Right to Dream: Bello Alhassan

Sophia Chang/New University

Senior midfielder Bello Alhassan sat on the bench as UCI lost 1-0 to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo for the Big West opener on Sept. 28. Last season he scored his lone collegiate goal against the Mustangs. Alhassan hasn’t started once this season.

Six years ago, Alhassan travelled to the US from Ghana with hopes of playing high school and collegiate soccer and  hoping to someday play professionally.  In his final season at UCI, he’s running out of opportunities to prove himself.

“I need to work harder to get back into the team and start playing,” he said. “I need to do whatever I can [to] help my [teammates] win the conference and win the NCAA Tournament.  I’m trying to work as hard as I can.”

Despite his disappointment at the beginning of the season, Alhassan didn’t complain and pushed harder in practice.

The Ghanaian has two torn meniscuses in his knees. It has hindered him on the field and hindered his ability to stay in shape. Alhassan noticed the injury five years ago when he started experiencing pain in his right knee. A sharp pinch inside his knee held him back from playing to his fullest potential.

After reconstructive surgery, Alhassan found himself in the same predicament again a year later, but this time in his left knee. Though his knees held up shortly after surgery, his knees began to flare up once again last season, his first at UCI.

Alhassan played a total of 19 of 20 games, starting  10. Over the offseason he took  a few months off to rest up for 2011.

On game days Alhassan wraps layers of athletic tape around his knees. It provides support and comfort, but he still struggles through the injury.

In addition, Alhassan is homesick. “I need someone. Family you know?” he said. “I have not been with my family for six years.”

Bello’s parents live thousands of miles away in Ghana. Growing up in Africa, Alhassan shared a one-room brick house with his parents, brother and sister. When the house was too hot to sleep in, he and his brother often slept at the nearby compounds or slept outside the house on sizzling evenings.

His family could never afford electricity, so Alhassan often visited his neighbors’ or friends’ houses to watch soccer games and follow his role models: French superstar Zinedine Zidane and Italian legend Paolo Maldini.

Poverty couldn’t stop Alhassan  from playing soccer. A majority of his childhood was spent playing barefoot on rocky fields. Having played in such circumstances for most of his youth, no surface bothers him.

“I was eight when I started using cleats,” said Alhassan. “It was weird at first.”

Soccer served as his priority, even at school. Alhassan went to school at 7 a.m. and practiced between classes. He even skipped school on occasion to play soccer.

His religious devotion to the game paid off when his club coach referred him to Right to Dream Academy, a non-profit organization aimed to provide Ghanaian children a chance at developing their soccer skills and education. The program took Alhassan in. He received a better education, soccer training, food and care.

After six years  in the program, Bello was offered a huge opportunity. The Right to Dream Academy wanted him to move to the Santa Barbara, California branch. In California, he would have the chance to pursue an American education and see where soccer would take him..

Alhassan bid farewell to his family and motherland in 2005. After spending three years on the Dunn School soccer team in Santa Barbara, Alhassan was then recruited by Western Arizona College.

He had 16 goals and 10 assists in one season at Western Arizona before becoming an Anteater. At 5 feet 4 inches, he is easily the shortest player on the UCI soccer team, but Coach George Kuntz found an upside in Alhassan’s skillset despite his  stature.

“[We wanted him because] he’s quick. He’s skillful with his left [foot]. He can put it anywhere you want him to 50-60 yards out with his left foot,” Kuntz said.  “He’s mature [and has]a lot of games under his belt.”

A long way away from Ghana, Alhassan continues to pursue a dwindling dream. He runs three to four miles in the mornings. After his run, he heads to Crawford Athletics complex and has a private session with  Kuntz, who  pinpoints his weaknesses and  prepares him for the team practice. He’s willing to do anything to work his way up to get back in the lineup.

The session ends at 11 a.m. and then he’s off to class. At 3 p.m., he’s back on the field for a two hour team practice.

“[His] fitness level is getting better,” Kuntz said. “He’s not there but he’s getting better.”

Despite clocking in more hours than the rest of his teammates, Alhassan still hasn’t seen much action in 2011

“Recently I realized that being patient in life is key for success,” Alhassan said. “Whenever you are patient and you keep doing the right thing [by] working hard, then in the long run your time [will] come, and when it comes it’s going to be big. [I work]  hard and [don’t blame] the coach. I blame it on me. I need to work hard and get back on the team.”

On Oct. 1, Alhassan’s efforts caught Kuntz’s attention. For the first time in 2011 Alhassan took the team bus on a road trip to where his American dream came to fruition — Santa Barbara.

At UCSB’s  training room, Alhassan taped up his knees. He didn’t know if he’d see action, but he imagined himself marking an attacker in his head as he mentally prepared himself for the game. Kuntz approached him  and asked if he could have a word.

“Can you play on those knees?” Kuntz asked.

The coach thought he would be the best candidate to start at left back. In a game against UCSB, a team ranked 10th in the nation, experience was crucial

“He’s just an older guy. He’s like an old soul,” Kuntz said.“He’s a deep,  philosophical. He brings that calmness [to our team].”

After sitting 10 straight games, Alhassan was finally going to start.

His first 15 minutes were difficult. Rusty, he started off a bit shakily. Alhassan  smothered his opponents; however, the defensive line  struggled with communication. UCSB was firing at will, but hadn’t scored. Fifteen minutes in, Alhassan fought for the ball and brought a UCSB player  down with a slide tackle, giving UCSB a free kick from 45 yards.

“BELLO!”

He turned his head to the sidelines and saw his coach’s expression. He wouldn’t let that happen again.

At halftime, Alhassan talked out communication issues with the backline.

The dialogue paid off. The defense played like a solid unit to start the second half. In the 75th minute, he was subbed out. He had committed one foul, allowed just one player  past him on the left wing, and the defense conceded zero goals.

“It doesn’t matter, as long as I have one game, I can show I was good enough to play,” Alhassan said.

Alhassan knows that he is still a ways from becoming the player that he wants to be.

“[My] Number one [weakness] is my fitness level,” he said.  “Secondly, my decision-making is getting rough, but I am getting better at that.”

His lofty goals remain. Alhassan not only wants to play professionally, but he wants to stand out. “[I want to] inspire someone to love the game,” he said.

Alhassan certainly is doing just that. Since the Santa Barbara match, he  has started every game.