In October of 2009 I had a decent job in a respectable company, living in a great city, enjoying my friends and having an overall good time, but I was feeling a need to contribute to society, to the community, a need to start giving something back to those who are “less fortunate”. I needed to do something that was both rewarding for others and interesting and fun for me, so I started thinking about something that I was good at and, something that I could teach or share with others.

Football was the easy answer (I’m passionate about it) given that I have been a footballer since I can remember and I’ve played at a very competitive level in different places.My next step was to find a place to volunteer and share my experience, so I did research on Internet about football volunteering programs and I found, through a very well designed website, Global Cultural Solution which offered the exact program I was looking for: local placement in an African community (Ghana), and the chance to work with boys that were between 10 and 21 years old. I put my “previous” life on standby and took off to Ghana on March 1st 2010 in search of an incredible journey and experience.

After some airline delay trouble, I managed to reach Ghana very early in the morning at 3:45 am. At the airport of Accra a member (Desmond) of GCS was waiting for me, he was immediately helpful and friendly and took me to the city of Ho, where I would have my chance to meet the rest of the GCS staff and begin my orientation about Ghana in general. After orientation finished, I rested and slept one night in Ho after preparing everything for my trip the following day to the village where I would be working at.

The next morning a member of GCS (Augustine) and I arrived at the village, Sukrong Bethlehem, where I was greeted by Coach Shaibu “Bossi”, the person that I would be working with during my entire stay, and he showed me my room and gave me a small tour of the facilities. During that very same afternoon, Bossi took me with him to our first training session together; he introduced me to the players and immediately started training all the players by myself. Bossi gave me complete freedom to do any kind of football exercise I knew with the players, which I though was very nice of him.

Days went by and the relationship with the players started improving, they would understand better and better what was expected of them and what role they would playing. At the same time, I was getting more comfortable as days went by, however, at the beginning I felt a big culture shock (which I was prepared to face) with almost everything; weather is extremely hot and humid, sanitary conditions and facilities were very different to what I regularly use at home, language barrier as most people on the village didn’t speck English, and the food was a little bit too spicy for my liking. However, all of these things began to fade away as days went by and after about a week and a half I was already adapted to almost everything, except food, which I think it is the very last thing you can adapt to in any part of the world, given that food can and will change your mood and overall wellbeing if you don’t eat as well as you usually do.

Training sessions continued from Monday to Friday, I started to feel that I was making some impact in the team, so we faced our first friendly match against a team from a nearby village. Result, no good…we lost 1-4 , but on my defense, I had only worked with the team for 1 week, so we knew we needed to change some things and go back to training as usual but more mentally focused.

In the meantime, the people from the village were being incredible friendly and welcoming with me, every single time somebody would walk right by me, they would greet me and welcome me to their town, they would always make sure I had everything I needed and tried their best to make me feel as comfortable as they could. I have been lucky enough to travel around the world and see and meet different cultures, but the people from Sukrong Bethlehem and the villages around it are probably the friendliest and nicest I have ever met. They smile all day every day, they sing and dance for no particular reason, and seem to be “happy” despite of their current situation.

And the children, they can just look at you with those big bright eyes and honest and huge smiles, which will make you remember them for the rest of your life…I am not a father yet, but it is true what they say, kids like those of Sukrong, can definitely change your life. Training sessions were well underway; I had to be really creative with the exercises and when I would explain them because some of the players don’t understand English well, but the players responded very well to the training sessions and I would always ask for some kind of feedback from them to make sure we were on the same page. So we faced our second match, this time I’ve had more time to know and train the team, so as a result we won 3-1…big win, and big relief.Third, fourth, and fifth matches were played the following weeks; 3-0, 4-1, and 5-1, respectively…all won!

