Asked to explain why so many people in the Ghanaian town of Juaben came to support Aston Villa, the chair of the Ghana Lions supporters club, Owusu Boakye Amando, will tell you his grandfather told him once that god’s name was Paul McGrath.
The great plains of Africa are the unlikely destination for thousands of Villans to parade an Irishman’s legacy across Juaben’s streets, inviting young and old to bask in a celebration of the Birmingham-based Premier League club.
If McGrath can influence a small town in the Ashante Region to such a degree, imagine the impact he and three other Irish internationals played for Villa in the seasons that followed the Italia ‘90 World Cup.
You can witness it for yourself by heading along to Buskers in Dublin’s Temple Bar where a couple of hundred fans gather to watch Villa games every week – that the congregation of the Leinster Lions supporters club.
Truth be told, this cornerstone of English football has a reach much further than the Brummie borders of Sutton Coldfield and Chelmsley Wood. Few football clubs nor fans have experienced a decade of turbulence like Aston Villa supporters dotted across the globe.
For every eyebrow-raising comment from José Mourinho or Pep Guardiola on Amazon documentaries over recent years, it was Villa fans who were sobered through a three-year exile from the top flight – Premier League ever-presents no longer might have been an easier pill to swallow after becoming the league’s punch bag for many a year.
Soon hungover on Championship football, concourses might have become the dance floor to jive to the Tuanzebe beat at Hull, Millwall and Wigan, but this fanbase like few others learnt that a divine right had no place in football.
In what was a period that tested the loyalty and commitment of a proud Villa fanbase for the first time in a over a generation, now a club once on its knees is back in the saddle, plotting an assault on the Premier League’s upper echelons and along the way, strengthened their relationships with fans and cultures from all corners of the globe.
The ownership of Aston Villa Football Club itself has been passed across four continents in the past 15 years with European tours, top flight relegations and promotions the price of swapping the keys to Villa Park around the billionaires club all too often.
Regimes past and present have all shared the common goal of restoring Villa’s status as an elite European club, but so often in the past, these goals have failed to wash for Villans tired of false promises.
After a couple of nail-biting weeks following Villa’s 2018 play-off final agony under Wembley arch, the club’s modern-day heroes Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens swooped to save the club from the abyss.
Sawiris, an Egyptian billionaire and Africa’s second-wealthiest man has helped turn the ship around in a far more smoother fashion to that of the Ever Given stuck in the Suez Canal off the Red Sea. It might not be a miracle comparable to those written in scriptures from those parts of the world, but while Villa supporters were once the laughing stock of the town, now they’re quietly optimistic about dusting down passports in the coming years for trips to Europe’s most unique of football scenes.
Summer holidays might be on hold this year and so any swift European exit to Rapid Wien is also off the cards too with Villa experiencing a mid-season slump this term, but as we all crave a return to normality, Villa have been a welcome contradiction to the unprecedented past 12 months or so we’ve all endured. After all, having left Villa Park with relegation in the balance a year ago, when fans return to Villa Park, we could be watching the best team to pull on the claret and blue for over a decade.
As Sawiris has proven his intent in becoming a major player in the Premier League, his influence has grown far greater than that around the immediate community and neighbouring Villa Park borders. Villa have in fact become a major player on the globe’s second-largest and second-most-populous continent, through partly an owner whose wealth is nearly unmatched in the land, but also through members of Villa’s playing squad and also incredibly passionate and unique fan groups in Ghana, Gambia and South Africa.
Perhaps matching Barcelona’s global appeal within five years of Xia walking into Villa Park were unrealistic, but actions speak louder than words and Sawiris and Edens are becoming quite the power couple.
Sawiris has already witnessed plenty of drama at the club he bought in 2018. A Wembley play-off final in a season involving managerial sackings, appointments and record-winning runs was the baptism of fire Sawiris wasn’t expecting having drawn up a two-year promotion plan.
Villa Park never seems to be quiet for too long, but after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, B6 was quieter than it had ever been before. The longest Premier League season was the stroke of luck Villa needed having been written off before Project Restart. From afar, Sawiris would watch Jack Grealish – the player they kept at the club as their first statement of intent – carry the club over the dotted line.
