When the call to leave Ghana for Spain came, an eighteen year old Thomas Partey knew he couldn’t tell anyone, not even his parents.
“I was playing on a second division team in Ghana,” says Thomas at the Atletico training ground on the outskirts of Madrid. “I wasn’t registered, I just played and got my winning bonus.
“So when I had the opportunity to travel to Spain, I didn’t want to tell anyone, not even my parents, because maybe they would have asked me where I had gone and they would have said it. I only spoke to my agent, who did everything to then I traveled to Spain. “
Thomas had been willing to risk everything like his dream since he was born in the southern Ghanaian city of Odumase Krobo in 1993 had been to follow his father playing professionally.
“When I was young my father played,” he says. “He always took me to the training ground. So, from a young age, all I wanted to do was play football.
“But then I got to a level that I have to study, it wasn’t easy, my father didn’t have a job, so I had to work, and then go find a place to play with my friends.”
Things got more serious when he left his family in the city of Ashaiman, to play first with Revelation FC, then with Tema Youth, in the second division of Ghana.
“It was very difficult,” recalls Thomas. “I was only 10 years old and moving to a very dangerous city in Ghana. For my mother it was like losing her son. But the managers talked to my parents and I wanted to be there. All I wanted to do was continue playing football. “
But ambition was always to come to Europe and in summer 2011 Spanish agent Jose Jimenez organized a trial at Atletico. Nothing was sure: it was a great bet without any official offer.
“I just got to practice, normally my agent brings players to Europe, to different clubs,” says Thomas. “I came straight to Atletico Madrid. It wasn’t easy from the beginning.
“Waking up early in the morning, with the cold, the language, the people, to understand how to play football and everything else. But then I said to myself this is where I want to be, and I have to work hard every day to get where I want to be , for the first team. After two months they gave me the chance to stay. “
Thomas knows that hundreds of other African players have less fortunate European experiences every year, and he is still represented by Jimenez, who has led his career to date.
“Most of the agents are here just to get their money and then leave you,” he says. “They don’t care about you. But I’m happy to have the best agent, who took care of me. I trusted him and tried to be patient.”
Longtime Atletico coach Diego Simeone was another big influence, says Thomas. “From the beginning it has not been easy. [Simeone] it helped me a lot. He knew I had the talent, but without my head working well I wouldn’t have been able to get where I am now. “
By 2012, Thomas was starting for Atletico team B in Spain’s third tier. He then spent seasons on loan to Real Mallorca in the Segunda and Almeria Division in Primera, before returning as an Atletico player in the first team since 2015. He claims that it is more difficult for young Africans to succeed in European clubs.
“The most important is having talent,” he says. “But then there’s already a European in your position. You have to work harder than them, double or triple. It’s the only way for African players to be successful in Europe.”
Racism remains a serious problem in Spanish football, recently seen with Athletic Bilbao striker Inaki Williams being abused during a LaLiga game in Espanyol in late January.
“It happens, but I just try to be myself, always, not to listen to them and enjoy my game,” explains Thomas. “When you try to control it, it will come back. I’m there to play. As long as you don’t give it your mind, it will never influence you.”
Thomas’ experience motivated him to purchase a share of the Madrid Alcobendas Sport semi-professional regional division club last summer.
“We got the team to be able to give many African players a chance to test themselves,” says Thomas, with the youth from Ghana, Ivory Coast and Guinea who have already signed up.
“We have a European coach [ex-LaLiga player Alfredo Santaelena, who was a youth coach at Atletico during Thomas’ early years there] teach them the style of play that will help them play in better teams. “
More skilled than a speaker, Thomas gained respect from his teammates in the Atletico locker room through his commitment and his performances on the pitch.
This maturity is also evident from the way in which the 26 year old spoke in silence, without the captivating tattoos or the noisy jewels of some of his peers, speaks openly and seriously to CNN also with the interview that comes the day after the humiliating Copa of his team Rey defeated at the third level La Cultural Leonesa.
This season saw Thomas play a deeper midfield role for Atletico, using his reading of the game and range of passes to break the opposition’s moves and begin his team’s attacks.
An extraordinary performance was in September when he beat Real Madrid Toni Kroos and Luka Modric during a 0-0 draw at La Liga at Wanda Metropolitano.
“Thomas has been with us five or six years and I am very happy that he is now recognized for his hard work and talent,” said Simeone following that game.
“If it had been signed by an English or German club it would be different, but it belongs to your youth system, so it is” only Thomas “. His work does not stop now. He has a great future ahead of him.”
However, the last few months have been difficult for the team, with January leading to painful exits from both the Spanish Supercopa and Copa, while Atletico has also fallen behind Real Madrid and Barcelona in the La Liga.
The Los Rojiblancos are now big outsiders against last year’s Champions League winners and Liverpool on the run from this year’s Premier League on the run.
“We know it won’t be easy,” says Partey. “But every team that reaches the bottom 16 is one of the best teams in Europe. We are used to difficult situations.
“We will do our homework and I am sure we will be at the level we should be. We do not think about the end, we focus now and build our trust until we can achieve what we will achieve.”
Matching Liverpool will be a huge challenge, but positivity and ambition have already helped Thomas overcome enormous chances of being successful in his career at Atletico.
For the boy who left Ghana in secret to pursue his dream, everything seems possible.