Inside former Chelsea ace Atsu's battle against poverty

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The former Chelsea winger has opened up about his family's battle with poverty before he began his footballing career

Christian Atsu might be in the middle of a relegation dogfight with Newcastle United, but the Ghana international feels his side's Premier League struggles are nothing compared to his family's battle with poverty.

The former Chelsea man's childhood was beset by money problems and he lost his dad in tragic circumstances, with the family never learning the cause of death due to a lack of medical attention.

Growing up in Ada Foah, Atsu honed his skills on the streets before being spotted by scouts from Feyenoord's African football academy. He said goodbye to his family, but would never see his father Immanuel again, who fell sick and passed away during his first six months at the academy.

His brother and mother looked after him and his twin sister as other family members scattered across the country to make a living and make up for the loss of their father - who had worked as a farmer and fisherman.

Atsu eventually earned himself a move to Europe when Porto came knocking in 2010 and he concedes that he was lucky to find a way out of poverty. 

The 26-year-old now works as an ambassador for UK based charity Arms Around The Child as he aims to battle poverty. It is a fight he takes incredibly serious as he believes his father could have been saved had the family had the financial resources they have now. 

"Yes 100 per cent, I believe he would have survived if I was already a professional footballer, or if he had these health problems while I was at Porto," Atsu told Goal

"I believe that he would have survived 100 % because I could have provided for him. I could have got him into a better hospital and he would have been fine. We used to speak about this whenever I met my family members. For him, this could have been the best moment to have seen me playing.

"For me, it is difficult because he sacrificed everything for me and by the time I was good, he left. It is hard but this is the life."

Newcastle United's players are battling for Premier League survival, but many will gather at a gala dinner at the Gateshead Hilton Hotel on Wednesday night to support Atsu's Arms Around The Child event. 

Christian Atsu

Atsu gave up education for football as a young boy and he was feeling the pressure during his three-day trial at Porto, which had the potential to ease suffering amongst his family and friends. 

"It is true that in Ghana I learned about pressure. I have learned to cope with it now, everyday," Atsu added. "We used to say 'the dog chasing you will determine the speed at which you run.' If a slow dog is chasing you, you will run slower, if a fast dog is chasing you, you will run faster.

"The more pressure you have, the more you put in your work. I had a lot of pressure on my back and I had no excuse to not run faster, work hard. I left the academy because I spoke with my family and I went back home.

"There I had a letter from Porto that they had watched my videos in the academy. I played a game and they said they watched me and wanted me. I was very lucky that when I went home, I had someone to help me. 

"So when I went there, I saw the letter. Then I had to make a decision, I spoke with my family and I said 'I have to go to Porto' because this is a big opportunity for me. From there I left the country for Porto in 2010.

Christian Atsu at Porto

"I had a trial. It wasn't even a strict contract and my first trial was for three days. I had trials for three days and it wasn’t easy. I thank God that I had this opportunity. I was lucky to have this opportunity.

"A lot of children in Ghana will not get this chance and waste their talent in Africa, that’s why I am also trying to do my best to make sure that they will not waste their talent and make sure they have the opportunity to work towards their future.

"I was very happy because I could send money to my family and my friends. I was happy to sign my contract. At first I signed a six-month contract, then a one-year contract and then a three-year contract. I was happy because I had some money but that wasn’t the goal when I arrived.

"The goal was to play at the highest level that I could and to work toward that goal. I played in a lot of big stadiums now so I have experience of that. But back then there was more pressure because you don’t know where you are going, your future, your friends, your parents and everyone were calling you. So it was a lot of pressure from outside the field. From your family, from your friends.

Christian Atsu

"I mean outside of the field, also from Ghana, but now that I have played in big stadiums the pressure isn’t as much as in my early career. I have six brothers, four sisters, one mother, one father. It was good for them to hear the positive news, it put a bit of a smile on their faces.

"When I went there I travelled to Porto and I decided to forget everything about my country and tried to work on my future. I concentrated everything on my future. I needed to adapt to different things; different food, different people, different weather. At the start it was hard but I decided to work hard through it.

"I always enjoyed playing football, although the money was part of it, the priority is to always be a better footballer and also to play at the highest level. This was in my mind every day, when I am on the pitch and to finish training. This was my dream, It was also one of my dreams to play in the Premier League and I am very happy to have achieved it."

Atsu's performances at Porto earned him the nickname "the African Messi" and eventually a move to Chelsea. 

"When I was in the academy, we had the TV channel to watch the Premier League," He continued "Michael Essien was playing at Chelsea and we were watching him every time. It is true I was watching the Premier League. Even before I moved to the academy, I was finding ways to watch it.

"I admired Messi too, when I saw him playing, he was very small. He was very short, quick and had amazing technique so. I used to talk about this guy and say I’d have loved to play with him.

"Also Essien is a legend in Ghana, he won 'Africa’s Best' three times, he was great for Chelsea and also for himself. He was great for Ghana too. He was one of the players I was looking up to when I was growing up. Now I know him very well, honestly, he was a great player.

"I want to win an African Cup of Nations with Ghana and at Newcastle United, I want to work hard and to stay in the Premier League. In my charity life, my dream is to keep doing it for as many years as I can, for it to grow and for many people to know it.

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"I know there are a lot of charities in Ghana but I want this one to be one of the biggest charities in Ghana and for it to inspire other charity work. I would say that I have been through a lot but my response is to want to love humanity.

"To be there for each other, help each other. Helping my brother, sister, friends and anyone who is suffering. This is what I want to do, to show love for humanity."

There are still a few tickets left for the Black Star Gala, with Christian Atsu and his team-mates, at the Hilton Hotel in Gateshead on Wednesday March 14. Visit theblackstargala.eventbrite.co.uk

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