Having secured Premier League survival on the final day of the season, Villa’s ambitious owners soon plotted their second summer of spending, with a £100million war chest made available to Dean Smith who was keen to supplement his squad ahead of the 2020-21 campaign.
Between Sawiris and Edens, the two boast some serious financial muscle, and according to Forbes, their combined wealth comes within the top four of the Premier League owners rich list.
After private-equity investor Sawiris and his American partner bought a majority stake in Villa from Xia in 2018, the two immediately pumped £30million into the club, solving a liquidity crisis that had dogged the Chinese businessman and led to his sale of the club.
Their investment certainly didn’t end there, and their ambition is for all to see. From significant transfer fees to providing enough funding to ensure all non-football staff would not be furloughed during the lockdown period, NSWE have been nothing short of exemplary in the running of the club so far.
There couldn’t be a greater measure of support from the top when the Coronavirus pandemic struck, and a businessman of his stature wouldn’t have been rocked any less than anyone else.
A testament to the goodwill of both owners, despite chiefs of top-six clubs furloughing staff and cutting costs, Villa’s new ownership group NSWE made sure all at the club led the way in demonstrating exceptional leadership in the sports industry.
Nassef Sawiris and an Egyptian flavour at Aston Villa
Waving in the second city gusts, an Egyptian flag mast proudly perched on top of the Doug Ellis Stand, and with Ahmed Elmohamady and Trezeguet too representing their roots with a Villa badge sat on their chest, the club are building on strong relationships in North Africa and in the Middle East.
An Arabic-devoted official Aston Villa Twitter account gained 7,000 followers in the first four days of its creation two years ago and with over 44,000 followers as of April 2021, Villa have managed to unlock a new set of fans over 2,000 miles away from Witton.
In fact, both Trezeguet and Elmohamady are followed by more accounts on Twitter and Instagram than Villa’s primary account on the platform. Egyptian football fans provided Stoke City with the highest increase of social media followers when they signed Ramadan Sobhi in 2017.
Sawiris’ influence in Africa and the Middle East is capable of exporting the Villa brand across the world – and it’s a journey his compatriots Trezeguet and Elmohamady have both been a big part of.
Nassef Sawiris himself was born into a wealthy family in Cairo, Egypt and is the youngest of three sons born to Yousiriyya and Onsi Sawiris in 1961. By the time Nassef turned eight years old, his father’s (Onsi) construction company became one of Egypt’s largest contractors, building roads and waterways along Egypt’s upper Nile region.
After its establishment in 1950, the business was nationalised by President Gamal Abdel Nasser, before Onsi made and left another successful business in Libya. On his return to Egypt, Nassef’s father set up Orascom Construction Industries in Africa – they’d shortly grow to be one of the largest private builders in Egypt by the mid-1990s.
Nassef – who had attended high school at the German International School of Cairo – went to college in the United States and in the year Aston Villa became European Champions, graduated with a degree in economics from the University of Chicago.
After studying at university, Nassef rejoined the family business which was diversified into communications and real estate. Orascom Telecom, helmed by the oldest brother Naguib; Orascom Hotels and Development, headed by the middle brother Samih; and Orascom Construction, now led by Nassef were the three separate entities.
As CEO, Nassef focused on expanding the business abroad and into a new sector – cement and building materials – a division he sold to Lafarge in 2008 for $12.8 billion. That same year, he entered the fertiliser business with the purchase of the Egyptian Fertiliser Company. Through the expansion of its own operations and acquisitions, Orascom’s fertiliser operation grew to become the world’s third-largest nitrogen-based fertiliser producer.
Nassef’s business acumen was growing by the year, and in January 2013, a consortium of investors led by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates invested $1billion in Orascom Construction Industries to help the Sawiris family transfer the company’s listing from the Cairo Stock Exchange to NYSE Euronext Amsterdam.
