Ollie Baines chatted with Anzhi Makhachkala defender, Jonathan Mensah on what motivates him to be the best he can be.
Born and raised in Ghana, at what point did you decide you wanted to be a professional footballer?
“Well, I loved football, even from a young age. In school, I used to play football and volleyball, but I wasn’t so great at Volleyball so I ended up choosing football at school. From there I got scouted by a coach from a Premier League team in Ghana, he came to watch some activities and he spoke to my manager and told him I should train with them. After 2 weeks of training with them, they sat down with my family and told them they wanted to sign me and give me a professional contract. That was 16, 17 years ago now.”
What team did you always dream of playing for, one day?
“It used to be Liverpool because the way they used to play. I loved watching Liverpool. They had such fighting spirit until the very end. From a young kid, I would always love to watch the likes of Jamie Carragher and Sammi Hyypia. I used to love watching these guys play for Liverpool so much.”
You played in South Africa before you moved to Udinese in Italy and Evian in France, are you happy you came to play in Europe?
“Yes, I am very happy and grateful I came to play in Europe. I was scouted during my time in Africa, but it has been hard work to come here and adjust.
You know, it’s very difficult being an African player, playing in Europe. It’s a huge challenge, but I thank God for giving me the opportunity to play here.”
What’s the biggest challenge for you, playing in Europe?
“You have to do your best all the time and that’s if you get the chance to play. There are a lot of players who all want the opportunity to play, so for me it’s making sure I’m reaching my potential every day. If you just play for playing sake, then there are tonnes of other players who can do that. You need to concentrate and make sure you bring something to the team.”
Best player you’ve ever played against?
“I have two. I’ve had the honour of playing against Zlatan Ibrahimović, obviously he is one of the best strikers in the world, he’s phenomenal. His first touch was unbelievable.
The other player would have to be, Mesut Ozil. These guys have done some amazing things in football, and playing against them was so tough. They see things on the pitch that others don’t and it was a great pleasure to play on the same pitch as them.”
If you could play alongside any centre back in the world, past or present, who would it be and why?
“As a defender, I would choose, Rafael Varane. He is young and intelligent, he reads the game so well. He’s been at Madrid for a few years now and he has all the qualities to be one of the best defenders in the world.”
How proud are you that you can represent your country?
“Wow! Even to be in the team is a blessing. We have 25 million people in the country, so to be selected in the squad of 25 or 18, that means you have something important to add to the team. It’s an honour to wear the national colours and I’m so grateful that I could even play 1 game for my country. I know I can do more and I want to do more.”
Tell us what it was like playing for Ghana in the World Cup and reaching the Quarter Finals?
“It was such a great achievement for my country. That was the second consecutive World Cup we had played in and to reach the Quarter Finals was amazing.
Unfortunately, we went out against Uruguay on penalties. We were all hoping we could get through, because when we were awarded the penalty, we all knew Gyan was going to score, he was the best penalty taker in the team. But you know, he did all he could in that moment, unfortunately it didn’t go in, but we are still very proud.”
Jonathan, you’re very open about your Christian faith, tell us when you first encountered God and gave your life to Christ?
“I was born into a Christian family; life is about believing in something. I was raised in a family who taught me, God is the creator of heaven and earth, he is the only God myself and my family knows. There is nothing else I would believe in, except from God. So I have grown into it. I was baptised in the Church where I used to go when I was younger, so I would say I came to know Christ right from when I was a young child.”
Do you think Christian footballers should be more public about their faith?
“Yes, I think so. If you’re not standing for left, then you’re definitely standing for right. If you don’t believe in God then you have to believe in something. If you do believe in God, you have to be open to whatever you do. You have to let people know your faith, that’s what I think.”
Do you hang out with any other Christian footballers?
“Yes, I do. I did used to room share with Watford striker, Odion Ighalo when we were both playing from Granada in Spain. He’s a great Christian guy. In terms of the national team, I room share with Christian Atsu for Ghana, he’s one of my really good friends. I speak to these guys about football, about their families and of course, we talk to each other about God.”
Do you have a pre-match routine before you play?
“Before we leave the hotel to go to the stadium, my Mum always sends me some Psalms to read. She texts me some verses and I read them before the game. I like to listen to worship music for about 15 minutes, then I will pray with the quotations that my Mum sends me. I’ll then pray before and after the warm-up and again before the match starts. It’s important for me, because it’s not only about football, if I wasn’t playing football I would be praying about other things anyway. I have to give God thanks and adoration for everything in how he has blessed me. Sometimes things happen in life, but thankfully, I can still run, talk, walk and play and that’s by the grace of God.
Favourite Bible verse that encourages you?
“Yes and it never leaves my head! I love Psalm 35, it’s one of my favourites. I read it before every game, it says this.
“Plead my cause, O Lord, with those who strive with me; Fight against those who fight against me. Take hold of shield and buckler, And stand up for my help. Also draw out the spear, And stop those who pursue me. Say to my soul, “I am your salvation.”