Should Harrison Afful one day decide to write his footballing memoirs, 12 November 2011 is a date that is sure to feature prominently. That was the day that Esperance Sportive de Tunis won the CAF Champions League for the second time in their history, 17 years on from their maiden success.
Having drawn 0-0 with Wydad Casablanca in Morocco a week earlier, the Tunisians needed a solitary goal in the return leg to make the continental title theirs again. It came when Afful controlled a crossfield pass with his right foot and then cut into the box to curl a sumptuous left-footed shot into the far corner. Not bad for a defender who rarely troubles opposing goalkeepers.
Understandably, Esperance’s Ghanaian hero was all smiles when he spoke to FIFA.com about his memorable strike, one that not only made them kings of Africa but also secured them a place at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2011, where the Tunisians will play their first game against Qatar’s Al Sadd on Sunday.
“I keep on watching my goal over and over again on my computer,” admitted Afful, nicknamed 'Falfoul' by his Esperance team-mates. “The thing is, I can hardly recognise myself because I’m not used to scoring goals at all. I’m more of a provider.”
Praise for Maaloul
Though unaccustomed to the spotlight, nearly one month on he still feels shivers down his spine whenever he thinks of the goal and the jubilant scenes it sparked: “I never get tired of watching my team-mates congratulate me and hearing the Tunisian commentator go wild.”
With Esperance’s first outing at Japan 2011 just days away now, Afful is nonetheless refusing to get carried away with all the fuss created by his wonder strike, which came a year on from scoring his side’s only goal in their 2010 Champions League final defeat to TP Mazembe: “I’ve always tried to take things step by step, at my own pace, and I’m going to try and stay patient.”
Slight of frame, Afful took his first steps in the game with Feyenoord Academy in his native Ghana, the prelude to a loan move to Asante Kotoko, where he would spend two years before moving to Esperance in 2009.
Following an uncertain start to life in Tunis, his fortunes improved following the arrival of Nabil Maaloul in the dugout last year. And Afful is only too happy to reciprocate the high regard his coach holds him in: “He’s like a father to us. We listen to him and he takes the time to explain his decisions and talk to us. He doesn’t leave anyone on the sidelines and he communicates a lot.”
The Ghanaian knows what he is talking about, having had the reasons why he is not yet a regular first choice explained to him in detail. Maaloul opts instead for less adventurous defenders when the occasion demands. Rather than take offence, Afful is determined to up his game: “The coach has his own tactical ideas, and having listened to his explanations I’m doing all I can to meet his expectations in full.”
Those words are genuine ones, coming as they do from a player who prefers to do his talking on the pitch rather than off it, as he showed during his stint with Asante Kotoko in the Ghanaian league, when he attracted the attention of the then national team coach Claude Le Roy.
Yet after making his debut for the Black Stars, he was left out of Ghana’s 23-man squad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ and had to content himself with watching his compatriots on TV. With his title-winning strike against Wydad, however, the man from Kumasi has sent a very strong message out to Ghana’s new man at the helm, Goran Stevanovic
Patience is a virtue
The 25-year-old full-back is not about to get ahead of himself, however, preferring instead to stick to his tried-and-tested formula of patience and hard work: “I’m a calm person and I always look to focus on the next objective and take things as they come.”
If the newly-crowned African champions can produce their best football in Japan, Afful could well have some lofty objectives to achieve in the very near future, an outcome he believes possible.
“We want to go to Japan and put in some good performances,” he explained. “It won’t be easy for us, but with the ability we’ve got, nothing’s impossible. I can tell you, we’re capable of going a long way in this competition.”
The first test of that ambition will come on Sunday when Esperance take on Al Sadd, with a semi-final date against the mighty Barcelona awaiting the winners. And should the Tunisian outfit tee up a meeting with the European champions, you can be sure the man who fired them to Japan will not let the pressure of the occasion get to him.