Most Ghanaians can recall the exact day Christian Atsu Twasam launched himself into the national consciousness.
That evening of June 1, 11 years ago, is memorable not just for the fact that the Baba Yara Stadium’s floodlights, rather unusually, went off mid-game when Ghana hosted Lesotho to commence participation in the 2014 Fifa World Cup qualification series.
The game, the Black Stars’ first after Kwasi Appiah was handed his maiden appointment as substantive head coach, remains unforgettable, too, for the scoreline. Ghana ran out 7-0 winners, as wide a margin of victory for the team as any in recent history.
The lights went out in the 54th minute, by which time Ghana ‘only’ held a four-goal lead, and didn’t return until another 86 minutes had passed. The Stars, still red-hot on resumption, scored a few more times to complete the rout, with two of those last three goals involving a scrawny kid, Atsu, introduced for his debut by Appiah shortly after the hour-mark.
Not many were familiar with this precocious talent.
The 20-year-old, on the books of Portuguese outfit FC Porto at the time but in the final month of a season-long loan stay at fellow top-flight side Rio Ave, was no unknown quantity — how else would he have got the attention of the Ghana technical team? — but Atsu surely wasn’t the most recognisable face on the team.
And so when he took his turn on that stage, owned it, and lit up the whole place better than the returning floodlights ever could, the vast majority of spectators must have rubbed their eyes in wonder. Yes, the opposition wasn’t exactly intimidating or the most glamorous, but making their international debut is still a big deal for any footballer, an experience that could prove quite unnerving.
Atsu, though, wasn’t fazed at all and definitely didn’t fluff his lines, weaving his way silkily in the opponents’ third — where, to be fair, nearly all of the action happened, with only the blackout offering some respite — to score Ghana’s fifth goal, before setting up Jerry Akaminko for the seventh.
In his relatively brief time on the pitch, Atsu was the undisputed star of the show, departing to great applause and with a new nickname — Messi, the thrilled fans had already begun to call him, drawing parallels with the Argentine great who ranks among the best to ever do it — in the bag. The Stars, after a disappointing end to their 2012 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) adventure, needed some spice, and Atsu promised all that and more.
By the time Ghana’s quest to reach Brazil 2014 approached its conclusion, just over a year later, Atsu wasn’t quite the same player. He was still scrawny, true, but Atsu’s profile had risen significantly. A move from Porto had just seen him make a huge leap into the stables of English giant Chelsea, while he had also burnished his reputation as a national asset.
Ghana ended the campaign in Kumasi just as they’d started it — with a thumping triumph, despite facing a team that, at least on paper, was more formidable than hapless Lesotho.
On grass, though, Ghana strolled, making light work of Bob Bradley’s Egypt. Atsu only had a cameo appearance, but he still made his mark, scoring the last and perhaps finest of Ghana’s goals in a shock 6-1 thrashing of the Pharaohs that effectively booked the country’s ticket to the Mundial.
While Atsu found little stability in club football — he never made a competitive appearance for Chelsea’s first team, instead being farmed out on a number of loan moves that took him to the Netherlands, Spain, and a trio of smaller Premier League clubs — he only got firmly-rooted in Ghanaian colours and went from strength to strength.
When the 2015 Afcon arrived, Atsu was ready to deliver a statement — and that he did, in some style.
A supply of Messi-esque brilliance, the abundant class that coloured his game, inspired the Stars’ run to the tournament’s final — for only the second time since 1992 — the outstanding contribution of which was the official Goal of the Tournament, scored by Atsu in the 3-0 quarter-final victory over Guinea.
Stationed on the touchline, Atsu obtained possession, beat a man, before sending a deceptively lofted ball all the way across the entire Guinean backline and over goalkeeper Naby Yattara for his second strike of the game. It looked like he didn’t mean it — more of a cross than a shot, no? — but it is impossible to argue that a player as gifted as Atsu lacked the quality and confidence to drop a gem like that.
Ghana would beat another of the Guineas — hosts Equatorial Guinea — to feature in the final, where they lost on penalties to neighbours Ivory Coast. But that anti-climax didn’t rob Atsu of the Man of the Competition prize he had duly earned, as well as a place in the official Team of the Tournament (an honour he’d again be deemed worthy of at the 2017 edition).
That, though, goes down as the absolute peak of Atsu’s Ghana career. He would represent the Stars at just one more major tournament, the Afcon of 2019, where fitness issues considerably muted the impact he otherwise might have had. Beyond this point, his club career — or, rather, his time in the biggest leagues — was already winding down.
