“My dream,” Faisal Chibsah says, smiling, placing his hand on his chest, “was to wear the national jersey and stand in front of the crowd and sing the national anthem.”
It was a dream to serve; one that remains very much alive. Growing up in Teshie, a suburb of Accra, Faisal witnessed passion for football at close range. His older brother, Yussif Chibsah, former Asante Kotoko midfielder and Black Meteors captain led the way.
He had a simple job to do — pick the ball when his senior brother and his playmates kicked it out of touch. Simply put, he was a ball boy.
He wanted to join them, but there was a challenge. “My parents were very keen on education. Fortunately, for me I had an older brother,” he says, leaning forward, readjusting himself. “Yussif [Chibsah], was the one I looked up to but based on what I witnessed, it was clear to me that I had to focus on education.
“Even my brother, it took some divine intervention for him to actually play football because there were times he would go out and play football and come back and it’s a different story,” he says in an interview with Muftawu Nabila Abdulai as he reminisced the days of old when his love story for football began.
Yussif Chibsah, during his playing days, was regarded as one of the best of his generation, but that was not enough to be allowed to kick the football about on the streets of Teshie. He needed a word that would convince his parents, and it arrived at the least expected time.
“It took a neighbour to tell my parents that, ‘look, your son is gifted, so allow him to play’. So my dad said, that’s okay, but the only time you play is when you are done with your school work,” he explained.
“That’s how he started and I was just watching the whole thing play out and I got into it as well.”
Part of the playout was watching Yussif convince Alhaji Grusah with his quality to sign him for King Faisal, where his craft was appreciated by Asante Kotoko, a club that marketed his skill to the world.
With Kotoko, he played in the first-ever CAF Confederation Cup in 2004, winning the silver medal as the Porcupines fell to Hearts of Oak in the final.
In between that, he earned a call up to the Black Meteors and that was a respite.
“I think the breakthrough for us, more for him, was when he was invited to the national team,” he reveals. “That was when my parents were like ‘you know what, maybe we should allow him to do it’, and he was very successful with it.”
Indeed, he was successful with it, but that was not done in isolation. “He was playing but at the same time he was still studying and we all had to help,” he adds.
Faisal had to come through many times to ensure his brother’s quest to attain his certificate in Economics and Accounting, and honing that skill at his feet to serve the country he was born in were achieved simultaneously. “Whenever he was in camp,” he says, “I would go to Kumasi Polytechnic to pick up his lecture notes and get it to him in Winneba. He would come home once in a while to take his exam and go back. I watched all that. It wasn’t easy.
“He managed to do it…that was when I realised that I could also do it as well and I just followed the pathway. Credit to him; he laid the foundation and the pathway for me.”
He did follow the pathway. When he got to Prempeh College, his talent did not go unnoticed as he captained the school team to the 2004 Milo games final and won it.
“In the course of this, I was very privileged to receive an athletics scholarship to go to the USA to study and play at the same time. Initially, I wasn’t keen on doing it, but I also knew that was the only opportunity my parents would allow me to play so I accepted the offer.”
Where was he headed? “I had no clue where I was going, but I was just happy to go study and play knowing very well that after graduation I would come back and continue to play and hopefully, wear the Black Stars jersey. I never got there,” he laughs. “Maybe, I wasn’t good enough.”
Maybe he was good, but not lucky. He interjects “Maybe, maybe, that’s so true though. Tons of players do not make it because of luck but I guess that also gave me a different direction.”
A direction into computer science, an area he graduated from school with, but the desire to play football was unrivaled to the extent that he tried his luck again in Sweden, but as destiny would have it, his school certificate would be the catalyst to his career on the pitch again, but in a different mould.
When Faisal redirected his focus into his specialty — computer science, manipulating data, and what not, it took half a year to realise there is no joy in playing with the computer after all.
“Six months into my computer career,” he recalls “I realised this is not for me. There was no more fun than being on the pitch so I reached out to my school coach and said ‘look, I am not enjoying this, I think I want to get back on the pitch. What do you think I can do? He said to me, ‘look, you have got a computer science background’, and at that time analysis was booming, so he offered me a volunteer role to be on his coaching staff. I helped out in laying out cones, being the link between the staff and the players…so I took it upon myself to invest in football analysis because I was good with the computer and I could manipulate the information,” he explains.
But the transition from analysis coaching has to happen to lead him to his current job.
“I started my coaching licenses to understand football more. Six months in, I realised this is what I want to do so I quit my job, and went into football as a volunteer, no pay, and here I am.”
That’s an interesting one. “Yeah, lucky enough my wife was very supportive; she understood this is where I belong, took care of the family financially and everything and after six months I was offered a job as one of the assistant coaches, that’s where everything started.”
At what point then, did Faisal think of becoming one of the best technical brains on the continent? “I don’t know.” There’s a long pause, then an even longer one. He puffs his cheeks and rolls his eyes. “People tag me a lot with that, but anytime I hear that I question myself,” looking over his shoulder, left and right “is it me?” he laughs.
“I still ask myself. I think I have got a lot more to learn and even more now after meeting [former Arsenal manager and now FIFA’s Chief of Global Football Development] Arsene Wenger, who’s a privilege to work with. He’s still learning and he says that all the time.”
