Welcome to CPL DEEP DIVE, a CanPL.ca series that takes an in-depth look at a particular subject matter of interest in Canadian soccer, examining it from a variety of angles and perspectives.
On a cold afternoon in Calgary back in 2017, Raphael Ohin sat on a curb downtown, head in hand. He'd flown to the city from Winnipeg to visit the U.S. consulate, hoping to secure a visa that would allow him to travel south of the border with his PDL team, WSA Winnipeg. Ohin was denied. The then-22-year-old, a native of Ghana who had moved to Winnipeg a couple years earlier, had saved up for months – working a construction job, among other things – to pay for the flight to Calgary, chasing his dream of playing professional soccer. Now, it had all come crashing down again. In that moment, Ohin nearly forgot about his return flight that same day. It wasn't until he spoke to his aunt, Maggie Yeboah – with whom he lives in Winnipeg – on the phone that he managed to clear his head. "I phoned my Auntie, and she was like, 'Raph, it's okay. Just come back home. Right now, you don't want to miss your flight, that's the last thing you wanna do. Put yourself together, I know it's hard,'" Ohin recalled. “I got on the flight, and I was just crying the whole time." That year – the second of Ohin's three years with WSA Winnipeg – would go much like the other two, with the midfielder only able to play home games, and matches against Canadian sides such as the Thunder Bay Chill. Today, things are much different. Ohin is preparing for his third year as a professional in the CPL with Valour FC. And now, as of March, Ohin is officially a permanent resident in Canada. After six years of living in Manitoba with Yeboah, Ohin has finally secured his future in his adopted home country. "I feel like I'm considered as a Canadian now, if you know what I mean," he said. "For the past few days now, I'm telling you, I wake up and whenever I'm praying, tears just start flowing. It's just all tears of joy. This is really huge, and it's gonna be passing on to another generation, to the next generation to come." It hasn't always been tears of joy. Through some dark moments, Ohin has clung tightly to his faith and his belief in himself, both of which have led him back to the game of football time and again. In an extended interview with CanPL.ca, Ohin laid bare the many hurdles he's faced on his path to this moment.
Déjà vu... again, and again, and again
Ohin's story begins in Ghana – Accra, to be precise. Born and raised there, he grew up dreaming of one day playing soccer abroad. The first glimmer of hope came when Ohin was 15: he caught the eye of a scout from Swiss outfit FC Basel, who invited him to go on trial with the club for a week. The training stint went well enough that, soon enough, Ohin and his dad – with the help of an agency – were working with Basel on a professional academy contract. That particular venture, though, fizzled out. "After a few years when I turned 18 and I found out what the story was really, that the guys I was working with were actually after money – they were thinking about money more than my future and my career, I'll just leave it like that for now," Ohin explained. From there, Ohin next landed a trial with German side Borussia Mönchengladbach. Somehow, that trial led to the same thing: an interested club; the beginnings of a deal; and ultimately, nothing. It was at his next stop, in Thailand, that things got really out of hand. "(The club) kept me there for an extra four months after my agent asked them to put me on a flight and go back home if they're not willing to pay the amount of money that he was asking for," Ohin revealed. "But still the club never wanted to give up, they said they can't afford to lose (me), we're still gonna keep in touch. They kept me there for an extra four to five months, I'd say. "Finally my agent got to know about it, got really mad. The team was scared, they said, 'Raph, this is what it is. It looks like your agent is not gonna change his mind.' So they let me go back to Ghana." A lot of people in similar situations might have given up after that; for the third time, Ohin was back home with little to show for his globe-trotting adventure. Returning to Accra, Ohin made sure to complete his high school education – which had fallen behind a little in the course of his travels. Ohin ended up going to Europe one more time, to Swedish club Bodens BK, to no avail. It was then, when he found himself back home for the fourth time, that Canada began to enter his mind – firsrt, through a brief parlay with PDL side K-W United in Ontario (although he never ended up travelling there), and then finally a full trial with the Vancouver Whitecaps' reserve side. His time in Vancouver proceeded similarly to the other stops on Ohin's world tour. It was there, with Whitecaps 2, that he met a few familiar faces: Brett Levis, Marco Bustos, Ali Musse, and several others. But still, no contract; the club suggested Ohin try a U SPORTS route, but back in 2015, with no CPL (and therefore no CPL-U SPORTS Draft) to speak of, that was yet another opportunity that fizzled out. By this time Ohin had a severe case of déjà-vu, flying back to Ghana yet again. "Another disappointment, and I had to go back home for the fifth time," he said. "You can imagine how hard it is for me and for my family. After that, I was just back home." That is, until his Auntie Maggie Yeboah called. She, with a little help from Winnipeg's Crestview Park Free Methodist Church (and its pastor, Carter Nevis), helped Ohin move from Ghana to the Manitoban capital to start from scratch, and live with her and Ohin's uncle, Sam Yeboah. "I came to Winnipeg, started all over again," Ohin recounted. "After all the places that I've been to, I was like, all this is past now. It's behind me." Ohin wasn't quite done with soccer, though.
