Goal caught up with the ‘Black Diamond’ whose harrowing journey from Ghana to Argentina on the deep seas has transformed him as a fine footballer with Boca Juniors
Fiifi Anaman | Ghanaian Football Writer
Bayan Mahmud is a Ghanaian footballer whose trajectory has been special. A boy whose innate will to endure has seen him triumph against the odds.
The 18-year-old now trains with Boca Juniors’ youth side and gets to watch every single game of Los Xeneizes every single week. And it has come with its perks, like personally meeting big names such as Juan Roman Riquelme, Ariel Ortega, Juan Sebastien Veron, Fernando Gago and the great Diego Maradona.
DREAM COME TRUE | Mahmud could be first Ghanaian to play for Boca Juniors
Stuff dreams are made of.
“One time, I saw Messi play live too, against Venezuela. I was so happy! It's incredible how I've met all these great players,” Bayan, who despite speaking fluent Spanish now still remembers his Twi and English, tells Goal Ghana during an interview.
“Especially with Riquelme (club captain of Boca), there's this myth here that he's very snobbish and hardly relates with anyone. So everyone is quite surprised how we get along so well. He advises me a lot too.”
“I'm very happy. Boca is one of the biggest teams in the world. Playing in Boca Juniors is a big deal here in Argentina. I'm very happy and proud of myself.”
You can't begrudge this talented attacking midfielder-turned-right full back for being this happy and fulfilled. One can't imagine what he went through to be where he is. His past. His difficult, but inspiring past.
Bayan was born in Accra, spending his formative years in the modest suburb of Awoshie. He moved with his family – father (former footballer), mother (housewife) and a senior brother one and a half years older than him - to Bawku, a town in the North-Eastern part of Ghana. It was there that things took a turn for the worse in his life.
The infamous violent conflict between the Northern tribes of Mamprusi and Kusasi tribes, that persisted from the early 2000s through to erupting in 2007/08, led to the killing of both his parents when he was barely 11, in 2005.
“We had returned home one day only to find them dead. My brother was the one who saw everything,” he painfully recalls. “I don't even know how to properly explain it. I don't want to remember it.” Tears well up in his eyes as he recalls the ordeal.
|At times I remember those days I lived on the streets back in Cape Coast, hustling and suffering, and 'Oh God, thank you so much'. It wasn't easy. I did all that to survive.
- Bayan Mahmud
He left his brother, Muntala Mahmud, behind. He couldn't find him when leaving. Little did he know that would be the last time they would be in contact in a long while.
ON A MISSION
Bayan was on a mission. He did not know exactly where it would take him, but he just wanted to go. To move far away. To forget. Most importantly, he had to escape. Escape from possibly suffering a similar fate like that of his parents.
“I just wanted to go, to escape. To flee. I just wanted to go somewhere different and new. I had to beg a lot of people and ride on my luck. I knew I had to survive.”
This drive resulted in him making friends in Cape Coast, who helped him get unto a departing ship in the neighboring Takoradi Port as a stowaway. The riskiness was not a prospect that deterred him. He was scared of the possible repercussions of being caught, but he did not let his apparent fear serve as an obstacle course in his quest to leave the country.
“I did not even know where the ship was going!” he remembers and forces a laugh. “I was afraid because of that. It was very dangerous. But I was determined. I hid in the ship with the hope of not being caught and hopefully, it taking me to Europe. I took some gari and water on board, but it all got finished. I had heard stories of how some people died on board. I was scared. But I wanted to survive, I knew I would."
The ship, contrary to Bayan's guess and wish, was not heading to Europe. It was headed for South America. Argentina.
He eventually did get caught - but by a good Samaritan. A crew member on board saw him and was kind enough to listen to his story and sympathise, eventually providing his food and water needs and caring for him. Lady luck had smiled on the young boy. "He gave me everything," he says gratefully. "Sad I never really saw him again. He was a good man." Bayan, with the assistance of the man, hid successfully on the ship for three weeks.
"I remember he asked me, 'Do you know what you are doing; where you are going? You don’t know anyone. You're a small boy. How will you even cope?' "
"I looked at him and said, 'So far as God is everywhere I will survive'."
“The ship docked at a certain place. I didn't know the place. But I got off, wandered around and met a family who offered to give me food. I slept at a station for three days. I hardly spoke. These kind people decided to put me on a bus to Buenos Aires because they wanted me to meet more blacks since they couldn't relate to me," he remembers.
"I was in luck. Getting off the bus, I met two Senegalese people, one of who spoke English, so they listened to my story and sent me to the immigration. I was then sent to a refugee shelter in Flores."
At this point, he knew a brand new life beckoned. A new beginning, a chance to overpower his dark past with a bright future. He began playing football in the town square, and his unique talents immediately shone.
