The North American Soccer League (NASL) is uncharted territory for long-time Ghanaian international Derek Boateng after many years in several of Europe’s highest divisions, and while enhancing expansion team Rayo OKC’s midfield, the two-time FIFA World Cup participant is out to share his vast understanding from a varied career while in Oklahoma.
A 2001 FIFA World Youth Championship runner-up, Derek would go on to enjoy a long association with Ghana at senior level, going to the 2006 and 2010 World Cups as the Black Stars began to emerge as the leading African light. Although born in Accra, the midfielder’s track in the game has led him far from his nation’s capital, encompassing club spells at the top level in Germany, Spain and England, to name but three.
It began with a move to Greece at just 16, where he would represent Kalamata, the highly successful Panathinaikos, and latterly, OFI Crete on loan. With time spent also in Sweden, Israel and Ukraine along the way, the 32-year-old took an entirely new step in January of this year as he signed for the Oklahoma City-based Rayo OKC, signalling his first move to the United States.
Rayo OKC are the newest of three expansion teams in the NASL, with head of Spanish La Liga side and Derek’s former club Rayo Vallecano, Raúl Martín Presa, holding majority ownership. With experience of the English Premier League with Fulham also to his name, Derek can offer more than just midfield solidity and a wily grasp of the game’s competitive dynamics to his new employers.
So many years immersed in different ways of living have given him great cause for reflection, and a side of it is rooted in the rhythms, vibes and messages Derek locks into for his listening pleasure, as he explains.
“Yeah, music is part of my life; I love listening to Bob Marley and r&b music like Chris Brown, Usher. They really, really inspire me a lot, and also hip-hop like Tupac Shakur where the things he says in his lyrics is like what’s really going on in the world right now.
“I really enjoy listening to these people.”
Since 2011, a fusion of music, teammates and life on and off the field has made up the player interviews on this site. Players from all over the world have stepped up to offer a way into their world through the music angle, showing how, along with the memories it is responsible for creating, music allows you to feel life and relationships with the people in it on a separate and special level.
It has its own role to play within the team spirit that exists at clubs around the game, motivating individuals at various moments and bringing players together, often in a fun way. At Rayo OKC, there is a considerable degree of Major League Soccer and international experience, including a name familiar to Premier League and Glasgow Celtic fans – Greece forward Georgios Samaras.
When Derek was asked which of his career teammates he would handpick to join him on a song cover, if such a scenario was ever to arise, he made a diverse selection from the current Rayo crop. The first of this group he names is a former U.S. international forward who featured on here back in 2013 during his second spell with Real Salt Lake.
“I’d do a group song with Robbie Findley, Sebastián (Velásquez), Futty (Danso) and Ryan Johnson. We would do a mix of Africa, America, Jamaica; all kinds!”
For any youngster fighting to make a lasting career in the game, there are numerous high-level examples to learn from, as well as those to view as more cautionary tales. At the 2001 FIFA World Youth Championship in Argentina, Derek was surrounded by many international prospects, including future stars such as Brazil’s Kaká and Adriano, France striker Djibril Cissé, Dutch duo Rafael van der Vaart and Arjen Robben, as well as the hosts’ Javier Saviola, who was awarded the Golden Ball and Golden Shoe.
Former Barcelona and Real Madrid forward Saviola was on target in the final as Argentina defeated Derek’s Ghana in front of 32,000 in Buenos Aires, but it had been a terrific showing in the tournament by the young Black Stars. Derek scored decisive goals in the group wins over Paraguay and Iran for Emmanuel Afranie’s team and he had the likes of Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, John Mensah and John Paintsil alongside him.
Each of those teammates would accompany Derek on the global stage with the senior squad and although the 2006 and 2010 World Cups stick out on his international résumé he also went to three Africa Cup of Nations tournaments, with Ghana coming fourth in 2012 and 2013. In November, Derek retired from international duty as he spoke of needing to step aside for the youngsters to continue to emerge.
One of the players he has talked up is Málaga’s 24-year-old on-loan Chelsea attacker Christian Atsu, who took the 2015 Cup of Nations’ Player of the Tournament accolade, as well as Goal of the Tournament for his quarter-final strike against Guinea. Derek has said how when the national team’s youngsters win, Ghana’s society as a whole wins as well, and there was a similar sense of that wider thinking with his early song collection.
“My first cassette – it wasn’t a CD, it was a cassette – was Bob Marley. I enjoy listening to him because the things he’s saying; he’s advising the youth and how to live your life, what is going on, what is bad, what is good.
“I really, really enjoy what he’s talking about.”
Moving to Solna in Sweden with AIK in 2003, Derek had a relegation and subsequent promotion back to the top-flight Allsvenskan before a transfer to Israeli club Beitar Jerusalem in 2006. In addition to contesting UEFA Champions League qualifiers, he would get to lift silverware at Beitar, with two Israeli Premier League championships, one of which was half of a domestic double in 2008.
A January 2009 switch to Germany with the Bundesliga’s 1.FC Köln was followed a few months later by the first of his stints in Spain, with Getafe. Two years were spent in Ukraine with Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, during which time he played in the Europa League qualifying round against his next side, Martin Jol’s Fulham.
Derek’s arrival in English football was confirmed in May 2013 as he followed in the footsteps of a number of Ghanaians who’ve featured in the Premier League, from Tony Yeboah and Nii Lamptey in the mid-1990s, through to two others he mentions here from his melody-infused memories of his Black Stars career.
“I’ve never been the team DJ but when we’re with the national team we like singing a lot. We have Asamoah Gyan, Sulley Muntari, this kind of players, and I really enjoy singing with them.
“We all sing with one another when we are together because it’s very important within our culture. Even after training we sing together and when we come back to the hotel we sing together and pray together, so these are the things we normally do in the national team.”