Sawiris, 58, is Africa’s second-richest man with a fortune Forbes estimates at $7.2 billion. His wealth is registered as 292nd in Forbes’ 2021 Billionaire’s list.
He also sits among Adidas’ supervisory board members having become the biggest investor in the Herzogenaurach, Germany-based sports apparel giants, who ended a very successful 2015 trading year by the news of Sawiris owning six percent of shares.
Sawiris has many personal goals, particularly in becoming a major player in football and the Premier League with Aston Villa, but he’s also a keen advocate of philanthropy and giving back to those who’ve helped him in his business career.
Villa’s joint-owner donated $6million to the University of Chicago Booth School of Business to launch the first custom-designed Executive Education program in Egyptian town, El Gouna. Sawiris made the donation through the Sawiris Family Foundation in May, days before Villa’s play-off final success over Derby County.
The Sawiris Foundation for Social Development also donated $6.3 million to the Egyptian state for Coronavirus relief efforts in a bid to aid COVID-19 efforts in Africa. The foundation dedicated $2.5million of the donation to daily wage workers and $3.8million to support medical facilities and provide them with ventilators.
The billionaire also owns about 1.5million LafargeHolcim shares according to Bloomberg. In fact, the whole Sawiris family have made an incredible fortune over the years. Forbes estimated the family’s combined net worth at $36billion – it’s, therefore, no surprise Nassef has managed to mastermind Villa’s escape from turmoil to Premier League headliners once again, following his large investment into the club.
Away from Villa Park, according to The New York Daily News in 2014, Sawiris also broke the record for the priciest co-op sale in New York City after purchasing the penthouse at 960 Fifth Avenue for $70million. The previous record for the priciest co-op sale belonged to David Geffen who paid $54million for a Fifth Avenue penthouse in 2012.
Fit with a wraparound terrace with views of Central Park among many other luxurious perks, who wouldn’t want to watch Jack Grealish lead the Villa out from NYC’s most lavish of properties?
Although, at points, last season, the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic was such that football was not returning in a hurry. Some sectors were hit harder than others, and Villa’s co-owner Sawiris took a heavy hit to his personal wealth.
Just three days after Villa’s players agreed to defer 25% of their wages for the next four months, figures published showed their co-owner Sawiris has suffered a drop in his net-worth, after the virus saw global equity markets implode with catastrophic results for the bank balances of the super-rich.
Sawiris’ fortune had risen by $1.5billion over the months prior to the pandemic to rank 252nd in the world in Forbes’ 2019 rankings but despite the riches both Sawiris and Edens have ploughed into Aston Villa, our fans are forever indebted to the pair for their impact on the club.
From Zoom calls to club skipper Grealish, convincing the talismanic number ten to stay not once, but twice, supporting employees through these unprecedented times of austerity and uncertainty – they’ve already cemented themselves in Villa folklore, and we’re lucky to have them.
Aston Villa’s proud Lions Clubs in Africa
While Nassef and Wes plot Villa’s climb back to the big time on the European stage, it’s Villa’s historic mantle that has sprung new strongholds of fan bases across continents.
Tucked inside the middle belt of Ghana lies the Ashanti Region, home to Ejisu-Juaben, an unknown district soaked in vibrancy and passionate Villa supporters who are making viral appearances across social media.
The great plains of Africa are the unlikely destination for almost a thousand Villans to make their buoyant march across Juaben’s streets, inviting young and old to bask in a celebration of the Birmingham-based Premier League club.
Matchday is done differently here, but with paint soaked torsos, claret and blue flags, shirts and spirit – the Ghana Lions create a scene to behold.
“Without Aston Villa, I can’t support another team,” passionately claims Ghana Lions founder Owusu Boakye Amando.
“It’s my heart, it’s in my blood, I can’t see another team without mentioning the name Aston Villa.”
Owusu, 20, has followed Villa for 15 years, but Villa Park remains a distant dream, 5,000 miles away from his native Juaben to be exact.
He excitedly remarked: “It is my dream, my heart’s desire, when my grandpa was alive it was his dream to come to Villa Park, but he couldn’t fulfil it, I want to do it for my grandpa.
