In Italy, Roma’s youth academy is regarded as one of the most prolific when it comes to developing youngsters who go on to enjoy successful Serie A careers.
Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi are the standard bearers for the Giallorossi, and this season Lorenzo Pellegrini has taken great strides towards one day joining that duo as a homegrown legend at Stadio Olimpico. This season looks set to be the turn of Felix Afena-Gyan.
Thrust into the senior ranks by Jose Mourinho as his side began to falter in October, most expected the 18-year-old to play a bit role, making the odd cameo appearance off the bench in a bid to earn experience.
Then Sunday night’s clash with Genoa changed everything.
With the game goalless entering the final 15 minutes, Afena-Gyan was introduced as a substitute in a bid to inject some energy into his side’s performance. Eight minutes later, the teenager’s first-time finish nestled into the bottom corner to give the visitors the lead. Then in stoppage time he unleashed a 25-yard thunderbolt into the top corner to secure a 2-0 road victory for Mourinho’s men.
“I promised him that [if he scored] I would buy him a pair of shoes that he really likes, that cost $900,” Mourinho revealed to DAZN after seeing Afena-Gyan become the third-youngest foreign player to score multiple goals in a Serie A match.
“He came over to me and told me not to forget that. Tomorrow morning, I will go and buy them.”
Mourinho was good to his word, as Afena-Gyan posted a video on Monday of him receiving his new footwear from the two-time Champions League-winning coach.
How did Felix Afena-Gyan sign with Roma?
From the Sunyani district of Ghana to Mourinho buying him trainers in the Eternal City, Afena-Gyan has come a long way in a short period of time.
Until 2018, the youngster’s only real competitive football came for his school side before he was signed up to the EurAfrica FC academy, a youth football project only established in 2018.
There he continued to impress scouts – including Roma’s Morgan De Sanctis and Simone Lo Schiavo – and though he had never played in any of Ghana’s league sides or for the country as a youth international, he suddenly became the subject of a transfer tug-of-war between Roma and AC Milan in January 2021.
Roma won out, in part due to one of the most famous Champions League comebacks of recent years.
“It is amazing. It is a dream come true for me,” he told BBC Sport following his move to Europe. “Roma made a lasting impression on me that night against Barcelona (in April 2018), and so being a part of this amazing club now is definitely a dream come true.”
Afena-Gyan wasted little time in making an impact on his dream club, scoring three goals in his first four games for the Under-18 side before quickly being promoted to the Primavera (reserve) outfit, for whom he scored four and assisted two in 15 appearances to end the campaign.
He kicked on again at the start of the 2021-22 season, netting six times in just five Primavera matches to catch Mourinho’s eye and earn a first-team debut against Cagliari on October 27.
His pace and power helped swing that game in Roma’s favor late, and his second appearance came against Genoa three-and-a-half weeks later.
Afena-Gyan’s football future
A 100-metre sprinter during his school athletics days, it is Afena-Gyan’s speed that has given him an advantage since he moved to Italy, but his finishing ability and movement off the ball is also encouraging for a striker who can play anywhere across the forward line.
Aside from his physical gifts, Mourinho has also noted his humility, even if his agent, Oliver Arthur, insists Afena-Gyan has lofty ambitions.
“He is a player with lots of confidence, pace and power. His most significant strength is his ability to score,” Arthur told BBC Sport. “He also has the character of wanting to be the best in the world, and has started working towards that.
“His move is already changing a lot of perceptions about African talent. Most people thought it was not possible to move directly from Africa into the big clubs in Europe, but he has opened the way and proved it’s possible.”
Unsurprisingly, the eyes of Ghanaian football are now on him, and reports suggest he was being considered for a first call-up to the full international side for November’s World Cup qualifiers.
Afena-Gyan turned down the opportunity, feeling he was not ready to represent the Black Stars as he continues to develop his game.
Many at Roma felt that development might include a loan move in January but, after his Serie A heroics, he is unlikely to be let go by Mourinho any time soon.