “But my brothers kept it from me. They didn’t tell me because they knew the chance I had and they said they didn’t want to disturb me while I was training.

“A few weeks later, they called me and told me my father had passed away. I hadn’t had the chance to see him. I asked them, ‘What happened?’ They just said he was sick. I said, ‘Okay, well didn’t you take him to hospital?’ They said they tried, but they couldn’t make him well. I asked why they hadn’t called me, but they said they didn’t want me to know.” Even at that stage, everything had changed.


HAVING progressed through the academy, Atsu moved to Europe when he was 17. He started with Porto, moved on to Chelsea, and played for a host of loan clubs before eventually arriving at Newcastle in the summer of 2016.

A devout Christian, he puts his success down to God, but with recognition comes responsibility and as yesterday’s interview turned towards his charity work and the desire to give something back to the unfortunate and impoverished of Ghana, it felt justified to ask how Atsu actually feels when he returns home.

Does he feel proud to have achieved so much playing in the Premier League? Or do his religious beliefs mean he is wracked by guilt at the thought of having so much, while so many have so little?

“It is true, the reason I am involved in the charity work is because it is hard to go back and see the country I left behind,” he said, as his eyes began to glaze over. “Whenever I go home, I am happy. You never forget the person you were before you left.

The Northern Echo:

“I have friends there who knew me from the beginning. They know the start I had, they know the person I was. Today, they keep telling me, ‘You believed in God, you made it this far, and we are pleased for you’. Every time when they call me, they say, ‘You did everything to survive’. I have survived, but I do not forget.”

Not forgetting must be the hardest thing. As the tears began to fall, Atsu fought valiantly to try to put his thoughts into intelligible sentences. Yes, he is proud to be playing for Newcastle United. But that should not be confused with a lack of respect or compassion for the life he left behind. Moving is one thing. Moving on is quite another.

“I lived in an uncompleted building,” he explained, before his emotions finally got the better of him.

“But I made a life and came here and built my own house. Every time I go back to Ghana, I see the building I lived in, and it is still uncompleted. I say to my friends, ‘This was me, this is where I came from’.

“It is hard in Africa. Have any of you been to Ghana before? You cannot imagine what it is like. To see the kids with no money, no house, with nowhere to go. I’m sorry (for the tears), but we have to build a better world. As a grown-up guy like me, I can suffer. That is fine.

"But not the kids. Not when it is not their fault. Not when they are growing up as bad people, and we are blaming them. But if you have nothing, if you have nothing to lose, what do you expect?”

  • The Black Star Gala for social and global change takes placed at the Hilton Hotel in Gateshead on Wednesday, March 14.
  • Tickets are £150 per person, and are available from theblackstargala.eventbrite.co.uk
  • For sponsorship, tables for ten or ticket information contact 07801 292553. For more information on Arms Around The Child, visit www.armsaroundthechild.org