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“I never gave up” - Kojo’s bid to turn hard road into AFC Cup glory


Bishkek: From being stranded in Rwanda to establishing himself as one of the standout players in the Kyrgyz Republic, Joel Kojo’s unique football story could soon become even more interesting.

In a wide-ranging interview with the-AFC.com, Kyrgyz football’s Ghanaian star discussed the difficult path from Africa to Central Asia, his love for Cristiano Ronaldo and his belief in FC Dordoi’s ability to make history in this season’s AFC Cup.

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For a foreign player arriving at a new club, the pressure to succeed can be overwhelming.

Often seen as a missing link or a silver bullet for their team’s woes, to quickly adapt to a new culture and play at a higher level than their local teammates is a challenge which can be taken for granted, but getting an opportunity can be just as difficult.

As a foreign player in the Kyrgyz Premier League, Joel Kojo is a success story.

The 22-year-old has made a name for himself in the region, winning club and individual honours with FC Alay Osh before making the switch to the league’s most successful club, FC Dordoi, earlier this year, but those accomplishments came at the end of a road paved with struggles and, at times, despair.

That much is especially clear when listening as Kojo recounts the story of a one-time agent who sent him from Ghana to Rwanda for a trial with a professional club, as a teenager only for him to arrive to discover there were no such plans in place.

“They just took our money without doing anything to help me,” he told the-AFC.com.

“I’m the first born of my parents, the first out of five, so a lot of pressure came on me, and because of that I decided to go to Rwanda. I went there and there was nothing organised there for me. I didn’t even have money to take care of myself.

“If you are trying to send money from Ghana to any other country, we cannot send money, we can only receive. So, my mum had to go to another country, Togo, to send me money from Togo to Rwanda so I could buy food.

“I was frustrated. I was so angry.”

A string of disappointments in Africa came to an end when, with the help of another, more reliable contact, Kojo travelled to Osh in the south of the Kyrgyz Republic to trial with reigning champions Alay.

“I said, “what’s Kyrgyzstan?” Kojo recalls. “I didn’t really know. I didn’t even know it was part of Asia, or that it gets very cold there. So even when I came here it wasn’t easy, but it’s all about football.”

It was Kojo’s football that quickly did the talking.

Then 19 years of age, and one of a dozen trialists fighting for a contract when he arrived in 2018, Kojo joined the club and made a major impression.

He scored a 30-year yard screamer on his AFC Cup debut against Turkmenistan champions Altyn Asyr in March before bagging four hat-tricks on the way to a Golden Boot-winning 26 goals as Alay finished second in the Kyrgyz Premier League.

He followed it up with 19 goals and a Player of the Year nomination the following season, before helping Alay win the Kyrgyz Republic Cup in 2020, all the while sending half of his salary to Ghana to help pay for the school fees of his younger brothers.

“To be successful in any league, or anything you choose to do, it’s about hard work, determination, self-control and discipline,” said Kojo, who is now regularly quizzed about one day becoming a naturalised Kyrgyz Republic international.

“I don’t go out, I don’t drink. At night, I focus on football, I watch videos, I focus on myself. I have to prove that I can do much better. I keep on training hard, working every season and making sure I am at the same level every day.”

It is that sort of professionalism which Kojo says drew him to Dordoi, a club he scored against a number of times in some of the league’s biggest matches for Alay.

The country’s most successful club with 12 league titles in the last 17 years and supplying around half of the Kyrgyz Republic national team, as well as the head coach Alexander Krestinin (pictured below), they are the destination club for the domestic league’s top talents.

“Dordoi is a very good team which is very professional with a fantastic coach,” explained Kojo, whose start to life at the Bishkek club has been hampered by injury.

“I had options in Sweden, in Asia, in Russia, in Uzbekistan, but due to the pandemic issue I could not travel. My contract with Alay expired, so I decided to play for Dordoi and give my best for them. They know me. They know what I can do.

“Everything they do, they do it in a professional way and that made me want to sign with them.”

Dordoi won the now-defunct AFC President’s Cup twice in the mid-2000s but have recently struggled to replicate their domestic success in Asia, where the group stage is as far as they’ve gone in the four AFC Cup participations since 2015.

Teams from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have all reached the AFC Cup final, making Kyrgyz Republic the region’s odd one out, but Kojo believes Dordoi’s class of 2021 is capable of making a serious impact in this year’s competition.

“Absolutely, yes. This season – I can only prove it on the pitch – but I think we can be in the final this season,” said Kojo, whose Dordoi side begin their Group E campaign against FC Ahal later on Monday.

“We can reach the knockout rounds if we understand the work that we’re doing, and if we play with the love for the game.

“We need to work hard to support each other, and we can win the AFC Cup this season. That is my dream, and I really want to devote my energy and talent towards winning it.”

Winning the AFC Cup is one of Kojo’s more recent dreams, while his long-held plan to play at the highest level he can in Europe remains his “top ambition”, but there is another goal he is deadly serious about - meeting Cristiano Ronaldo.

Far from the only Ronaldo admirer in football, Kojo goes beyond simply enjoying his matches, with much of his approach to preparation and the game itself motivated by the Portuguese legend, whose story he feels a deep connection to.

“Ronaldo inspired me to improve every aspect of my game; headers, shooting with both feet, and I really want to meet him in the future.” Kojo declared.

“I can say that Cristiano Ronaldo is like a father to me, He’s everything to me, because his background, his beginning is the same as mine.

“I suffered a lot from the beginning, but I kept on working hard, without ever giving up, because talent alone is not enough.

“Without hard work, talent will not be known.”

Photos: AFP, FC Dordoi

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