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Ottawa Sportspage cover story: From Orphan, to Champion

Ottawa goalkeeper Kayza Massey produced a mammoth FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup upset over USA while playing for Ghana, but her journey to get there is even more remarkable. Photo: Christopher Lee / FIFA

By Dan Plouffe

It was an upset of the most massive proportions, and Ottawa goalkeeper Kayza Massey was right in the middle of it.

The 15-year-old Ottawa South United Force player was competing at the FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan for Ghana, where she was born.

In the opening matches of Group D, USA had beat Paraguay 6-1, while Ghana had been dismantled 5-0 by Japan.

Down 1-0 to the Americans just 5 minutes into their second match, elimination loomed large for the Ghanaians as they faced off against the #1-ranked nation in the world at the senior level.

But a pair of 2nd-half goals, including the winner in the 84th minute, lifted Massey and her mates to a 2-1 victory that shocked the soccer world.

“That was definitely my best moment in soccer,” smiles Massey. “When the whistle blew, I was astonished. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I just found myself running around in circles.

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“I was so happy. It was such a thrill.”

About the only thing more unforeseeable than that triumph was Massey’s road to get to that moment. The number of twists and turns in her path is almost mythical. But the first month of the 15-year journey provided perhaps the biggest hurdle of all.

Karen Massey had been living in Ghana for 3 years, working on a Canadian International Development Agency-funded girls’ education project. She’d applied to adopt a child locally, and one day was called to an orphanage where she was given a one-month-old baby.

“If she hadn’t adopted me, I probably wouldn’t be alive right now,” states Kayza, who knows nothing about her birth parents. “I was very malnourished, and my mom didn’t even know if I was going to live.

“Thankfully, by miracle I guess, I survived. I’m really lucky.”

Baby and the new mom stayed in Ghana for awhile longer, getting baptized there, but eventually returned to Karen’s home in Ottawa.

Though Kayza was raised in Canada, her mom ensured she always maintained a connection to her birth country, keeping her involved with the Ghanaian community in Ottawa. For a time, Kayza attended Twi school (to learn a native language), and once danced for the (past) Ghanaian president when he was in Ottawa.

And there of course was soccer – the #1 sport in Ghana, but a tradition amongst her Canadian family as well. Kayza’s Canadian godmother was a goalkeeper, and Karen’s nieces were both strong keepers as well.

That was the position Kayza settled on as a Gloucester Hornets competitive player, and her younger sister Kiama gave it a try too (though she’s since become a top-10 U13 league scorer for Gloucester).

Kayza became a champion in 2015, backstopping her Hornets to 5 shutout victories in 5 games to capture the Ontario Indoor Cup. Later that year, she won the first-ever province-wide tournament for regional-level champion teams to conclude her career with the Hornets on a high note.

“I really loved playing with Gloucester,” Massey indicates. “My team, they were like family. They were all so supportive.”

Kayza Massey practices with Ottawa South United Force. Photo: Dan Plouffe

Under the Hornets’ affiliation agreement with Ottawa South United, Massey and two other Gloucester teammates moved on to the Force so she could play in the top-tier Ontario Player Development League. She also earned a spot on Team Ontario earlier this year.

Then, in what started out as “an idea that seemed so farfetched at first,” Massey began investigating the possibility of suiting up for Ghana at this fall’s World Cup.

The Grade 10 Cairine Wilson Secondary School student wound up being invited to a camp in Ghana – on her own dime at first, though that changed once the team determined the Canadian keeper was a keeper.

Massey says she felt at home right away, even though she’d only been to Ghana once since she moved, visiting with her Ghanaian godparents (friends of Karen’s) and playing soccer on the beach in 2012.

“(The players), they were so welcoming, and it was like I had been there my whole entire life,” Massey recounts, noting it’s a characteristic ingrained in Ghanaian culture. “In some areas of Ghana, it’s more poor, so everybody comes together and everybody is friends. If anybody needs help, they come together and help.”

While with the team in advance of the World Cup qualifiers, Massey suffered an ankle injury and got sick, which kept her from playing in the matches. She wasn’t sure if she was even still being considered for the FIFA team, but she’d shown enough to eventually get the call for the Sept. 30-Oct. 21 tournament in Jordan.

“I was really excited,” Massey recalls, noting that playing in a World Cup had been a long-term goal of hers.

“But I didn’t expect it to come so early,” she adds. “I was incredibly, incredibly happy.”

Massey was originally slotted to be the backup keeper, but then an injury to the planned starter thrust her into the spotlight.

“I was actually quite upset at first. My best friend and family got hurt,” Massey indicates. “I knew I had big shoes to fill because she was a great goalkeeper. But I was also tremendously happy to have the opportunity to showcase myself to the world.”

Massey’s World Cup debut was most definitely not her team’s best highlight, as Japan scored several of their goals on breakaways in the 5-0 pounding.

“But it was our first international game we’d ever played as a team,” signals Massey, noting several players joined the team at the last minute because FIFA wouldn’t allow the team’s standout 13-year-olds to play.

Next up was USA for the Ghanaians, who are ranked 46th globally at the senior level in contrast to the Americans at #1.

“I remember at the beginning of the game, people were cheering, ‘U-S-A, U-S-A,’ but then towards the end of the game, they were cheering for us,” reflects Massey, who made 5 saves in the victory. “We surprised the world. Nobody thought we would ever beat USA.

“It wasn’t luck because we’d worked really hard to get there. We knew we would be out of the tournament if we lost and our biggest thing was we wanted to make Ghana proud.”

Back home was a rocking gathering of around three dozen cheering Massey on from the Tartan Pub in Orleans. The crowd included family, neighbours, members of the local Ghanaian community, past Hornets teammates and her OSU crew who’d given her a big poster that said, “We’ll miss you, Kayza – but go kick butt for Ghana!” before she left.

“It’s been very exciting,” Karen Massey says of her daughter’s FIFA experience. “Seeing it on TSN on the big screen and they pan in and there is your daughter yelling at the defence – it’s pretty crazy.”

Ghana advanced to the knockout stage with a 1-0 win over Paraguay, with Massey posting her first international clean sheet. Ghana then narrowly missed moving on farther, falling 2-1 in the quarter-finals to champion North Korea on an added time goal in the 94th minute.

“I think we performed really well,” highlights Massey, who is eligible to return for the 2018 U17 World Cup. “In the coming World Cups, we’re definitely going to showcase what we can do and prove to people we deserve to be in the top spots.”

Upon returning home, Massey was honoured by the Ghanaian-Canadian Association in Toronto with its outstanding athlete award.

While it won’t be possible at the U17 level, Massey notes that she’s got her eye on one day wearing the maple leaf internationally.

“Canada is definitely a long-term goal I’ve had since childhood,” she underlines. “By playing in the next (U17) World Cup, hopefully I’ll show that I’m a good candidate for the (Canadian) under-20 team.”

Playing for Team Canada would be another major twist in the road, but no matter how unorthodox, Massey wouldn’t change a thing in her soccer and life journey.

“I’m super thankful,” she underlines. “Soccer gives you opportunities to go places you never thought you would go. You get to travel and meet new people and experience different cultures.

“The best thing about soccer for me is it’s universal. Even if you don’t speak the same language, which is what I experienced on the Ghanaian national team, you can still come together through the game.”

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