From a volunteer on the coaching staff of the University of Delaware, Faisal is world football governing, FIFA’s brain in Africa in its quest to create an environment where as many countries as possible would stand a chance of winning the World Cup.
Before FIFA came knocking on his door to be their ears, eyes, and brain in Africa, there was Charlotte FC, a Major League Soccer (MLS) club that entrusted its next generation in the hands of this brilliant young man whose nous for quality, and eye for talent identification is unparalleled.
Appointed as the Head of Academy recruitment, Faisal had the responsibility of building the DNA of this club; identify talents that fit into the system of this Eastern Conference league club, and define what talents mean.
In this young man, Charlotte FC had a man with a wealth of experience in talent identification, data analysis, and team administration, from grassroots to professional level.
He would gather information, as he puts it “including off-field behaviours. Then, we conduct an initial observation of the player in different playing environments and conditions.
“We continue to observe and analyse until we reach a final decision to invite the player into our environment for trials. We provide feedback as much as we can, and it’s very important that we see this as an educational opportunity as well.”
Two players he recruited have been promoted to the first team. One of them, Brian Romero, made his debut in pre-season against English Premier League club, Chelsea.
“I wish I were there to witness it,” he says with pride. “We started a wonderful project and I would have wished to see these boys progress into the first team, but FIFA came knocking.”
When FIFA knocks on your door “you open,” he bursts out laughing. But even before Charlotte and FIFA, “I had applied for a job here in Ghana; I didn’t get it,” the former Head of Academy Recruitment, Charlotte FC reveals.
He wanted to be the Ghana Football Association’s Technical Director. “Maybe,” says Faisal, moving his head backward, before turning it right with his eyes away from the camera, he returns smiling. “I wasn’t good enough.” There’s a pause. “That’s what it means.”
It was a role he says “I wanted to bring discipline, I wanted to bring structure. I have worked in structures, I have set up structures. I thought we needed a bit of structure, a bit of discipline, a bit of direction as well; we needed somebody just to lead football in the country and that was what I was hoping to bring.”
“You see,” he began, “I have been in youth development so I understand the youth, I know the opportunities that are out there, I understand the culture because I am from Ghana, but one thing I was really looking to bring is discipline.”
However, as he puts it “maybe, I wasn’t good enough,” as the GFA overlooked his qualities and handed the role to Germany’s Benhart Lippert.
Disappointed he didn’t get the job? “No. I wasn’t disappointed at all because I wasn’t expecting even a phone call. To be the TD (Technical Director) of the GFA, that’s a huge job.” Leading FIFA’s role as a high-performance specialist for Africa is an even bigger job.
There’s a smirk. “Yeah, but I knew there were going to be tons of people that want to work for the Ghana Football Association.
“Credit to the FA though because when I sent in my application, I wasn’t even expecting a call back because I was young at that time. If it’s now, I will say I am much more ready than I was two years ago, but they still gave me a call, the President called me, we exchanged texts, I went through the interview… Was it too early at that time?” There’s a pause for thought. “Maybe?”
Faisal did not find favour in the panel of the GFA, but he found one in former Black Stars defender and CAF Deputy General Secretary, Anthony Baffoe. Tony, as he is affectionately called, is much noted for his famous saying; “there is no elevator to success, you must take the stairs.”
These words would echo in the mind of Faisal. “I spoke to Anthony Baffoe,” there’s a smile. “I know he wouldn’t want me to mention his name, but I think it’s fair that I do that. He said ‘you are young with a bright future and should continue with what you’re doing, there’s going to be a big opportunity.'”
Tony’s foresight might be forensic. He foresaw a future while seated in his office at PFAG; an opportunity even Faisal would have argued with a fortune teller if he had mentioned it to him many years ago, even two years ago. Guess where it came from, FIFA.
“At that time, we both didn’t know it was going to be FIFA. I would bounce ideas off him and he would advice me and all that, so when the opportunity came for FIFA looking for somebody here on the continent, he thought of me. He spoke to me about it and I said ‘if it’s FIFA, I am interested’; I want to learn more about the game, but I also want to explore more about other opportunities.
“I sent him my CV, and a bunch of others sent theirs as well, I went through a series of interviews; maybe they saw something and everything just started from there.”
The FIFA interview panel saw a brain beyond age, a brain only matched by his desire.
Now he is having the fun he wanted after school, fun that pays the bills. Now, it appears he loves it even more.
“If you asked me 15 years ago if I was going in that direction, I probably would have said you are mad,” he says with an innocent look. “I never thought I was going to get into football; I was just looking forward to my career in computer science, but six months into that, I realised this is not mine. Although I love computers and love to play around and all that, I found happiness only in the game of football,” he ended.
Faisal has lived all his life chasing a dream of representing his country; playing for the Black Stars is one part of the dream he has lived, albeit vicariously through his brother. The other part, he’s very much living it for himself, helping African countries create the next generation of football talent. And maybe, in a few years, when the Black Stars win the World Cup, Faisal would very much be represented in that stadium, singing the national anthem; representing his country in a suit. Which part of the stadium he sits, that’s up to posterity.
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