“He used to talk about a certain player called ‘God’, so one day I asked my grandpa ‘who is that God you are talking about?’ He laughed and told me that there is a God in football too, and his name is Paul McGrath, ‘he is one of the best defenders who has ever played the game’.
“My grandpa has passed away now, I have inherited him, what he used to do for us when we were kids, now sometimes the kids will come to me and ask more stories about Aston Villa.”
The iconic tales of Peter Withe, Gordon Cowans, European and domestic cup triumphs have resonated here in Ghana for some time and Paul McGrath’s legacy is no different. The former Villa and Manchester United defender is one of the many reasons why Owusu now follows the club.
His grandpa spoke gospel of the club and now the Ghana Lions want to make a difference in the lives of youngsters in their homeland, with Villa a vehicle to drive change in their part of the world.
“I made a football team and we support Aston Villa because in my village we have so many talented footballers who have enough talent to play football but they can’t make it due to financial difficulties.
“The kids come up to me and I tell them ‘ay sit down, in the near future you’re going to play like Paul McGrath, you’ll be like Jack Grealish, you will be like Agbonlahor, you will be like Ashley Young’.
“When the kids go home they tell their parents that they’re going to be great in the future.”
Aston Villa are seeking donations for their Gold Coast supporters with shirts, balls and bibs all welcome. Access to such fundamental equipment has been severely limited in these parts of the world for some time.
“We need a football pitch, hopefully, Prince William can help us! We have more than 50 people playing for our football club and over 700 Villa fans in my village.
“We have many, many talented players, many great talents. We didn’t have a football club in my village before, but I’ve formed an Aston Villa football team and sometimes you’ll even find me teaching the kids.”
Pockets of Aston Villa support in Gambia, South Africa and across the continent
Villa are no strangers to support south of the Atlantic with pockets of Villans also appearing in Gambia, South Africa and Tanzania since national captain Mbwana Samatta became their first player to play in the Premier League.
‘Villa Street’ in Gambia was formerly named Kafuta, in the most western pocket of Africa until Kevin Boucal – Villa fanatic and local – exported the B6 club to the Bulok Bolon, a river bed off the Gambia River.
It’s Kevin’s dream to “build up players like Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba, Lionel Messi, Jack Grealish and Robert Snodgrass.”
Owusu also wants to offer hope through football to the youth of Ghana.
“I couldn’t fulfil my education because my parents couldn’t afford the fees but I don’t want the kids to be like me, I want them to go onto something far better because education is the key.”
With 71 official Lions Clubs now formally recognised in the club’s directory, Villa has sown a bond with the globe’s second-largest continent.
Ashanti tribes had settled on the variable terrains of Ghana’s great plains for years, resisting European colonisers for centuries. Their independence bred new cultures and traditions unique to Owusu’s village of Juaben who now live amongst the greatest amount of historiography in sub-Saharan Africa because of the long history of mutual interaction between Ashanti and respective European powers.
Aston Villa is now culture here. Owusu and his many ancestors demonstrate their endearing love for their club on Twitter every week.
“After we play a game, I gather the kids and we sing songs about Aston Villa because every week we follow the boys in claret and blue,” Owusu said, before breaking into a rendition of Villa’s famous Allez, Allez Allez chant.
“When we are chanting in the streets, we see many kids come from their houses to join us and yell in excitement.
“We have touched most of the people that weren’t Aston Villa fans but United fans, City fans, and Barcelona because of what I have been doing, making a lot of noise and even when Villa loses I’m still singing.
“They all used to be Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid now they’ve all joined Aston Villa. More than half the people in my village are Villa fans.”
Social media has so often offered the tools for Lions Clubs to interact and connect with their fellow Villans from around the globe. From Hassan Elkhafagi’s Iraq Lions to Singapore, St Louis and San Diego – Aston Villa has stretched across the globe.
Recent scandals within football have however shone a negative light on platforms of discussion and interaction, with racism at the very forefront of Twitter’s negative wears.
