VANCOUVER, BC – In a global game like soccer, and in professional sports as a whole, there are always players with rags to riches stories. Players who came from nothing to achieve stardom. Players who overcame the odds to give themselves, and their families, a better life.
These are real stories. Important ones, too.
Tony Tchani’s story is a little different. And he’s proud to share it.
Born in Bafang, Cameroon, a small city in the southwest part of the country, Tchani said he had everything he needed growing up – thanks largely to his single mom Marceline.
Yes, he played soccer on the streets.
But Tchani said his mother always made sure he had food on his plate, a roof over his head, clothes to wear, and a good education.
Tchani knows he’s one of the lucky ones.
Not everyone has a Marceline. But he also feels that sometimes his home country, and the continent of Africa as a whole, is misrepresented in the Western media.
“I feel like most of the things they show on TV, it’s not real,” Tchani told whitecapsfc.com. “Some might be real, but a lot of it isn’t. They make it seem like there are a lot of things we don’t have or we didn’t do grow up doing, which is just wrong.”
Tchani, for example, tells the story of an American classmate who once “had the audacity” to ask him if he liked the clothes he was wearing in the U.S.
“In my mind, I almost flipped,” said Tchani, who moved to the U.S. in high school. “But then I thought, he’s just ignorant. Obviously, we have clothes, we have cars, we have everything. If people don’t do enough research, don’t read enough, don’t have time to learn about it, they don’t know … It’s just different. For us, our happiness might be different than some other people’s happiness.”
For Tchani, happiness came in the form of soccer, friends, and family.
He knew his father, and still talks to him to this day, but it was his mother – a tailor who made women’s clothes out of their apartment – that raised him on her own. She was a fixture in Tchani’s life from the day he was born. Up until his early teens, that is, when she moved to the U.S. for "personal reasons" unbeknownst to him at the time, leaving Tchani behind in Cameroon to stay with his uncle and cousins.
“It was confusing, but you just have to listen,” Tchani said. “She had been there for my whole life. She told me, ‘Just focus. Don’t do anything stupid because I’m not there. I’m going to do my best to get you to be with me.’ My mom always came through with everything she told me. So I just listened.”
And she came through again.
Three years later, Tchani joined his mother in Maryland at the age of 16. He found great comfort in being with her once again, and still has vivid memories of the day they were reunited at the airport, but the transition to life in the U.S. wasn’t easy.
“It was a big transition with the language and the weather,” said Tchani, whose first language is French. “It was extremely cold. I wasn’t used to that. Our weather was mostly rain and hot. There’s no winter. I got used to it a little bit, but that took time. And the language too. With the language, it was more about making sure I don’t say the wrong thing. In Cameroon, I was taking English in school. But most people just take it for grades. They don’t actually take it because they want to learn or speak afterwards. That was a challenge.”
So too was the fact that his high school in Maryland didn’t have a soccer team.
“When I got to school, a few of the guys would talk about football,” Tchani said. “But at that time I didn’t know what American football was. I thought they were talking about soccer, but they were talking about American football. I said you guys don’t have soccer? They said no, which was a bummer.”
So Tchani went to his mom and said: “Being here and not knowing the language, I need something that’s going to make me happy. I need to play soccer.”
And she came through once more – with the help of Tchani’s uncle, who connected them with a Moroccan soccer coach in Virginia. Tchani moved in with the French-speaking coach, who eventually became his legal guardian, and started playing soccer again. But he also spent time with an English-speaking host family, the Fords, to make sure he was being challenged.
“They were really good for me,” Tchani said. “Really influential in my life. They took me in just like their own kid. I really learned when I was there.”
On and off the field.
After a standout collegiate career at the University of Virginia, Tchani was selected second overall by New York Red Bulls in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft.
And the learning continued.
Tchani had an up-and-down first year as a professional, starting 17 of 27 appearances. As it turns out, that was also Thierry Henry’s first year with the Red Bulls – and the legendary Frenchman did not go easy on the 20-year-old rookie.
“He was hard on me,” Tchani said. “Very hard on me.”
Both Henry and Tchani spoke French, of course, and that’s how they usually communicated. But Tchani recalls an instance where Henry yelled at him in English – in front of the rest of the team.
“I said, ‘Don’t say that to me in English, just say it in French,” Tchani recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t care what people think. I’m going to talk to you the way I want to.’
“Sometimes when Thierry got mad at me, I was kind of mad at the time,” Tchani continued. “But one day he told me, ‘I’m not doing it because I don’t like you, it’s because I like you. If I don’t like you, I wouldn’t even bother.’”
Henry was demanding – to say the least.
But Tchani said he was a “great guy” who was also “very humble.” Suffice to say, Tchani learned a lot from the longtime Arsenal FC forward. He also learned a lot from Carl Robinson, who was one of Tchani’s central midfield partners with New York at the time.
“They were really good people,” Tchani said. “They push you, because they know what you can do. They encouraged me to be more vocal, confident, and not to be scared. Just keep learning. If you make mistakes, don’t dwell on them. Just keep going.”
So that’s what he did.
The 6-foot-4, 185-pound midfielder kept working, and after a brief stint in Toronto, it brought him to Columbus Crew SC, where Tchani took his game to another level and established himself as one of the best box-to-box midfielders in MLS. He was certainly that in 2015, recording five goals and six assists and helping lead the Crew to the MLS Cup Final.
Now, he’s hoping to regain that form in Vancouver – the latest stop in his journey from Bafang, Cameroon. A journey that, as Tchani would tell you, started from something rather than nothing.