When Atletico Madrid’s Thomas Partey stepped on to the pitch in Lyon during May’s Europa League final, it signified the culmination of a journey from dusty village pitches in Ghana to European football’s top table.
“It’s not easy for a guy like me to come from a background where I had nothing to be at this level,” says the 25-year-old.
“I started in a small village where my father was the team manager. He did a lot of sacrifices which he never told me about. It was him selling his stuff to try and get me those new boots.”
Atletico’s defeat of Marseille to win the Europa League was the end of a fine 2017-18 season for the midfielder. He established a first-team spot, starting 28 league games as the Madrid side also finished second in La Liga.
Partey again came off the bench in the final of the Uefa Super Cup in Tallinn in August – an occasion with added spice because Atletico were taking on fierce city rivals Real Madrid.
Partey became the first Ghanaian to feature in a Super Cup and assisted Saul Niguez, who put Atletico ahead. They won 4-2.
“It was a great season because we were second in the league and we won the Europa League and won against Real Madrid in the Super Cup,” Partey says. “I feel great, it’s a dream come true.”
That dream began a long way from the glamour of Madrid, playing for his local side in Krobo Odumase in eastern Ghana.
“He was a good boy, very respectful and would rise up to every challenge,” says Ibrahim Issaka, one of his first coaches. “I knew Partey would become a star because he can play anywhere.”
Partey comes from a long production line of Ghanaian defensive midfielders, with the likes of Stephen Appiah, Sulley Muntari and Michael Essien make their name at the top of European football.
African Footballer of the Year 2018 nominee: Thomas Partey
“I tried to be a like a ‘stopper’ using the intelligence of Michael Essien, and also attack. I use the strength of Yaya Toure,” he says.
It was Partey’s natural ability that helped him get spotted by Atletico scouts.
He left Africa to join the Spanish side in 2011 – in a secretive journey that even his parents did not know about.
“I got into a car, they took me to the capital, they gave me my passport and said: ‘Today you travel,'” he told Marca earlier this year.
“My dad wasn’t at home. Nobody from my family knew anything, nor that I was going that day – because if they were told then it would cause a lot of problems. I travelled to Spain and it was six or seven months before anyone realised that I wasn’t in Ghana.”
His first coach in Spain was former Atletico Madrid midfielder Alfredo Santaelena.
“As soon as we [the coaches] all saw him, we all agreed that he would be a player of the future,” says Alfredo. “He is a player with an innate talent.”
After loan spells at Mallorca and Almeria, Partey made his Atletico debut in 2015 and has grown under manager Diego Simeone’s guidance.
“We all know he’s a great coach, one of the best coaches on the planet. He helped me to adapt to any position he put me in,” says Partey, who has 17 international caps.
No game emphasises this point more than the first leg of the Europa League semi-final last season, as Atletico travelled to Arsenal.
With Sime Vrsaljko sent off in the opening 10 minutes, Partey was asked to cover at right-back. He performed superbly, working tirelessly as Atletico fought to secure a 1-1 draw, despite playing over 80 minutes with 10 men.
With hard work, determination and mental resilience, it was a performance that showed why Partey is one of African football’s rising stars.