Three years ago an orphaned teenager landed in Argentina, travelling from Ghana as a stowaway. Now he has signed for Boca Juniors. He tells Harriet Alexander his remarkable story.
As he sneaked into a cargo container under cover of darkness, 15-year-old Ghanaian orphan Bayan Mahmud had no idea what lay ahead of him. All he wanted was to escape the country where savage tribal violence had claimed the lives of both his parents and start a new life somewhere else.
Three years later the story of what happened next is being celebrated inArgentina, the football-crazy country where he arrived as an illegal immigrant after three weeks stowed away at sea.
Not only has Bayan, now 18, just signed a contract with Boca Juniors football club – the first foot on the ladder to potentially huge success – but he has also secured a sponsorship deal with Nike.
“My parents would have been very proud of me,” he said, speaking to The Telegraph from the youth squad’s Buenos Aires apartment. The club, one of Argentina’s largest, has fielded such stars as Diego Maradona and Carlos Tévez.
“I’m very happy here,” he said. It’s a good place to be.”
That Bayan survived at all is astonishing. His father, a professional footballer, played in Kumasi, Ghana‘s second city, but on his retirement moved north with his family to the town of Bawku and retrained as a herbal doctor.
“Life was good then,” Bayan recalled. “I played a lot of football, without shoes or goalposts, just in the street with my brother and friends. But then the fighting started.”
In 2005, aged 10, the boy returned home one day with his older brother to find his parents’ bodies – both brutally killed in a tribal attack.
“Their death was a disaster for us,” he said. “We went to live in an orphanage, but five years later the gunmen came back. Lots of people died. I thought I would be killed, so my brother and I ran – but I lost him.”
With a few coins in his pocket, the 15-year-old made his way to the port town of Cape Coast, where he befriended local boys who earned money working as porters for the huge ships that docked there. He wanted to get to Europe, and one of the boys suggested he hide inside a container.
“I was very scared,” he said, “but I had seen horrible things in Ghana too. I was leaving behind a lot of sadness.”
All he had with him was a little “gari” – cassava flour – and some water, but when hunger drove him from the container he was befriended by an African sailor who hid him and brought him food. “If the ship’s officers knew about me I would have been sent straight back to Ghana,” he said.
When the ship arrived not in Europe but in Argentina, a country of which he had never heard, he set off on foot for the capital where fellow Africans helped him find a place in a home for refugees. One day a group of Argentine youths asked him to join their kickabout game of football – and then asked the fleet-footed youngster back every Saturday. “I loved it,” he said.
Spotted by a Boca Juniors scout, he was taken to trials and offered him a contract with the youth squad, a coveted position that earns him a total of £200 a month. His contract with Nike is worth a further £2,700 a year – giving a combined income unthinkable back in Boku.
The vast majority of the country’s footballers are white but Argentinans have taken “the Ghanaian Maradona” to heart. He has almost 10,000 followers on Twitter, and dozens of Facebook fan pages, while the country’s newspapers have delighted in his story, with headlines stating “I want to be the first black man to play for Argentina.”
Now Bayan hopes soon to receive his Argentine nationality, to complement his heavily-accented Argentine Spanish. He has become a fan of local asados – barbeques – but still prefers Ghanaian “high life” pop music to the tango.
And, he added, “I would love to go back, and to see my brother. I miss him very much – we were like twins.”