It was beautifully poetic. It was almost as if his life had been scripted meticulously, with the script writer knowing his football talent would finally become a definition of his potential and the avenue through which his inspiring trajectory would reach dizzying heights. He was discovered playing football by an enthusiast, Ruben Garcia, who was awed by what he saw.
Garcia did not hesitate - he knew potential and he saw it in its pure form. He decided to send Bayan for trials with Boca, and Bayan didn't disappoint. "He's a very good man, and his family - his wife and two daughters - are like my family. I spend time with them most of the time," Bayan says.
Boca were impressed with his raw quality and drive, and quickly took him in. Bayan passed the trials and was subsequently registered as a footballer with Boca, entitling him to accommodation in the club's facilities at Casa Amarilla.
He's now on the books of the Under-21s, awaiting a possible contract and a chance to become the first Ghanaian to play for one of the most successful teams in South America and the world at large. He cites Andres Iniesta and Dani Alves as his role models.
And like the duo he has the talent, his license to aspire. Boca’s Youth team technical handlers have recently praised his enormous talent, with head coach and legend Carlos Bianchi also impressed with his progress.
“I’ve met him several times and we've talked a lot. He likes me so much,” Bayan said of Bianchi, one of the most successful coaches in the world with a record four Copa Libertadores titles.
Amidst all the drastic change of fortunes, Bayan missed his brother, and always wondered where he was, or what he could be doing, and how he was faring. He finally tracked him down, and had Mark Zuckerberg to thank for it.
He found his brother on Facebook.
“I miss him a lot. We have been chatting thankfully. He’s also playing football," he said. "I'm planning to come to Ghana by the end of the year to visit him, and my friends too."
Bayan’s story has made him a super star in Argentina. Many websites, newspapers, magazines, radio and television shows have featured him to share his incredible journey of realising his dreams against the odds. "A lot of them," he says, smiling. "They all want to talk to me. Even to a point when I can hardly talk anymore."
And the girls can't have enough of him. Bayan's twitter and facebook pages have girls singing his praises and always wanting him to interact. He has got good looks and a good physique to match his admirable story. He laughs when I asked him. "They do worry me a lot. I've even had to stop using my facebook pages because of that. But what can I do, I have to take care of the situation,” he laughs again.
Bayan has no girlfriend, because - according to what he told Boca's official programme some months back - "it's now just football, football and football." He says most of his mates have started teasing him as being gay because he doesn't take advantage of the many girls that swam him for attention and autographs, and rarely goes out to party.
"I know why I'm here. I know where I'm coming from, how I got here. I have to think about my future. I always say to them, 'You people were born here, you've always been. Your parents are around. I have none of that'."
"If I say I want to concentrate on girls I'll stop playing football. I have to be very careful," he says. He further says most girls, owing to his popularity, throw themselves at him, even offering themselves for him to take advantage of. But he knows where his priorities lie. And it's not as if he has a choice too.
"You have to be serious everyday here. Training is very important and I have to give it the maximum focus. They (Boca) don't joke at all."
KEEPING EYES ON THE PRIZE
TWO PADDIES | "He [Riquelme] advises me a lot too"
The sort of attention Bayan receives - the TV coverage, radio presence, magazine covers, the social media fame, the autographs, girls and all that - can easily distort his focus and hurt his ambition, and also make him a target of envy too. But he has his eyes firmly on the prize. He wants to finally walk through the tunnel of the iconic La Bombonera, out emotionally to wild cheers from 49,000 fans. He knows that first team dream debut can only come with hard work and focus.
And prayers. Bayan does not joke with his praying time as a Muslim. He believes Allah saw him through his ordeal, and has granted him an opportunity to be great. "I never miss my prayers. I never joke with it because I know that God is helping me."
"I'm very lucky. I never even thought I'd end up in Argentina. I never slept and even dreamt about playing at Boca. I believe God knows why I'm here. Because playing in a club like Boca?" he sighs. "That's a big deal. It's very difficult to get into a club like this one. Many players come here for trials and they are sent back. I've been here for three years."
Bayan has come a long way. From orphaned street hustler to teenage footballing sensation within the space of eight years. He has met the right people along the way, and has endured remarkably. His experiences serve as a guide to him in his quest to reach the top. “Life has not been easy for me,” he reflects. “I’ve suffered a lot. I’ve been there before. Now look at me, I might not be okay, but my life has changed.”
“At times I remember those days I lived on the streets back in Cape Coast, hustling and suffering, and 'Oh God, thank you so much'. It wasn't easy. I did all that to survive. When I got here too, within one year, I had had all my documents sorted. It’s like I'm living with luck. It follows me everywhere I go. And I believe it's the hand of God."
And then the big question. Ghana or Argentina? "Ghana," he says. "I want to play for Ghana." He says his favourite Ghanaian players are Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari.
"Argentina have been good to me, it has given me all of this. But Ghana is my home, where I was born."
Bayan's parents will be proud of their little boy wherever they are. And Bayan knows what to do to make them even more proud in the coming years.
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