Derek was part of Ghanaian sporting history in 2006, appearing in Germany at the team’s very first World Cup. There was top-level European experience in Ratomir Dujkovic‘s squad with names like Samuel Kuffour, Michael Essien and Stephen Appiah, although few expected Ghana to progress from a particularly tough group containing Italy, Czech Republic and the United States.
Sitting out the opening loss with that summer’s eventual winners Italy, Derek came on at half-time in the 2-0 win over the Czechs in Cologne before starting in the 2-1 win over the U.S. in Nuremberg. Although Brazil ended the Black Stars’ run in the last 16 with a 3-0 win, Derek came on in the Dortmund encounter to face the likes of Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo with a crowd of over 65,000.
Although he didn’t see any minutes, Derek was also named in the squad for South Africa four years later for what was another historic competition for the team. Progressing as group runners-up to Germany, Ghana made it to the last eight, famously being denied a winner at the end of extra-time as Uruguay’s Luis Suarez handballed a goal-bound Dominic Adiyiah effort.
Asamoah Gyan struck the crossbar with the penalty and although he responded admirably by scoring the team’s first in the subsequent shootout Ghana were eliminated. The nation’s all-time leading scorer, Gyan has been a leading figure for football in his country over the past decade and the man known as ‘Baby Jet’ when it comes to the music arena is undoubtedly the one clearest in Derek’s thoughts as he thinks of teammates who were never shy to sing or rap in front of everyone.
He also has an artist in mind he would like to see perform in person, as well as getting the chance to share a few words with.
“Now I’m no more with the national team but Asamoah Gyan is the one who stands out. I really want to meet Chris Brown; now Bob Marley’s no more, Chris Brown’s one of the artists I’m really looking forward to meeting.”
Derek may have had to wait until the 2013/14 season before becoming a Fulham player but he had already played at the club’s Craven Cottage home two years ahead of his move being rubber-stamped. The ground has hosted international teams regularly over the years and this part of West London had a true carnival atmosphere as it welcomed Ghana and Brazil for a September 2011 friendly which ultimately played to the samba beat, with a 1-0 win for the South Americans.
Following his Fulham departure, Derek returned to Spain to sign with Rayo Vallecano in June 2014, as he kicked off his association with the institution he is currently part of, albeit in Oklahoma these days, as opposed to Madrid. It was, however, with a different La Liga club where he would play his football that season. He left Rayo two months later and represented SD Eibar as they narrowly stayed in the top division.
The present calendar year quickly signalled Derek’s jump Stateside and we are now in the very beginning of the NASL’s Spring Season. Rayo OKC are minority-owned by Oklahoma native Sean Jones, who is owner of several healthcare companies in the area as well as the Women’s Premier Soccer League’s Oklahoma City FC. There was a sold-out home crowd of 6,416 to support Rayo in their inaugural fixture at the start of this month: a 0-0 with FC Edmonton at Yukon High School’s Miller Stadium.
A 3-2 loss at home to Carolina RailHawks included the galling concession of a stoppage-time goal but there was the first win at the third attempt on April 22nd in the shape of a 3-2 at Miami FC. With the rain coming down at Ocean Bank Field, Rayo held onto the points after a late penalty winner from Brazilian defender Michel.
The team are coached by former Canadian international Alen Marcina, who was a 2014 NASL Championship winner with San Antonio Scorpions. One of the players he coached at the now-defunct Scorpions was Jamaican striker Omar Cummings, who featured on here last August, telling along the way how current Rayo defender Kosuke Kimura was someone he managed to ignite a love for reggae within.
There is rhythm and a mix of genre appreciation around the squad so maybe Derek can introduce a few Azonto steps to the team before the season is up. He has certainly been right in the action in the midfield so far but before he got on the field did he have to introduce himself by way of a popular initiation routine?
“No I didn’t have to sing but we have good players and good people here so that’s the important thing!”
Marcina identified the presence and leadership Derek could offer in such a central role within the team and it will be called upon throughout the year. Next up for Rayo is the visit of Indy Eleven to Miller Stadium this Saturday (April 30th) and a chance to put a second win from the opening four games on the board.
When game day and training has wound down, Derek explains how he has kept it low-key so far in OKC.
“I don’t have friends from Ghana here, so after training, I just kind of go home and relax, watch TV and mind my business.”
The role of one of the team’s elder statesmen is something Derek has become accustomed to in recent times but of course there were days when it was him who was looking up to the more senior pros for guidance. It is a big thing to leave for unfamiliar shores at 16 as he did for Greece at the start of his career, although there can be no doubt now that it was the opening to an unbelievably worthwhile path.
If we could put the 2016 Derek Boateng with his much younger self, what would he offer to him with the knowledge he now has.
“The advice I would give to myself is to keep pushing, keep working hard and helping your teammates. Keep on looking forward to every game and make sure you are there for your team and in the right place at the right time.
“Do the right things and believe in God, like always. Pray for my teammates and pray for myself.”
Given his years spent in different pockets of the game in varying leagues and countries, Derek has had the benefit of so many kinds of teammate personalities, on and off the field. When he was asked to try to gather together four names from his whole career to put into a fantasy selection (including Derek) for a small-sided game he used the spine of his current team.
It begins with a Canadian-born Portuguese-capped goalkeeper, who, like Derek, went to the 2010 World Cup. As well as a Gambian defender, there is a Brazilian midfielder to go alongside him, with the man mentioned earlier – Rayo’s number 55 – to round it off.
“Goalkeeper: I would choose Dani (Fernandes). Defender: I would choose Futty (Danso).
“Midfielder: I would choose Pecka. Forward: I would choose Robbie Findley.”
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