Look, if you had one shot and one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted, one moment, would you capture it or just let it slip?
Thomas Partey decided to capture his moment. He did not let it slip. When the offer of a ticket to play football in Europe was made to the Ghanaian, he got on the plane, even though he didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to his family.
It was 2011 and Thomas was a promising young midfielder with Tema Youth, a team he’d been helping win promotion to the Ghanaian top flight. There was a hotel near the team’s training pitches and one day a football agent checked in, having been told that there were several up-and-coming stars in the local club’s squad. Having asked around the hotel which players he should be scouting first, he was told about an excellent striker and about Thomas. The striker wanted to stay in Ghana, but Thomas’ aim was to move to Europe and to earn enough money to help his family. He ticked all of the boxes and was offered the chance to fulfil his dream.
The agent went to speak with Thomas’ father to ask if he could take him for trials in Spain, even though it wasn’t specified which team he’d be going to. The midfielder’s father had been a footballer too and Thomas used to go and watch his father train and play, before embarking on his own youth career, first with local side Krobo Youth, before moving to the city of Ashaiman and furthering his career there. So his dad understood. Thomas’ family was a football family; even his sisters play the sport. This was too good an opportunity to turn down.
The teenager’s commitment was truly tested on the day of the move to Europe, when he was told he had to fly out of Ghana immediately. “Then came the day in which I had to travel,” the current Atlético Madrid midfielder later explained in an interview with MARCA. “I got in a car and they took me to the capital, where they told me ‘today you will travel’. My father wasn’t in his house and no member of my family knew what was going on with me or that I was going to leave that day. If they had been told then there would have been a lot of problems. So I travelled and I arrived in Spain six or seven months before anyone realised I had left Ghana.”
His father, when he eventually found out, approved of Thomas’ decision. He even sold some of his possessions and sent money for his son to buy football boots. His mother was a little more worried, but Thomas doesn’t regret the decision. “I always go where it feels right and that’s why I took this decision to travel without telling anyone.”
As well as the cold and the strange language, a trial with Atlético Madrid was waiting for Thomas in Spain. The capital city club didn’t hesitate to sign him and he rapidly progressed through their youth academy. It only took him four months to be promoted from the Juvenil B to Juvenil A team, so quickly did he settle in. He also made friends in next to no time and was able to learn the language too, having taken Spanish lessons and having moved into an apartment with other youth teamers, after spending his first year in one of the club’s residencies in Boadilla.
Towards the end of the 2012/13 season the central midfielder made his first matchday squad for the senior team, with Diego Simeone having taken an interest in him ever since his arrival. The then-19-year-old wasn’t used that day, but he soon got some senior experience under his belt by going out on loan, first to second-tier Real Mallorca in 2013/14 and then to LaLiga side Almería in 2014/15. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that Thomas was Mallorca’s best player during his stint there, while he was also one of Almería’s best players going forward the following season, even if he still had some work to do when it came to the defensive side of the game.
But Thomas had impressed enough to be kept in the Atleti squad the following campaign. “I felt very great because it was not easy for a player to remain in the big teams,” he told Citi Sports of his feelings when he found out Simeone wanted him to stay and not go out on loan again. “Simeone knew me since I was in the Juvenil team and often asked us to train with the senior team. So they knew us and knew we had the talent.”
It was an excellent first season for Thomas and for Atlético, as he played 23 times and even featured in both legs of the Champions League quarter-finals and semi-finals, as well as in the final against Real Madrid in Milan. Although that was a devastating night for Rojiblancos everywhere, Thomas viewed it as a beginning, not as an ending. “We were sad, but personally I wasn’t so sad because I knew this wasn’t the end of everything,” he said. “It was a lost opportunity, but I knew in my mind that we were going to win something someday.”
Amazingly, he’d played in a Champions League final before making his debut with the Ghana national team, but this soon followed and he even scored a hat-trick for the Black Stars in one 2018 World Cup qualifier against Congo.
Back in Madrid, he has become increasingly more important. Even though he considered asking for another loan move in the summer of 2017, Atlético persuaded him to stay. Thomas was promised more minutes and he has been given them, in important matches and not just in the simpler ones. Along with Saúl Ñíguez, he is the future of the club’s midfield and just last week he signed a contract extension which links him to the club until 2023. “I have worked very hard and I deserve what’s coming my way,” he said of the new deal. Anyone who has witnessed Thomas’ progression over the past few seasons would surely agree.