His last stop in England/Europe was Newcastle United, where he lasted longest of all the clubs he ever played for — five seasons in all, including a final loan move from Chelsea that triggered a permanent transfer. He left Newcastle as a free agent in 2021, joining Al-Raed in the Saudi Professional League, but was limited by injuries to only a handful of games there.
Hatayspor, in the Turkish city of Antakya, would prove his final destination, and it took a while for him to get going.
He didn’t get his first goal for the Star of the South until February 2023, and when that did come, it felt priceless: a last-gasp freekick that secured three points desperately needed to lift the club out of the Super Lig’s relegation zone.
The beauty of that goal against fellow battlers Kasimpasa, and its sheer impact, rocked the very foundations of the Hatay Stadyumu. It elevated Atsu to pride of place in the hearts of Hatayspor fans, and almost immediately landed him beneath a pile of ecstatic teammates.
But mere hours afterwards, exactly five months to the day he was unveiled as a Hatayspor player, the Ghanaian forward found himself buried under a mass of rubble, just after Turkey (also Syria) was rocked to its core by a terrible earthquake that has now claimed over 45,000 lives.
Atsu was initially unaccounted for, along with Hatayspor’s sporting director Taner Savut, and many were, naturally, worried. Spirits rose days later when it was speculated that Atsu had been found in fairly good shape — with only breathing difficulties and injuries — but they quickly sunk again when those reports were eventually proven false.
As the hours ticked into the hundreds, fears, though unspoken, grew over whether he would be recovered alive, if at all; any sort of news was welcome at this point. And news — just not the sort hoped-for — did break this weekend that Atsu’s lifeless body had been pulled from the ruins, to the indescribable heartache of all — family, friends, countrymen, former employers and teammates, the entire world — concerned.
A torrent of tributes has poured out on social media, also on pitches around the world. On the very day he was officially declared killed, the first two clubs he played for in Europe, Porto and Rio Ave, were set to contest a league game, and the two clubs presented a joint nod to a fine footballer who donned their stripes.
Beyond his native Ghana, though, memories of him are probably fondest at St. James’ Park, the arena that embraced him more than any other he ever called home, where, ahead of Newcastle’s Premier League hosting of Liverpool on Saturday, the mood was particularly poignant.
The day was already scheduled to mark the 90th birthday of late Magpies legend Sir Bobby Robson, and the announcement of Atsu’s demise only made the aura more sombre at the famous old ground.
The minute’s silence for Atsu — well-observed at every other venue in the Premier League’s latest round of games — spilled into a minute of rapturous applause on both sides, with a rendition of Liverpool’s hymnal You’ll Never Walk Alone belted from the stands simultaneously.
Up in the VIP box, Atsu’s emotional wife, Marie-Claire, and their two young sons responded best as they could under the circumstances.
His former colleague, Newcastle star Allan Saint-Maximin, had some kind words pre-match.
“It’s hard to explain. I’m not going to lie, I’d never seen a guy like that before when I arrived at Newcastle,” the Frenchman said about a player whose starting berth on the left wing he eventually took.
“Even if we played the same position, he was always giving me advice, always. He was a very nice guy, always joking and smiling, when he played or didn’t play.
“He was a great person, so that’s why it’s sad for me, especially as I knew him, but I will do my best to think about that and take that into the game and play as well as possible.”
And Saint-Maximin did do reasonably well on the flank that used to be Atsu’s domain, standing out as one of Newcastle’s better performers even on a difficult evening that saw them concede twice and go a man down in the first 22 minutes, culminating in only a second league defeat of the season that halted a club-record 17-game unbeaten run.
There’s still a big game next weekend — a first major final since 1999, against Manchester United in the Carabao Cup, that offers a chance to end a 68-year wait for major silverware — with which they could do even greater honour to the memory of Atsu, a man so dearly beloved by the Toon Army.
Many have been keen to highlight just what a delightful player Atsu was. More extolled, though, have been the virtues that made him such a beautiful soul, like his constantly amiable disposition and the remarkable generosity which saw him donate unsparingly to a range of charitable causes, only too glad to do so away from the spotlight if necessary.
His ability as a footballer certainly caught the eye, but you get the sense that it was Atsu’s personality as a man that left the most indelible impression on any who encountered him. Eddie Howe, the current Newcastle manager, under whom Atsu briefly played at Bournemouth, recalls this big bundle of warmth quite vividly.
“I worked with him for a season and he was just an incredible, likeable guy, a really, really good person, really good teammate and an outstanding player,” Howe said after the loss to Liverpool.
He was, indeed, all that, wasn’t he?
And maybe, to sum up just the sort of fellow he was, few words do the job better than the opening lines of the chant composed and dedicated by the Newcastle faithful to Atsu during his time at the club.
“Oh,” they sing, “he [was] so wonderful.”