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Fulham old boy Denis Odoi is living proof that you are never too old to make your dreams come true.
Aged 34, he is set to make his World Cup debut against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal on Thursday, and will see Champions League knockout football for the first time in the new year.
“I live in the moment, but at the same time it’s a bit crazy what’s happening to me,” admits the popular Ghanaian defender who spent six years at Craven Cottage before joining Club Brugge in January.
Denis Odoi has his first World Cup with Ghana during an extraordinary season
The defender left Fulham to play Champions League football at Club Brugge in Belgium
Odoi is experiencing his first World Cup after also playing in the Champions League this year
“I still speak to Fulham teammates like Harrison Reed, Neeskens Kebano and Bobby Decordova-Reed. They say “Oh, so the Champions League was easy for you and now you are Mr World Cup too!”
“Everyone is a little surprised, even me, at how it turned out.”
Odoi’s trip to Qatar is unusual. Born and raised in Belgium, he won a lone international match for the Red Devils ten years ago when he teamed up with Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois in a friendly against Montenegro.
But knowing his father was from Ghana, the West African country called him up earlier this year for their World Cup play-off against Nigeria and eight months later he’s on the biggest podium of them all, alongside other diaspora like Brighton’s Tariq Lamptey .
At first, opinions were divided. Some fans hugged us hoping we would improve the team, but others thought we wouldn’t have the same feeling for the country.
“I had to be honest and say that I was brought up differently because my parents divorced, so I didn’t have much Ghanaian culture in my upbringing. But my roots are still there.
International selection for Ghana has enabled Odoi, 34, to connect with family roots
Their World Cup opener on Thursday is a tough one against Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo
Thursday against Portugal
4pm UK time, Stadium 974
Monday against South Korea
1pm UK time, Education City Stadium
December 2 against Uruguay
3pm UK time, Al Janoub Stadium
‘I’ve even tried to learn the national language Twi, but it’s hard. What was nice is that some of my father’s relatives from Ghana have been able to get in touch since I’ve been on the team and playing in Africa.
“I was visited by a cousin who could tell me things about my father that I didn’t know.
“I was skeptical when he first texted me — you hear stories about scammers. But when he sent pictures of me as a young kid with my dad, I knew he was family. It was so nice to meet and talk.’
While Ghana’s first two matches are against Portugal and South Korea, the country already has half an eye on their grudge game against Uruguay.
The South Americans infamously knocked them out of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa when Luis Suarez acted deliberately on the line and Asamoah Gyan missed the resulting penalty, with Uruguay eventually progressing to the semi-finals in a shoot-out.
“I watched the match on television as a fan of Ghana and know the history very well,” said Odoi, a Thierry Henry lookalike.
“People want revenge for what happened. The players too, especially guys like Andre Ayew who was on that team. He will make sure that the young people know what it is about. The Ghanaians want redemption and justice for that.
Ghana wants revenge on Uruguay for Luis Suarez’s infamous handball in 2010
Suarez prevented a certain goal and was sent off – but Uruguay prevailed in the end
Ghana will come face to face with Suarez again on December 2 when they play against Uruguay
As a professional I understand why a player would do what Suarez did to save his own team, but the scars are deep. I can’t imagine someone like Andre Suarez wanting to shake hands.’
Odoi’s wife and eldest child, who is five, will go to Qatar to see him. They are staying with the family of Bruggeling clubmate Simon Mignolet, who is part of the Belgian selection.
Their team surpassed expectations to qualify for the round of 16 of the Champions League by finishing ahead of Atletico Madrid and Bayer Leverkusen and facing Benfica in February.
But for now, the defender’s focus is on the World Cup. Ghana are an underdog, but have shown in qualifying against Nigeria that they can disrupt the odds.
Odoi in action for Fulham, where he played six seasons in the Premier League and Championship
They have a strong Premier League contingent with Thomas Partey (Arsenal), Daniel Amartey (Leicester), Mohammed Salisu (Southampton) and Lamptey. Technical adviser Chris Hughton, whose father is Ghanaian, managed Newcastle and Brighton.
At one point he would feel like a joke against England. He has a history with Jack Grealish with two midfielder fouls sending Odoi off in the 2018 Championship play-off final between Fulham and Aston Villa.
“One of the yellows was hard – Grealish is very good and points his body towards you so there’s contact,” he recalls.
Odoi has had an impressive season when Bruges reached the round of 16 of the Champions League
However, Suarez is the first nemesis to prevail. “I think the Ghanaian people expect us to qualify for the next round and that’s how we should think as players,” says Odoi.
‘I know from Bruges that if you have a good group, you can beat supposedly bigger teams with bigger names. We need to stand together and not go into games as individuals.
“It is another ambition that I will realize. I grew up in Belgium watching Match of the Day and ended up playing in the Premier League. Now I’m at the World Cup with Ronaldo.’