Christian Atsu’s faith and good deeds touched countless lives beyond football | Louise Taylor

The former Newcastle player, who has died aged 31 in Turkey, was a true Christian in every sense of the word

Christian Atsu could not have had a more appropriate name. The former Ghana winger, whose body has been found beneath the rubble left by the recent earthquakes in Turkey, was a true Christian in every sense of the word.

Atsu’s extensive charity work and numerous good deeds touched countless lives, transforming many for the better along his journey from West Africa to Western Europe and, ultimately, the Middle East.

During an interview with the Guardian in 2019, it swiftly became clear that a man whose childhood had been shaped by a powerful Christian faith was on a mission to use his wealth and standing as a Premier League footballer to help others.

“My faith is the most important thing in my life,” said the then Newcastle player who was playing for Turkey’s Hatayspor at the time of his death, aged just 31. “I know I’m one of the lucky people God has blessed. I’m very lucky and privileged to be in the position. I had nothing and now I’ve got so much I have to give something back.”

Atsu was a modest character who took immense pride in the achievements of his German-born author wife, Marie-Claire Rupio, but he also knew that winning the player of the tournament award at the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea had made him a household name from Cairo to Cape Town.

He duly channelled the fame that, for a time, promised to turn him into Africa’s Lionel Messi into serving as a key ambassador for the global charity Arms Around the Child. It provides homes, protection, education and support for children who have been orphaned, abused, affected by HIV/Aids, trafficked, sold or live in child-headed households.

Christian Atsu in action for Ghana against Benin at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.
Christian Atsu in action for Ghana against Benin at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Photograph: Ozan Köse/AFP/Getty Images

“I donate often, so they can buy food and stuff,” said Atsu. “We’re building a school in Ghana. About 300 children will attend, I want everyone to have the chance of an education.” After experiencing the benefits of the excellent schooling funded by Feyenoord’s African academy in Accra, he knew precisely how much education matters. Yet Atsu’s life was also fuelled by love.

There was the love he experienced after meeting Rupio, the mother of his daughter and two sons, early in his career while playing for Porto, and the love he had first encountered as one of 10 siblings - including his twin sister Christiana, now a nurse - living on the junction of the Volta River and the Atlantic Ocean where his late father eked out a living fishing and farming.

Those enduring bonds sustained him through a stint as a member of Chelsea’s “have boots will travel” loan army. Despite never playing a single game for the London club Atsu was borrowed by Vitesse Arnhem, Everton, Bournemouth - where he played for the current Newcastle manager Eddie Howe - and Malaga, before eventually signing “permanently” for Rafael Benítez during the Spaniard’s St James’ Park tenure.

“Rafa’s like a father,” he said. “Everyone here finds Rafa warm. He encourages me almost every day. He’s so good at the human side of management which is so important.”

Atsu would spend five years as a Newcastle player and his wife – who wrote the well-received novel “Stop Bullying Me” – and children still live in a city they fell in love with. “I don’t regret going to Chelsea,” the winger reflected in 2019. “It was a privilege to be their player and, eventually, it led me to Newcastle.”

Benítez was a confirmed admirer of the left-footed skills that helped Atsu earn 65 Ghana caps and score nine international goals and, above all, the man himself. But the Spaniard’s departure from St James’ Park saw Atsu’s game time limited, eventually leading to an injury-blighted move to Saudi Arabia’s Al Raed in 2021.

A year later, Antakya-based Hatayspor came calling with Atsu scoring his first goal for the club on 5 February. A few days later, when just a few hours earlier he had been chatting happily to his family back home in Newcastle southern Turkey was devastated by the earthquake, his building turned to rubble.

Newcastle United players stand together in memory of Christian Atsu before Saturday’s Premier League meeting with Liverpool.
Newcastle United players stand together in memory of Christian Atsu before Saturday’s Premier League meeting with Liverpool. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

Almost exactly exactly four years earlier Atsu had been, typically, busy with ensuring that several impoverished families in Ghana were reunited after paying thousands of pounds in fines to release prisoners accused of petty offences.

When pressed, he quietly explained he was particularly pleased to have, discreetly, secured the freedom of a 62-year-old grandmother and her daughter who had been jailed for stealing the equivalent of one British pound’s worth of corn to feed their family.

Atsu’s frequent presence in the congregation at Hillsong Church, a long goal kick away from St James’ Park, on Newcastle’s Westgate Road, was similarly unobtrusive. “I’m very happy at Hillsong and very happy in Newcastle,” he said.

“Football changed my life completely; it’s enabled me to help my community and help my family. Sometimes what’s happened to me seems like a miracle.” What is it they say about only the good dying young?


Louise Taylor

The GuardianTramp

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