Editor’s Note (February 19, 2023): On February 18, Christian Atsu’s agent Nana Sechere confirmed that the soccer player did not survive the earthquake, despite earlier reports to the contrary. On February 7, an official with the Hatayspor soccer club reported that Atsu had been rescued. The next day, Sechere said the soccer player’s whereabouts were unknown. To date, more than 44,000 people have died in Turkey and Syria as a result of the natural disaster.
After a deadly 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck southern Turkey and western Syria on Monday, at least 7,200 people have died and thousands more were left trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings. Among those stranded were Christian Atsu, a professional soccer player once described by The Athletic as a “national icon” in his home country of Ghana.
Atsu was staying on the ninth floor of an 11-story building that was completely destroyed by the earthquake, according to CNN. Atsu, who once played in England’s Premier League and represented Ghana at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, was not immediately accounted for after the earthquake, leaving fans and colleagues fearing the worst.
But he was found alive and rescued from the rubble, the Ghana Football Association announced on Tuesday. He was taken to an area hospital for treatment of injuries and listed in stable condition, a rare bit of positive news following an earthquake that has caused widespread damage and left tens of thousands of people wounded.
The near-death experience was far from his first brush with hardship. Atsu, who has played in several Africa Cup of Nations tournaments and now plays for the Turkish Süper Lig club Hatayspor, grew up in extreme poverty and overcame incredible obstacles before achieving his goal of playing professional soccer.
Despite the hardships he has faced, Atsu is “almost always smiling,” according to The Athletic. “It is true that in Ghana I learned about pressure,” Atsu told football news website Goal. “I have learned to cope with it now, everyday. We used to say ‘the dog chasing you will determine the speed at which you run.’ If a slow dog is chasing you, you will run slower, if a fast dog is chasing you, you will run faster.”
A Poverty-Stricken Childhood
Atsu grew up in Ada Foah, a fishing community town on the southeast coast of Ghana. He has 10 siblings, including a twin sister. Both his parents were farmers, with his father also working as a fisherman. Atsu and his siblings occasionally had to leave school because their family couldn’t afford the fees, according to GhanaWeb.
He developed an interest in soccer during primary school, playing barefoot during breaks and after school. One of his brothers took him to a juvenile football club to begin training for a possible career, but he often had to jog to the training grounds because his family couldn’t afford the transportation.
Atsu’s mother swept roads and sold smoked fish on the side of the road to feed her children, according to The Athletic. The family was eventually forced to live in an uncompleted building, with Atsu sleeping on a mattress in a bathroom.
While Atsu was away from home playing soccer, his father died from illness. The family couldn’t afford medical fees, so he was never treated. They never learned his official cause of death due to the lack of medical attention.
“When I remember how my dad died, it was very painful way because it came through a lack of money to take him to the hospital,” Atsu told The Independent. “I don’t want this to happen to anybody; suffering because of a lack of money, to not have education. It’s not right. I will try [to help them] as much as possible.”
His Uneven International Soccer Career
After training at what is now known as the West African Football Academy, Atsu joined Cheetah FC in Kasoa, Ghana, before becoming a winger with the Portuguese club FC Porto in 2009. He signed with the Premier League’s Chelsea F.C. in 2013. However, Atsu never made an appearance with Chelsea and instead was loaned out to other clubs over the next four years, including Vitesse in the Netherlands; Everton F.C., AFC Bournemouth, and Newcastle United in England; and Málaga CF in Spain. He was permanently transferred to Newcastle in 2017, making a total of 121 appearances and scoring eight goals, according to BBC.
Atsu has admitted he did not reach the level he felt capable of during his time playing in Europe, but that the perspective he obtained during his difficult upbringing has kept him from feeling disappointed. “I have no regrets,” he told The Athletic. “I know where I came from, and that is true hardship. This is nothing compared to that.”
Making an Impact Through Charitable Endeavors
Atsu has committed himself to charitable causes that help children escape the type of poverty he experienced. He is an ambassador for Arms Around the Child, a charity that provides homes, education, and support for children in Africa and Asia living in extreme poverty, a cause close to Atsu’s heart.
“I will not allow these kids to go to the same situation as I went to,” he told The Independent. “We have to do everything possible to help these kids, to provide food, water, everything and give them shelter.”
Through it all, Atsu has kept playing soccer. The day before the earthquake, he scored a dramatic late-game free kick to lead Hatayspor to a 1-0 victory. Atsu tweeted about it just a few hours before the earthquake, and several fans replied with hopes for his safe recovery.
“We thank God, though I want to hear his voice before I calm down,” Atsu’s twin sister, Christiana, said in a statement after learning of Atsu’s rescue. “These past few hours have not been easy. It has been tears and prayers to God.”
Colin McEvoy joined the Biography.com staff in 2023, and before that had spent 16 years as a journalist, writer, and communications professional. He is the author of two true crime books: Love Me or Else and Fatal Jealousy. He is also an avid film buff, reader, and lover of great stories.