The atmosphere was sombre as family, government officials, diplomats and sympathisers gathered at Kotoka International Airport in Accra on Sunday night to receive the remains of Atsu, who was killed in the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria.
Many sobbed uncontrollably when the casket of the late footballer, who played for Turkish team Hatayspor, was lowered from the cargo compartment of a Turkish Airlines aircraft.
Vice President Mahamudu Bawumia in an address during a brief ceremony at the airport said the death of Atsu was “a very painful loss… Atsu was much loved and we will sorely miss him.”
A few hours before the 6 February earthquake, Atsu scored a late winning goal for Hatayspor against Kasimpasa in the 2022/23 Turkey Süper Lig. He was due to fly out on a private trip that night but cancelled the flight to celebrate with his teammates.
Atsu was trapped under the rubble of his apartment in Hatay after the quake for 12 days before his body was found.
There were initial reports that he had been rescued a day after the disaster but they turned out to be false.
Bawumia, while extending his condolences to the family, said: “the State will be fully involved with the family in providing him a befitting burial.”
At 31, Atsu featured 65 times for the Black Stars, scoring nine goals.
At the club level, he played for FC Porto, Rio Ave, Chelsea, Vitesse, Everton, Bournemouth, Malaga, Newcastle United, Al Raed and Hatayspor within his 12-year professional career – from 2011 to 2023, making 207 appearances with 23 goals in his credit.
“Atsu was one of the most loved players because he had a wonderful left foot, was brilliant and could make things work on the field,” sports journalist Michael Oti-Adjei tells The Africa Report.
Oti-Adjei remembers the atmosphere after Atsu’s incredible performance on his third appearance for the Black Stars in September 2012.
“The chants at the stadium were that we had seen the next Messi… The spontaneity of the glowing tributes we’re hearing is a sign of how good he was,” Oti-Adjei adds.
Former Black Stars captain Asamoah Gyan reportedly said “if he [Atsu] continues this way he’s going to be a star.”
Indeed, Atsu rose as an unforgettable footballer. His former clubs Newcastle and Chelsea eulogised him after news of his passing, and others remember him well.
“Atsu would be best remembered for being an all-around nice person. He was an easygoing guy at Tyneside. He’d be the first to be up for community events and I guess because he came from a difficult background, he understood the power of giving to society always,” UK-based sports journalist Rahman Osman tells The Africa Report.
Off the pitch Christian Atsu had made a name for himself as a philanthropist, donating time and money on a regular basis to organisations in Ghana and the UK.
You stood #withrefugees and was a proud donor of UNHCR's Face to Face fundraising in Ghana. We are deeply saddened to hear you couldn't pull through. Our heartfelt sympathies to your entire family. #RIPChristianAtsu pic.twitter.com/fsn3SRfV9x
— UNHCR Ghana (@unhcrghana) February 18, 2023
He partnered with global children’s charity Arms Around The Child in 2016, providing funds to construct a new school in Senya Beraku, 84km west of Accra.
“He never forgot his own roots and didn’t want to see any more children abused, imprisoned, affected by HIV, trafficked or sold,” said Arms Around The Child in a statement, adding that he was determined to use his prominence as a footballer to prevent abuse.
Through the Accra-based Crime Check Foundation, Atsu ensured the release and reintegration of over 150 imprisoned petty offenders by paying their respective fines and providing capital for hundreds of others.
“It isn’t just about releasing prisoners, he also paid the medical bills of hundreds of individuals who are not prisoners,” Ibrahim Oppong Kwarteng, the executive director of Crime Check, told local media. “He paid the fees of many students across the country. Atsu typified humanity and humility. We’ve lost a monumental figure.”
Many Ghanaians were surprised to learn that Atsu’s benevolence extended beyond Ghana. Popular Nigerian skit maker Dr. Craze said Atsu paid his school fees in full after his father’s death.
Christian has been supporting me from way back 2015. When I lost my dad, he l reached out and offered to pay my fees til i graduated and he did 🙏🏾🙏🏾 you’ve been a great friend of mine Chris and I will surely miss you 🙏🏾 I really can’t hold back the tears 🙏🏾🙏🏾 Rest well brother pic.twitter.com/15oMIbPacn
— Dr Craze (@crazeclown) February 18, 2023
While the beneficiaries of Atsu’s benevolence, Ghanaians and millions of football lovers across the world continue to mourn him and reflect on his legacy, discussions have started on how to immortalise his memory in Ghana.
There are plans to build a statue in his memory in his hometown, Ada Foah, in the Greater Accra region.
Fans of Atsu’s former club Newcastle United have so far raised £2,500 (GH¢38,500) from a fundraiser they started this week to complete the school building project at Senya Beraku.
Atsu is survived by his widow and three children. The family says they are in talks with the government to fix an appropriate date for the burial. A funeral ceremony is slated to possibly be held in Accra while he will be buried in his village where another ceremony will be held.
Understand Africa's tomorrow... today
We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.View subscription options