As he came on, in the 57th minute, for his senior AS Roma debut, the 18-year-old wore a sword on his back: AFENA, one half of his compound surname, refers in his native Akan language to that sharp weapon typically used to defend one’s self and/or inflict damage on an opponent in battle.
The other half, GYAN, is a name the teen shares with one of the sharpest finishers the Ghanaian and African game has known in the modern era; actually, he’s from the same town, Wenchi, as his more celebrated namesake, Asamoah.
For a kid born/bred in Italy, who has been part of a club’s academy system ever since he learned to walk steadily, Felix Ohene Afena-Gyan’s milestone on Wednesday evening against Cagliari would have been memorable alright, but still only an expected and logical next step in his life and career as a footballer.
Not so for this young man, who only moved from Ghana, his homeland, to the Italian capital early in 2021. Afena-Gyan’s story has been anything but straightforward, even defying logic in some parts, and little of what has transpired in the last eight months or so has been exactly expected.
Like a man in a hurry, Afena-Gyan has grabbed his opportunity and quickly risen through the ranks, impressing as he’s gone along. He has scored 15 goals in 28 games at all levels for Roma, but it’s this season’s numbers — six in five — that have caught the eye: Mourinho’s, specifically.
Proof of that came when the Portuguese invited Afena-Gyan, along with some of his Primavera teammates, to join what remained of the senior side during the last international break — and not for the first time.
Ah, yes, then there was that unexpected conversation he’d never forget.
“[Mourinho] came to me and asked who was the best player in Ghana,” Afena-Gyan revealed in an interview.
“And when I answered him, he later mentioned Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari. He tapped my shoulder and told me to work hard.”
It was Mourinho’s own way of saying: “I see you, kid. Keep going. Your chance will come.”
And it did, soon enough.
Afena-Gyan was included in the matchday squad for last Sunday’s big Serie A game with Napoli, but reasonably left out of what unsurprisingly turned out to be a bruising affair. For the mid-week trip across the Mediterranean, too, the young striker was taken along, and he saw action this time — just not at a point in the game that he, or we, would have imagined. And certainly not for over half an hour.
Mourinho himself was up in the stands, denied — by a red card picked up against Napoli — the proximity to the pitch that he so craves, that which permits him to transmit his special brand of intensity to his players. Still, there was little doubt about just who was pulling the strings on the Roma bench and calling the shots in the dug-out.
And so Afena-Gyan’s introduction, at a time when the Giallorossi had just conceded the game’s first goal in Sardinia and were battling to avoid a fourth successive game without victory in all competitions, spoke volumes.
This wasn’t some cup outing, with the result already wrapped up, that the mister had thrown him into; this, coming a week after Mourinho had slammed the quality of the first team’s second-string players, was a pretty big deal.
In Afena-Gyan’s time on the pitch, upfront with Tammy Abraham, he made himself quite useful and conspicuous, almost giving Roma the equaliser before Roger Ibanez did.
Afena-Gyan controlled a header expertly on his chest in a crowded box, before sending a low drive fizzing through a tangle of legs that, but for a block, would have at least gone down as a shot on target.
He ended the game, eventually won for Roma by skipper Lorenzo Pellegrini and his late freekick, with a Sofascore rating of 7.0 — just a notch below the team average of 7.05 — a reputation burnished, and a heart full of gratitude.
Mourinho proved an influential figure in the development of two of Ghana’s best players of the last two decades, the pair he hailed in the brief chat with Afena-Gyan referred to earlier. He helped forge the force Essien would become in his prime, and polished Muntari into a member of an elite group of players to have won a Treble of major silverware in Italian football.
Mourinho himself was clearly enthused about the impression Afena-Gyan made on his Roma bow, making that much known in the latest in a series of what has now become almost customary post-victory Instagram posts.
This, I believe, is more the start of something special than a one-off. Afena-Gyan, armed with a sword sharpened by a famous surname and determined to make that attacking edge of his felt at the highest level, will seek more with all keenness. Even as a visibly emotional Afena-Gyan reeled off the vote of thanks and waved his hand animatedly in the Unipol Domus’ press area, smartly dressed, it was quite obvious that he was already raring to go again.
Mourinho, hopefully, would be just as keen to reward such unquestionable desire and talent.