In many ways, Denis Odoi defies convention. The relatively short defender is one of the most powerful players in the air. As a student, he was often in trouble with his teachers but would later study towards becoming a teacher while playing top-flight football in Belgium.
And even though his teachers never thought that he would turn professional, he went on to play in the most watched league in the world, the English Premier League, and later this year he will represent Ghana in the Fifa World Cup.
That he has made it as far as he has is remarkable enough. But even more so is the fact that he has represented two different countries at international level. He made his debut for Ghana’s Black Stars in March, at the age of 33, helping the four-time African champions qualify for the 2022 World Cup by overcoming archrivals Nigeria on away goals in a two-legged play-off.
Born to a Belgian mother and a Ghanaian father, the Club Brugge man grew up wanting to play for the Red Devils. By his own admission, he is “of course more Belgian”. But after making his international bow for Belgium in 2012 in a friendly against Montenegro, he found the door of the national team shut to him.
He believes this was down to a preference for the country’s bigger clubs, a selection policy that alienated him at the time as a player at modest Lokeren. This, combined with his father leaving when he was 12, sparked a desire to explore his Ghanaian roots. “As a little boy I sometimes thought about that,” he says. “You are naturally curious because you know that a part of yourself comes from Africa.”
It took a decade for Odoi to finally wear the colours of his father’s country. “No chance,” Odoi laughs when asked if he saw himself qualifying for the World Cup with Ghana. “I didn’t expect to be here. The process took a very long time for me to get everything sorted. I think you talk about three to four years.
“After the last Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), I didn’t get called up, so I thought it was over. I said, maybe I’m too old. Maybe they don’t want me. But then it turned out that not all my papers were done.”
Two months before the game against the Super Eagles he got a call from the coach telling him that 95% of his paperwork was done, adding that if everything was in order he would be selected for the encounters against Nigeria. “And I was like, okay, if it’s done, then I’ll come.”
A return to the World Cup
There could not have been a fiercer baptism of fire. Ghana’s rivalry with Nigeria is legendary and longstanding, and the stakes were exceptionally high. The circumstances were also weighted heavily in favour of the Super Eagles, who had not only performed better at the Afcon but also had managerial continuity going for them.
“They told me [about the rivalry],” Odoi says. “But I think you need to live here to know how real the rivalry is. I knew it was two West African countries that are very close to one another. This big rivalry is about jollof [rice] as well.
“We were fighting for the World Cup. Obviously, it’s sweet that you win against Nigeria, but no matter which country it was, we needed to win those two games.”
And win they did.
Despite Black Stars boss Otto Addo being in the post for less than two months, Ghana battled through, securing a return to the World Cup for the first time since 2014.
“If you look at the Nigeria squad, they had bigger names. But names are not everything. You can have big names, but you need to be a good team, a good squad. And you need to be a cohesive group. I think that, over the two games, we showed them that we as a team were good, and we fight for each other,” he adds.
Odoi was key to the outcome, slotting in right away and starting both matches. His inability to converse in the native Ghanaian dialects has, apparently, not been much of a hindrance, and whatever misgivings people had about his commitment have been decidedly addressed.
Former international John Paintsil was full of praise for the versatile Club Brugge man in light of his performances for the Black Stars. “He is a good player. I knew him four years ago when he played for Fulham and I must say he is a good player with a good character,” Pantsil told Graphic Sports.
“I am happy we have found a player like that because he is a great guy, a quality player and a good addition to the national team.”
It is quite the testimonial for a player who many suggested viewed Ghana as only a backup option. The debate is hardly new, but with the Ghana Football Association (GFA) making public overtures toward diaspora-born players such as Tariq Lamptey and the Williams brothers, Inaki and Nico, there is a great deal of polarisation among fans of the national team.
While Odoi cannot sidestep these questions neatly, it is to his credit that he has made an effort to integrate and assimilate Ghanaian culture. That includes taking in the food – he is a fan of jollof rice, as well as doughy fufu – and being open to feedback. So far, it appears to be working.
“Obviously, Ghana is a part of me. I have a difficult relationship with my father, he is the part that is Ghanaian for me. So, this is an ideal opportunity to find out what Ghana is: the part of me that is Ghanaian and see where certain things come from, I guess.
“Everybody here is just more straightforward and will tell you as it is. But also, it’s like a feeling of togetherness, everybody is open, welcoming to one another. Everybody wants to help you.”
The tricky task of chasing players of Ghanaian heritage to commit to the West African nation has seen the GFA receive some brush-offs lately. But Odoi – who has a psychologist for a wife, Katleen Thijs, and breaks most football stereotypes in appearance – says his commitment to the Black Stars is a big step towards self-discovery.
“I think everybody has to take his time, when he’s ready, I guess. For some, it’s maybe easier. I come from divorced parents, something that happened when I was 12, so then, it makes it a bit harder.
“Also, I have a family of my own. For my kids, to also tell them what part of my race that is. I look different from white people. I also have to tell them what that part is. For me, I can now show them what that part is. They look and they’ve watched the videos I’ve made here, and I guess… super excited.”
A word for diasporan Africans seeking a chance on the continent? “I think for everybody who has roots here, take your time and discover it when you’re ready,” he says.
At various points in his career, Odoi has been written off as finished or simply not good enough.
After helping Fulham gain promotion to the Premier League in 2020 under Slavisa Jokanovic, Odoi found himself sidelined following the sacking of the attack-minded Serbian manager. With Fulham favourite Scott Parker in charge, he played only three times in the top flight, watching from the bench (as well as the stands on occasion) as Fulham went back down to the Championship.
With Marco Silva in charge, he rebounded to play a part in The Cottagers’ promotion campaign, even though he left in February to return home to Belgium with Club Brugge.
“I didn’t expect to have the career I had in total, to have the career I had at Fulham. I think everybody that knows me, especially for the last few years, knows what kind of guy I am,” he says. “Every day in training, I show up and I give 100%. I work hard. I know the player I am. I am not the most gifted player, but every day I show up 100%. I guess it shows you that with hard work, you can get far.”
The discipline lesson
With Odoi now flying the colours of Ghana, it is unclear if the father of three is looking to mend things with his own father.
“My father and I, we don’t talk any more. I blame him for certain things, like when I became a professional football player and made good money at Anderlecht and was annoyed with him because all he asked was, ‘Can I have money?’” he told The Times in January.
Nicknamed The Professor, Odoi also reflects on the chapter that changed his upbringing. “My dad would go out [at night] and come back whenever it suited him,” he says. “My mom made a decision to marry my dad also because she was pregnant with me and my sister. She was, ‘Okay, I put myself in this situation so I have to take responsibility.’ That’s also why I’m very disciplined and take responsibility.
“When I was 12, I went to a tournament with Anderlecht, came back and my parents were divorced. My mother raised me and my sister. I know how hard she had to work in a fabric store and another store for us to have a decent life. So that’s why every day, when I go to training, it would be disrespectful to not work hard and not respect her efforts.”
Come November, Odoi stands as good a chance as anyone of starring for the West African nation of his father at the World Cup in Qatar. The Black Stars are drawn with Portugal, Uruguay and South Korea, a tough but by no means insurmountable challenge.
“I think it’ll be unbelievable,” he says. “When I grew up, I played with so many talented football players. I was not the favourite to go as far as I did. And for me, at my age, to go to the World Cup, it would be like a cherry on the cake, I guess.”