There can be few players around who who can claim to have had as varied a career at 19 years old as Ghana's Frank Acheampong.
Despite his tender years, the Anderlecht forward has already played for clubs on three continents, performed in the AFC Champions League and represented his national team at senior level. All experiences, he feels are fuelling his displays at FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013.
They are displays that now see his side face France in the semi-finals, a chance Acheampong feels for them to “right our mistakes”, after a 3-1 opening game defeat 19 days earlier. But whenFIFA.com sat down with the Black Satellites' No7, he was still visibly buzzing about their stunning, last-second 4-3 victory over Chile.
Trailing at the mid-point of extra-time, rousing words from coach Sellas Tetteh ringing in their ears, the African side showed the do-or-die attitude that had seen them scrape through the group stage and beat Portugal to strike twice in the final 15 minutes of their quarter-final. “Some people were crying tears of joy – I couldn't sleep from excitement,” Achaempong said of the aftermath.
Buoyed by messages of encouragement from the class of 2009, who lifted the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt, and following Tetteh's blueprint, Acheampong is hoping they can “repeat history”. He is adamant there was no point during Sunday's game in Istanbul where he thought victory was beyond them. For many you would question this belief, but he has previous experience of stunning victories.
[My family] are all that I have. In your career anything can happen, but you have to remember those who were there for you when you were nobody.
“The 2011 Thai FA Cup final was just like this game,” he professed with a broad grin, thinking back to his trophy-laden 18 month spell with Buriram United in Thailand. That is a match that will no doubt be a part of Acheampong folklore for decades to come.
With the game deadlocked after 105 minutes against fierce rivals Muang Thong United – what he describes as “a Thai Clasico” – the game restarts for the final period. Just three minutes later, Acheampong skips between two defenders to rifle the winner in off the under side of the bar. A big grin comes across his face when reminded of that goal – one of many while in Asia. “If you score in those games you can't sleep because of all the calls! People love football too much, especially in Thailand.”
However, a goal a few weeks prior is much more poignant for the young Ghanaian, one that typifies both his unbelievable drive to succeed, but also the sacrifices he has made. Leaving his three brothers and parents behind at 17-years-old to move to Thailand, his father tragically passed away during his first season there.
His family shielded him from the news until after Buriram had triumphed in their FA Cup semi-final, but with a league derby against Muang Thong just a couple of days away, there was no doubt what he would do. “They told me not to play, but I was clear. I said 'no, he's dead, if I play or I don't he won't come back, and I have to be in this game'.”
Emotions were undoubtedly running high, and in a game already full of tension, Acheampong got the release he needed, recalling the match with touching pride. “It was 0-0 after 90 minutes with three minutes of injury-time and we had to win. At that moment I just prayed, saying 'God, please let something happen to me'. One ball came in and, boom, I scored and just started to cry.”
Religion and family have played a huge part in his career, which very easily could not have happened had his mum – “a wonderful woman” – got her way. “She used to tell me that even when I was crawling around I just wanted to kick things,” Achaempong explains with the beaming smile that is a regular feature of our interview. “But when I started at primary school I did so well that she didn't want me to play.” It was only the intervening words from a man at the family's church that has seen him blossom into the talent he is today.
After a couple of years in the Ghanaian Premier League in his mid-teens, the opportunity arose to make his move to Asia – which was tough. With culture and climate a shock to the system, he eschewed potential distractions, burying himself in his work by living at Buriram's football camp. “I was focussed, I wanted to make something of myself, to at least make my small family happy and proud of me,” he said.
The grounded and humble teenager is all too aware of what they have done for him. “For now they are all that I have. In your career anything can happen, but you have to remember those who were there for you when you were nobody.”
In a spell that saw him accrue five trophies, and be crowned the league's best foreigner, the fans adopted him as one of their own. “They were crazy, I couldn't believe this,” he said, puffing his cheeks in disbelief. “At one point they wanted me to naturalise and play for Thailand! They were so in love with me, even my club president referred to me as his son!”
A national team call-up followed, with inspiration being drawn from the likes of heroes Asamoah Gyan and Kwadwo Asamoah, before the chance to move to Belgium arrived. After a trial at Scottish champions Celtic failed to lead to a move, a nervous Acheampong joined the Belgian champions on loan – “it was perfect, apart from the weather”.
On his globetrotting lifestyle, he admits it is a mixed reality. “Moving around a lot is tough, but it's a nice experience too – meeting people from different backgrounds and cultures – as if you don't travel, you don't know how the world is. Ultimately it's good for my career, so I just have to work hard and hope all my dreams come to pass.”
No doubt the next one continues against France in Bursa.