'You've gotta do what you've gotta do'
When Ohin arrived in Winnipeg, to say he was disconnected from the world of soccer is an understatement. The Yeboah family was more into basketball, with several of Ohin's cousins playing the sport in high school at the time. He had no real lead on a local club to join, or even any pickup games. After starting fresh in Canada, Ohin could easily have stepped away from the sport. "At first, I used to cry a lot whenever I was watching Champions League or something," Ohin admitted. "When I was in FC Basel, there was this young guy who's now playing for Mönchengladbach, Breel Embolo. I remember I was with all of them when I went to Basel, so the first time I saw this guy play in the Champions League, standing beside Cristiano Ronaldo, honestly I was just happy for him, but at the same time it hurt a little bit. “But I said, 'You know Raph, I'm not gonna let this break me. I'm just gonna focus. It's a new country, a new city, starting all over again.'" Ohin did all he could to return to soccer. He connected with people at church, who went on to ask around at high schools and basketball games if anybody knew of a soccer team. He trained on his own, in his basement (before that became the norm for CPLers in mid-2020). The first time Ohin touched a soccer ball outside his house in Winnipeg was when, after a few months, he caught wind of some pickup football next to a hockey rink. It wasn't necessarily what he expected, with the game turning out to be dominated mostly by U-10 players and some parents. “Somebody said 'Hey Raph, there's a game going on here, you want to come out and play, maybe somebody might see you,'" Ohin said. "I went there, and there was just a bunch of little kids, it was like mini academy. My uncle was like, 'Raph, you know what, you gotta do what you've gotta do for people to see you.' “So I was like, okay, put on my shoes, was playing with them, little kids, I was just playing." His next outing wasn't much better; he showed up at a basketball gym filled with, by his reckoning, 50 to 60 people of all ages and genders. "I was like, what? I thought I was coming to play soccer on grass, or a turf field, or something." Again, the same response from his uncle: You've gotta do what you've gotta do. "That's where I started making friends in the city, but honestly I never knew what I was going through until after a few years," Ohin said. "God was taking me on a path. I have the quote, you can only jump higher if you want to by first coming down... "That's where I started from, I went all the way down, and from there I started making friends and went all the way to WSA Winnipeg." WSA Winnipeg – now known as FC Manitoba, in USL League Two – finally gave Ohin a more advanced environment to play in, under coaches Eduardo Badescu and Raff Cantafio. The club, which then played in the Heartland Division of the league's Central Conference against teams in Chicago, Des Moines, St. Louis, and Thunder Bay. He began to gather some attention there, with a couple of the other clubs showing interest. But, of course, he couldn't get a visa to enter the United States, and so he could only play home games or matches in Thunder Bay. After months of saving up meagre stipends from construction work culminated in that devastating trip to Calgary, Ohin resigned himself to the situation and settled in for a second, and then a third season with WSA Winnipeg. All until June 2018, that is – the month Valour FC was officially revealed as the Canadian Premier League's fourth club. "When I heard Valour FC was coming in, it wasn't even me, it was people in this city," Ohin recalled. "People in this city are so wonderful, they were like, 'Raph, this is your chance – maybe you traveling down to the States did not really happen, just because God is preparing something for you here. This is gonna be your chance, you're gonna make the team.'" Fortunately, Ohin had already met Valour coach Rob Gale before. The two had come face-to-face on the football pitch in 2016, at a pickup tournament. Knowing that Gale was a high-level coach (at the time he was running Canada's U-20 national team), Ohin pulled out all the stops. "That was the first time Rob saw me, because I made one of my favourite moves on this guy and I gave a pass, and he was like, 'Oh, who is this guy? Are you from here?'" Ohin remembered, laughing. "He asked me in the middle of the game, and I was like, 'Yeah, I just moved to this city.'" They would, of course, meet again a couple years later.