The team had gained back its confidence after winning 4 games in a row, as time passed by we developed an even better understanding of each other and were very well prepared to face almost any team. We got a call from the coach of a second division team, they had heard about how no team was being able to beat us, so they invited us to their home ground to play them. For us it was a great opportunity to reveal our actual level and team personality, given that such team was very well known and considered the best in the area. We said yes, we accepted the invitation on a Friday to play them the following Wednesday. But first we had to play another team on Sunday, a good chance to shape up for the big game. On Sunday, the result was 4-0…we won, again. The following days went by really fast, training sessions were very serious keeping in mind the big game on Wednesday and the players were very anxious about the match. Wednesday arrived, we travelled for about 40 minutes to the town of the “best team” of the area, and the players had relaxed a little, they sang all the way to the town in the minibus. Good sign.

The match started, some players were more nervous than others, but I think I was the more nervous of all, I tried to not show it and I told the players right before the game started that they should go and have fun.
The other team was very good, immediately they showed good skills and tactical, trained, and a disciplined approach. But we were no easy fit; we had trained hard and were very confident after winning 5 games in a row. Little did we know, the other team had been undefeated on their home ground for 16 games in a row, 14 wins and 2 draws…not such a good sign? Time kept running and first half was over, score line 0-0. We, as well as them, had clear chances of scoring, but the keepers were not to allow it.

At halftime I pointed out some weaknesses and strengths both from our side and theirs, and tried to encourage the players as much as I could to believe in their selves and the possibility to win the game. The game continued and the team kept on pushing until they got their reward; 15 minutes after the second half started, Gafaru (our team’s leading striker) netted the ball passed the keeper and we were celebrating one more time. But the other team would not rest, and with a little help from the referee (after all we were playing on their home ground) they came back and tied the game around the 25th minute. 1-1 wouldn’t be such a bad result, but my players wanted nothing else than victory, and so did I. But the referee was not our best friend; he signaled a penalty against us, but our goalie was on one of those days, he saved it! But sadly, the referee red carded our keeper 15 minutes from time. We made two substitutions with the intention of getting the ball back in our possession, and it paid off. One of our substitutes gained the ball and passed it to Gafaru for a glorious chance to score the victory goal 5 minutes from time. Gafaru scored once again!...the game ended 8 minutes after time, the ref had given the other team a penalty, red carded our goal keeper, and added extra time for the other team to tie the match, but it just wouldn’t happen, not on that day…the best team of the area was now Sukrong Bethlehem Football Club!

On our way back home the minibus we were on looked more like a parade on wheels, the players wouldn’t stop singing and they had been rewarded for their hard work week after week. As a token of my appreciation, I took the 11 players that had gone to training regularly for a fun day at the beach in Accra. It was a wonderful day and the players had a great time. Later on, I would find out that most of them had never been to the beach before, even thou they live 2 hours away from it.

To finish up my time in Sukrong, Bossi organized a gala, which consisted of inviting 3 teams to our home ground for a total of four teams, and playing one game each, having the winner of each match play the big final. We played our first game against our archirivals of the nearby village Mepom. Difficult game, but Gafaru came back one more time and scored the one and only goal of the game to give the team a place on the big final. That was the team’s 7th win in a row, a winning streak they had never had before, I was told. The other game had a very good team, which won 4-1, and made them our rivals on the final.

The final began, with a player in particular playing the final; me…the players asked me to play with them, and I agreed. I have always played and since it was my last day with them why not? …my only worry was that the team would lose the final and that it would look really bad if the only game the lost would be with me on the lineup.

I can say I had a good game, but most importantly my team won its 8th game in a row. That is no coincidence or good luck. Is the result of hard work and good talented players. On Sunday the 4th of April at 6pm, S.B.F.C. was crowned champions of the regional gala. A good way to say goodbye for me.

All in all I have to say that these past 5 weeks in Ghana, especially in Sukrong, have been full of joy and learning experiences that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I will surely keep in touch with the Sukrong community, and I would like to thank the entire GCS friendly staff for helping me in every way they could while my stay in Sukrong……BEST OF LUCK…Harold Belalcazar, April 6, 2010

…Please request for my contact and I will be glad to share more with you!

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