“At first, people were insulting me on social media, they would say I don’t deserve to be a Villa fan because of my skin, because I’m black.
“I tell myself that we may have different religions, we may have different beliefs but we all belong to one human race.”
Juaben’s positivity is refreshing to see even if their hundreds of loyal fans can’t be heard from the stands of Villa Park – they will always remain the very best of supporters.
“When we were facing some racial comments most the people in my village wanted me to stop supporting Aston Villa because they thought all Villa fans were racist, but I stand for Villa.
“I told them that it’s not Villa fans, Villa is a family no matter where you come from,” Owusu proudly claimed.
An official club pennant confirming their place as the 71st Lions Club was a proud moment and will go some way in appeasing Juaben’s fears of severe racist culture back in England.
“The people in my village have given me a big task, they will only believe this if they see me watching a Villa game with Aston Villa fans – I said this is a big task!
“I hope that Aston Villa can write to me one day and invite me to Villa Park.”
The Ghana Lions have questioned all we knew about fan groups, where they originate, why and how they follow a club – their few degrees displacement from the equator has been mapped and their voice heard forevermore.
Marvelous Nakamba and Ally Mbwana Samatta inspiring nations
While Villa have splashed over £230million on transfer fees alone since NSWE took over the club in 2018 and with 18 players coming through Bodymoor Heath’s doors since gaining promotion back to the Premier League a couple of seasons ago, Villa have bought five players of African descent.
Following the July 2019 arrival of Trezeguet – after former Sporting Director Jesús García Pitarch flew out to Egypt to watch the winger at AFCON 2019 – Marvelous Nakamba was the next player Villa signed in what was a frantic summer window last season.
Having joined the club for a fee of just over £10million, Nakamba became the second player to join from the Belgian side Club Brugge this summer following £22million forward Wesley. The Zimbabwean international was born in Hwange but grew up in the country’s second-largest city, Bulawayo.
Nakamba told Birmingham Live: “My mother was working in South Africa so she could support me, buying me football boots and everything, my first boots were Puma. She was there for me.
“She’d come back home every three or four months to visit for two, three weeks after being at work and did that again and again. She had to do that to provide for the family.
“I stayed with my dad, Anthony. It helped me focus more, to give everything to succeed in football for my family, for everyone around me. It helped me grow up. To be satisfied with what I have, to give hunger to what I want, giving everything for my family.”
After what was a tricky few opening months to the Premier League campaign last season, Villa found themselves in a precarious position come the turn of the new year. While three points at Turf Moor dragged Villa above the dotted line on New Year’s Day, a season-ending blow to club-record signing Wesley forced the club to look at replacements in the January market.
Back to the Belgian League Smith went to target Genk’s centre-forward, and indeed Tanzania’s most influential young person, Ally Mbwana Samatta. He was the No.9 Villa sought after amid their goal-scoring woes as relegation from the top flight seemed a real possibility if not a certainty altogether 12 months ago.
Known as Samagoal to those who know him best in Southeast Africa, the Tanzanian striker joined the club with a social media following about the size of Birmingham’s population itself – 1.2 million on Instagram.
The responsibility to inspire a nation is something that the striker carried when at Villa Park in a similar fashion to that of current Villa midfielder Nakamba. When at Villa – before he joined Fenerbahce on loan this season – the eyes of Tanzania turned towards Aston.
For a young lad who grew up kicking rolled-up plastic bags around the streets of Dar es Salaam, featuring in a League Cup final with Aston Villa at Wembley wasn’t in the script. Over 10 family members watched from the stands at the 2020 Carabao Cup final, while millions of his fellow Tanzanians cheered him on from further afield.
His consolation goal at the Vitality Stadium last season would’ve been a personal highlight for Samatta but not many moments in his career will dupe that of a Carabao Cup final goal under the Wembley arch. It was the goal Villa’s recruitment team had dreamed of – a powerful diving header to clinically dispatch Anwar El Ghazi’s looping delivery.
As the Premier League’s suspension would soon loom, his goal at Wembley would become the final goal Villa fans would celebrate inside a stadium, and who knows the next time we’ll get that pleasure let alone in the national stadium.
