It takes just a few seconds and a couple of words to establish that Kayza Massey is no ordinary Ghanaian. But it is only once she starts telling her full, remarkable story – all in a distinctively Canadian accent – that it becomes clear just how extraordinary this 15-year-old goalkeeper is.
As with any tale, it is best to begin at the start and, in this case, the fortuitous meeting with a charity worker that changed her life forever. “I was born in Ghana but I was in an orphanage until my mom came from Canada,” Massey told FIFA.com. “She had been working in Ghana for UNICEF at the time, building a school in Walewale, and someone told her one day, ‘Oh, we have a surprise for you’. That surprise was one-month old baby – me – and she decided to adopt me.
“I’ve never found out exactly how I came to be in the orphanage, but I know that in Ghana everyone has a really strong connection to their kids. They do everywhere, of course, but everyone tells me it’s especially strong there. Children are very rarely given up unless the mother has died, so I think that was the most likely cause.”
A fateful phone call
It made, of course, for the toughest of starts in life, and yet Massey soon began to thrive. Her adopted mother enabled her to do so by ensuring a stable, happy childhood, and was equally determined that Kayza’s move to Canada should not come at the expense of her Ghanaian heritage and identity.
As Massey explained: “We have a pretty big Ghanaian community in Ottawa and, from when I was very young, my mom got me involved in that community and made me feel a part of the culture. And I love the culture – it’s one of the biggest reasons I became involved in this team. My mom’s been a huge support to me in that. She’s so proud that I’ve managed to do what I’ve done here, playing for this team and winning big matches. And she’s always encouraging me, telling me just to play my game and stay calm and composed.”
Sound advice indeed, for composure has arguably proved the key factor in Massey and Ghana remaining in this competition. Losing 5-0 to Japan in their opening match could, after all, have resulted in a crumbling of confidence, morale and unity. Instead, as this mature and confident 15-year-old explains, it had the opposite effect. “If anything, we were more united after the Japan game,” she said. “We saw that playing as individuals would get us nowhere and we made a real effort to come together and find a way to come back from that.”
Massey more than played her part, making several excellent stops in the all-important comeback win over much-fancied USA, then shutting out Paraguay to ensure qualification. But in telling her story, we have – by reaching the present – skipped a chapter or two. So, before seeking her views about the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup quarter-finals, it was to essential to first ask: how did she become part of this team, and this tournament, in the first place? Her answer, once again, was amazing.
“I’m a big football fan and I play for a club team in Ottawa, and it just happened that I heard this World Cup was coming up,” she explained. “I was talking to my mom about it and she said, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be cool if you could go there and play for the Ghanaian national team.’ It started as a bit of a joke but then we actually started looking into it and ended up calling the Ghana FA and asking them, ‘Would you be interested in taking a look at another goalkeeper?’ And they said, ‘Sure. Absolutely.’
“They hadn’t seen me play though, so it was obviously down to us to fund the trip over to Accra and, because of that, I definitely felt a bit of pressure to make the team. Fortunately I managed to do enough. I picked up an injury just before the qualifiers but I stayed to cheer on the team anyway and then, after going back to Canada, I returned for the pre-World Cup training camp.”
Fate also had a further hand to play because Massey, despite winning the coaching staff’s instant approval, was not intended to travel to Jordan as Ghana’s No1 keeper. It was a late knee injury to the original first-choice, Martha Koffie Annan, which handed the 15-year-old that chance, and she has grasped it with both hands. Organising her defence and dominating her penalty area have proved to be particularly strong suits, and the ability to communicate with and marshall those in front of her is all the more impressive as most of the Ghana squad do not speak English.
“A lot of the girls speak local dialects but that’s actually not as much of a problem as you might think,” she said. “Although most of them can’t speak English, they can all understand it. And whenever anyone doesn’t understand what I’m saying – and that’s rare – someone else in the team will pitch in and translate. I’ve also been learning some of the local Ghanaian phrases on the field and that helps a lot. It’s been a nice bonus actually as it’s another part of the culture I’m picking up here. It’s actually been really easy communicating with my team-mates and everyone in the squad has been so welcoming and friendly to me.
“The whole thing, playing in a World Cup, has just been an exceptional experience and I’m really enjoying myself. I just hope we can stay until the final now. It won’t be easy, especially against Korea DPR in the next round. We saw how good Japan are and fully expect the Koreans to be just as tough. But we’ve learned during this tournament how to adjust our game to these different styles of play and I’m sure we’ll come up with a plan that will allow us to compete better this time.”
Odds will still be long on Ghana prevailing, and longer still on them fulfilling Massey’s target of reaching the final. But even if the Black Maidens surprise everyone by going on to lift the trophy, it will merely add another fantastic passage to the astonishing life story of their 15-year-old keeper.