'I'm so blessed to call Canada my home now'Apparently, Gale had his eye on Ohin well before the young midfielder signed with the professional club. “I remember when I was playing in the PDL, coach Rob was keeping an eye on me, monitoring how I'm doing week in and week out, how's my fitness level, training, stuff like that," Ohin said. "He'd been watching me for three years before Valour FC came." Ohin was finally announced as a Valour player on January 10, 2019 – about four years after his first arrival in Winnipeg, and eight after his first stint with FC Basel. His family, naturally, was ecstatic at his new gig, and Ohin himself was counting his blessings that, after so many rejections and disappointments, he'd finally found a pro club. Fast forward two years, and Ohin has played 29 games for Valour, including every single contest of the 2020 season at The Island Games. He's become an integral part of the organization that has now helped him find some real stability in his life – in more ways than one. "I would rather say it's a blessing than say it means a lot to me," Ohin offered. "It's a huge blessing, not just for myself but for family, for the next generation. It's been a long story, and first I give thanks to God because without God I don't think I would be here by this time. A country called Canada, a beautiful city, wonderful people of Winnipeg, that gives me the opportunity to dream again, you know what I mean?" Recently, the club was able to help Ohin out with his process of securing permanent residency in Canada, which finally went through now that he's established himself as a professional footballer in Canada. "The Valour organization helped a lot during the process, the paperwork, which is a bit crazy," Ohin said. "Everyone that has gone through that will tell you how hard it can be. People might say, '(Canadian Immigration services) is this, Immigration is that, but if you ask me they're doing their job. They want people who they can trust inside, they let people that they can trust into the country. "The process is a little bit long, but eventually if you get it it's the best feeling." Ohin explained that, now that the matter is sorted, he feels like a Canadian. Indeed, if the Canadian national team were to come calling one day, he said that he wouldn't hesitate for a second before accepting. By now, Canada feels like home. "Canada is a beautiful country, very welcoming," Ohin said. "They welcome everyone -- different cultures, different backgrounds, regardless. People ask me, and I'm like, yeah, Canada is just like where I grew up in Ghana. In Ghana, we have over 250 languages and still counting, so we have every one; we're very welcoming. "If you've ever been to Winnipeg before, you can see what I'm telling you, that's why it's called Friendly Manitoba. People here are just so welcoming, so honest. “I'm just so blessed to call Canada my home now."
Raphael Ohin has requested to thank Maggie and Sam Yeboah, Eduardo Badescu, Raff Cantafio, Joe Aiello, Muuxi Adam, Zaifman Immigration Lawyers, Pastor Gerum, Pastor Nevis Carter, Pastor Bernard Botchway in Ghana, Pastor Dustin Schellenberg, and the Crestview Park Free Methodist Church, among many, many others.