Felix Afena-Gyan of US Cremonese celebrates after scoring 2-2 during the Coppa Italia match between SSC Napoli and US Cremonese at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona Naples Italy on 17 January 2023. (Photo by Franco Romano/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Life was supposed to be easier for Felix Afena-Gyan after he moved from AS Roma in summer of 2022.
His spectacular breakthrough at the club early in the 2021/22 season was followed by a difficult spell in which opportunities to impress grew scarce. Still, Roma boss Jose Mourinho believed in his potential, which is why the ‘Special One’ approved that Afena-Gyan be offered a contract extension to keep him in the capital until 2026 that, of course, the player was only too glad to accept.
Afena-Gyan would stick around for barely two months, though, heading to Cremonese after the newly-promoted side enticed him with the prospect of more playing time at a club where expectations were modest and the first team wouldn’t be as hard to crack. With a Fifa World Cup coming around, it made sense that Afena-Gyan was persuaded.
For Roma, aside from the obvious chance to cash in on a talented and hungry yet frustratingly raw forward, the Ghanaian’s departure freed up room to sign a more proven finisher, namely, the experienced Andrea Belotti.
If all parties were pleased by that arrangement at the time — and they were — that feeling of mutual satisfaction surely isn’t as strong now, is it?
Roma haven’t had any real value from Belotti, with the former Torino man scoring just twice in 19 games. Afena-Gyan’s time in Lombardy has been hardly better. Limited to a bit-part role, with only two starts — from a total of 11 appearances — to his name, Afena-Gyan has every reason to feel disappointed with his lot.
It’s bad enough that he has been sparsely used, but even worse is the fact that Cremonese are having a forgettable return to Serie A football; La Cremo are one of only two teams not to have won a game yet in Europe’s top five leagues thus far this season. Afena-Gyan probably expected that his new club would struggle while finding their feet in the big-time, just not this much.
In the domestic cup, however, Cremonese are cruising, and that’s where Afena-Gyan — as a sign that he hasn’t let his head drop at all, in the face of these personal and collective challenges — has made a mark. Cremonese have won two matches in the Coppa Italia since he joined (their only victories this season, if you’ve been following), and Afena-Gyan, off the bench, has scored in both.
The first of those came against Modena in the Round of 32, when he doubled his team’s goal advantage, before Cremonese contrived to concede twice in the final two minutes of regulation time, forcing the game into extra-time where Afena-Gyan and his colleagues prevailed.
The next came last Tuesday, when they visited Napoli, a team whose fortunes this season couldn’t contrast more with Cremonese’s. The Partenopei are truly flying high, nine points clear at the top of Serie A, also topping a reasonably tough Uefa Champions League group with a near-perfect record that ranks them as dark horses for European glory.
Just before the Cremonese match, Napoli had hit a resurgent Juventus for five at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona — not the first time they’d thrashed a heavyweight this term. The expectation, then, was that Napoli, even a slightly weakened version of Luciano Spalletti’s team, would simply blow Cremonese away.
Not even when midfielder Charles Pickel gave the minnows an 18th-minute lead did a surprise genuinely appear on the cards, a belief certainly invigorated by a quickfire double for Napoli, scored by Juan Jesus and Giovanni Simeone to overturn the deficit, before the break.
But on came Afena-Gyan, just after the hour-mark, to level the score with three minutes to go, powering in a brilliant header. Even then, the tie still looked Napoli’s to lose, especially after Spalletti’s cavalry — including centre-back Min-jae Kim, midfielder Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, and red-hot forward Victor Osimhen — arrived to try to wrap the game up.
Cremonese, though, held firm through extra-time, despite being numerically shrunk by a red card to Leonardo Sernicola, and completed the upset they’d threatened all-game in the ensuing shootout. From not beating any top-flight side this season, they’ve only gone to overcome the most in-form of them all, albeit in a different competition. Afena-Gyan, trusted with the winning penalty, coolly dealt the coup de grace.
It was pretty fitting that Afena-Gyan got the decisive strikes that brought Cremonese back into the tie and ultimately saw them into the quarter-finals, where a trip to the Stadio Olimpico, his former home, to face Roma on February 1, awaits.
Significant, too, was Afena-Gyan’s ability to seize the moment, in the club’s first game under new head coach Davide Ballardini, to underline just how essential he could be for the Serie A strugglers this season as they seek success in the increasingly arduous task of securing survival while keeping their unlikely cup run going for as long as is possible.
Keen observers would have seen Ballardini give Afena-Gyan an encouraging pat on the head, a manifestation of what could be interpreted as a sign of rapport already developing between player and coach, as they geared up for the second half of extra-time. If that’s what the gesture indeed represented, Afena-Gyan would certainly appreciate it.
His senior career is only a little over a year old, but he has been through it all, from the high of a big break at one of Europe’s top clubs to the low of missing out on a maiden World Cup berth that had seemed all but his shortly prior.
Massimiliano Alvini, Ballardini’s immediate predecessor — sacked after the weekend’s loss to Monza left Cremonese firmly rooted to the bottom of the league, nine points adrift of safety — may not have had much use for Afena-Gyan, but his exit furnishes the teenager with the trigger for a fresh start.