Following his move to the Premier League, Samatta took over the reins of NBA star Hasheem Thabeet as Tanzanian’s global sports icon. The 7ft 3in basketball player has enjoyed a successful career with teams such as the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets but, according to Tanzanian sports journalist Salah Jembe, has been overtaken by Samatta in terms of popularity in his country.
Samatta also became a popular figure in the Villa dressing room. He formed a good friendship with fellow African, Nakamba who also shoulders the pressure of a nation. The Zimbabwe international, according to Samatta knows the struggles of making it as a professional from humble beginnings.
The two had met before when they competed against each other in Belgium’s top-flight league, and during a Q&A with the club’s fans on Villa TV, Villa’s former striker explained his relationship with Nakamba.
“I have a few, but I will go with Marvelous Nakamba. He is a guy I meet outside the pitch as well,” Samatta said.
“He is a cool guy, he comes from Zimbabwe, and I come from Tanzania, it’s not far away. He knows the culture, and he knows the struggle.”
Samatta began his professional career in 2016 and had been plying his trade in his home continent for six years, spending a year with Simba Sports Club – one of two vastly superior football clubs in Tanzania.
He scored 12 goals in 25 appearances and after finding success in his homeland, Samatta moved over 1,000 miles through Zambia to sign for TP Mazembe – the 17-time Vodacom Ligue 1 champions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Samatta scored 60 goals in 103 matches for Mazembe before making it in Europe.
He was named the 2015 African based Player of the Year and finished the season as the top goalscorer of the CAF Champions League as he helped TP Mazembe to win their third title since the turn of the millennium.
Samatta was the subject of interest from many European clubs. He eventually settled on KRC Genk who has produced talents Leon Bailey, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Wilfred Ndidi in past years and in May 2019, Samatta was awarded the Ebony Shoe award – with previous winners Youri Tielemans, Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini all forging successful careers in the English top flight.
While Samatta’s short stint at Villa won’t be remembered for goals nor particularly outstanding performances, he’s put Tanzania on the map – and that is a priceless legacy to lead in Africa. Villa lost over 30,000 followers on Instagram in the last 24 hours after the club confirmed his departure to Turkish Super Lig side Fenerbahce.
The arrival of Ollie Watkins and Burkina Faso international Bertrand Traoré meant Samatta was surplus to requirements in Smith’s squad.
Traoré was understood to have been keen to link up with former teammate John Terry from his time with Chelsea as a teenager, but not before holding conversations with Nakamba – who is clearly a popular figure in the Villa dressing room.
Traoré added in his first interview with VillaTV: “I spoke to the Manager, spoke with the Sporting Director as well and some players I used to play with – Nakamba and El Ghazi.
“I spoke to Nakamba, I talked to him a little bit about the club.
“I played with JT at Chelsea, I spoke to him.
“I’m very happy to join Aston Villa, many things made me take the decision to come here.”
After a couple of loan move away from Stamford Bridge as a youngster, the Burkina Faso international made his first permanent switch from West London to Bruno Génésio’s Lyon in 2017.
In August 2010, it was reported that Traoré had rejected Manchester United in a bid to join the then Premier League Champions Chelsea from French side AJ Auxerre. The youngster had emerged at the 2009 FIFA under-17 World Cup as a 14-year-old – he was the youngest player in the tournament.
The news of Traoré joining Chelsea’s new-look academy set-up was the talk of the country throughout Burkina Faso. He was the first of his nation to join a top European club, and at such a tender age, many in West Africa were excited to see him grow up playing alongside Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel in the near future.
After FIFA implemented stricter protection of minors laws, Traore wouldn’t commit his future at Chelsea for some years while his early promise was trumped by his elder brother Alain, whose performances at Auxerre was gaining traction in Ligue 1.
Years later and Bertrand would shine in major European finals and prove a point or two in the Premier League. For Aston Villa, strengthening existing ties and cultivating new fan bases across a continent barmy for football, Sawiris and his inspirational players are promoting claret and blue throughout the globe.