He’s not a privileged Brit or an Irish invader. He’s not a couch surfer or a typical study abroad student. He’s not here for the beach. He is here for one reason: to play soccer.
Ghana native and soccer prodigy, Ema Boateng, wasted little time making his mark on UCSB’s soccer team. He made an immediate impact in his first season last fall, scoring four goals, three of which were crucial game changers against UCLA, San Diego, and Sacramento State. Recognized as Big West’s Freshman of the Year and First Team All-Big West, he has quickly risen to Gaucho stardom.
“Well, I wouldn’t call myself a celebrity,” he said modestly after I asked him if he felt famous on campus because of his success on the field.
He landed in the area in 2009 at age 15 to attend Cate School, a private prep school in Carpentaria, after Right to Dream Academy identified him as one of the top 16 players in Ghana and fully funded his high school education in the United States.
Founded in 2000, Right to Dream Academy is a growing charity organization that offers scholarships to talented young people all over West Africa. By combining education with sport, it seeks to “help provide children from extreme poverty with the opportunity to build a better life for themselves and their families.”
“When I was nine, my coach would come to my house,” he said. Even though he was so young, his parents worried he’d give up on school entirely to play soccer. But the Academy lets him do both. Unlike some of the corrupt agents that exist in Africa, the Academy is a credible organization and has given more than 100 kids from Ghana the opportunity to obtain scholarships from colleges in the U.S. or play on professional soccer teams around the world.
The Academy also set Boateng up with the Schwartzes, his host family of two parents and three teenage “siblings” in Carpinteria. A big part of the family now, they continue to see each other weekly. They’ve scheduled family vacations to Hawaii, Beaver Creek, and Europe around his soccer commitments and included him in their family photo for their yearly Christmas card. They even took a trip to Ghana two summers ago where they met the entire family. He recalled, “My parents were so happy to meet them and thank them.”
While attending Cate School for three years, Boateng led the soccer team in every game, which had a combined 42-2-1 record during his sophomore and junior year. Also, he was named VIP in the Milk Cup in Northern Ireland where he played for the California Strikers in 2011. He was named the Gatorade Player of the Year in 2012. He skipped his senior year of high school to attend UCSB.
Despite scholarship offers from Princeton, Stanford, and Yale, he chose UCSB because he said he believed it was the best place to pursue his professional career. Plus, he’s been part of the S.B. community for years.
“UCSB is where I thought I could become more of myself,” he said. After visiting the East Coast one winter, Boateng explained, “I had to wear three or four sweatshirts. I’m not into that.” So Santa Barbara has become home. “I couldn’t imagine leaving,” said Boateng, who returned to Cate’s graduation ceremony a few weeks ago to receive an honorary diploma.
As for his family and friends back in Ghana, he visits every summer for a few weeks. He also talks to his family for about a half hour every Sunday and Wednesday.
“I talk to my sister a lot,” he said and laughed a little. “Sometimes too much.”
During off season, he practices three to four hours a day. “I haven’t been off the ball for more than two weeks in the past seven years,” he explained, though he does manage to have a social life.
“Every time I step on the field, that’s where I want to be,” he said.
Boateng is also featured in The Beautiful Game, a 2012 documentary about the power of soccer in modern Africa. “It has a following larger than any one religion,” Reverend Tutu shares in the film. In Africa, “If you don’t play it. You watch it. You support it. You pray for it.”
The film portrays the lives of six Africans in their pursuit to use the sport to lift up themselves and their communities. The film follows him for four years and touches on sentimental moments in his life, like saying goodbye to his family in Ghana and ultimately leaving the Academy once he was accepted to UCSB.
According to the trailer, “Football is life. Football speaks all languages.” Victor Buhler, the director, said the six incredible characters show the power of futball across Africa, showing examples that it is the resilience of the “resourcefulness of Africans.”
When I asked Boateng where he’d ideally like to play, he said, “That’s a no-brainer: one day I want to play for Ghana’s international league.”
Honestly, I know very little about soccer — or rather football. But once he said that, I realized, of course it’s not just sport. His passion made his life. His story speaks for itself. Exhausted just listening to his story, I finally asked him if it all was ever too much.
“No, I love it,” he said.