FCC supporters provide gift of hope to fan abroad

Randy Spaulding had seen the name Zaidan Tunechi come up as a suggested friend on Facebook, but never thought anything of it until he saw an article about the 19-year-old known as FC Cincinnati’s biggest fan in Ghana.

After reading the story, which appeared on WCPO.com in July highlighting Tunechi’s extreme fandom for a club with which he had no connection, Spaulding — a local FCC supporter — was intrigued enough to reach out via Messenger. Tunechi didn’t have much but was willing to spend two days’ worth of income at a bar 40 minutes away by foot just to escape to his dream world with FCC for two hours on game nights.

Spaulding had a feeling there was more he could do to help Tunechi beyond what a soccer game could bring, and FCC fans have stepped up to improve Tunechi’s quality of life and plan for a future visit to Cincinnati. Spaulding calls it a gift of hope. Tunechi says he is forever grateful.

“When you speak to Zaidan, you can’t help but want to adopt him,” said Spaulding, who has young children of his own. “It started with loving soccer together, but it opened my eyes to life in Ghana. At the time, he was sharing a one-room apartment with a friend or acquaintance and sleeping on a prayer mat. One of the first things was learning one U.S. dollar is 5.5 cedis. It was just like, wow, for a relatively small impact for me, it could make a big difference for him. I ended up buying him a mattress, and it became a group movement. As I was doing things for him, others were chiming in and wanting to know ‘how can I get involved?’ We’ve developed a group of a few close people, and we’ve been able to do quite a bit.”

Provided photo: FCC fans sent gear to Zaidan Tunechi (middle), and he has shared with others in his community.

How it started

When Tunechi saw news that FC Cincinnati was launching in August 2015, he felt drawn to the American club that shared big ambitions like his own. A striker for the EurAfrica Academy, Tunechi had been playing soccer since he was young and viewed the sport as his best chance to make a good life for himself and help his family. He grew up in what he calls a poor background and dropped out of school before age 10 to work odd jobs around his community and help buy food for his family.

Tunechi didn’t have a team he supported, so he gave FCC his heart, as he puts it. He watched all the games he could, especially as the team moved into MLS; he joined the conversations around the club on Twitter and became part of an FC Cincinnati fan page on Facebook.

Gradually, as his social media presence – flooded with FCC posts and retweets – grew, local supporters began to take notice. Some of the supporters group members, such as the Hangar 937 in Dayton, sent him a care package full of FCC gear and some who had been messaging or chatting with Tunechi on WhatsApp developed a loose plan to try to bring him to Cincinnati for a live match.

That’s when Spaulding made contact. It didn’t take long for the two to become friends and eventually more like family. They talk regularly on video or phone calls through WhatsApp. Close ties developed between Tunechi and other fans as well.

A shift in focus

Spaulding knew a trip to Cincinnati would take time to plan, especially amid a pandemic, and Tunechi would need lots of help with the costs and the details of how to get a travel visa and passport. So, while others wanted to wait until COVID-19 restrictions lifted to ensure fans could even attend games, Spaulding decided to go on and start the process of raising money.

Advertising his plans on Twitter and Facebook, Spaulding began taking donations through PayPal and Venmo to help pay for a plane ticket and travel expenses. He reached out to the club’s community relations department to see if there was some way they could get involved – for one, to help make the trip extra special but also with hopes the club could serve as an intermediary to ensure the funds were being used properly. It didn’t take long before Spaulding was able to turn over $1,200 to the FCC Foundation in August to save for the trip, but more money poured in and Spaulding decided to use it to help Tunechi’s quality of life. A lot he donated on his own.

With help from other fans’ donations, Spaulding bought him a mattress to replace the prayer rug he was sleeping on and a microwave so Tunechi could start to learn to cook and heat water for bathing. Tunechi often went without meals, but even one or two dollars paid for filling meals in Ghana. Soon, Spaulding even got to know Tunechi’s best friend from kindergarten, Ahmed, and he started sending a regular allowance to help them both with food.

“A little goes a long way for them,” Spaulding said. “Seeing that, it’s so cool. It’s also a good opportunity to educate people on the big picture. It feels good to support FCC and a feel-good story of trying to bring a fan from Ghana for a match, but when they realize what day-to-day life is like there, it takes them to another level. Basically, if you are poor there is no way to become rich. The separation is there, and it’s just sad. There’s no way out. For us, it’s like ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t realize it was that way. What can I do?’”

Provided photo: Ahmed posing with his new glasses and sandals.

Bonding together

Spaulding also over time developed a close group of FCC fans who became invested in the two friends. Ahmed had no matching shoes and was suffering from malaria and cholera, so the group paid for new sandals, glasses, a mosquito net and medical treatment. They also paid for passports for both and $218 to provide a year’s rent for them to live together in a small apartment.

“I’m so happy people of Cincinnati were able to help my friend get fixed up,” Tunechi said. “We are both so grateful for everything.”

More recently, Spaulding raised $300 to help the two buy gifts for their family and neighborhood kids for Christmas, as well as some kids with Down Syndrome that Ahmed visits. They are Muslim but the people in their town of Kumasi love America and use the nickname Kumerica.

Other fans also have created GoFundMe pages to try to help get Tunechi to Cincinnati. One started last week had raised $460 at time of publication, and the creator planned to send the funds to Spaulding after learning he already had begun the process of planning Tunechi’s trip.

Spaulding does have concerns about Tunechi’s safety, as other Ghanaians have become aware of the help he’s receiving and as more people here show interest in his story. He’s also noticed others from Ghana starting to reach out to other FCC fans and trying to build similar friendships on social media. Spaulding reminds Tunechi of the dangers of scams and people potentially wanting to use him for personal gain with their own proposed fundraising efforts, so he’s tried to pull local efforts together.

“It’s like having another child that I obviously care about, which is weird with someone I haven’t met,” Spaulding said. “The whole process, I never intended to be the designated Ghanaian dad. I’ve gotten a lot of input from other FCC supporters on how do we do this in a safe and transparent way. As it’s gotten bigger and bigger, it’s been harder to do that. The boys know everything kind of goes through me, so we have one way of doing this and I try to verify everything I can.”

Debbie Christian, an FCC fan from Springboro, saw Spaulding’s posts on Twitter about Tunechi and instantly knew she wanted to get involved. She had always wanted to sponsor a child from a third-world country through her church, and Tunechi seemed the perfect fit.

What sealed it for her was a post from Spaulding of Tunechi walking 45 minutes at 11 p.m. to go to a bar to watch the FCC match. Now Spaulding jokes that he and Christian are the adopted parents of Tunechi.

“Zaidan was shocked when I told him that Randy and I have never even met each other,” Christian said, noting she hasn’t met any of the FCC fans she’s connected with on Twitter because of COVID-19. “Everywhere I go, those around me know of Zaidan and our mission. My favorite local Italian carryout owner can’t wait to meet him. He came out around the counter one night and handed me a $100 bill. He has since given me another $50. Another ‘friend’ stopped me coming out of Kroger’s and handed me five $100 bills. That money is being set aside for flights/travel. Zaidan teaches me much about being grateful for what I have.”

Anxiously waiting

Tunechi goes to bed at night dreaming of his visit to Cincinnati. Ideally, he really would like to stay in America, play soccer and get a job to help send money back to his family. His father has been ill for about five years now and a stroke took away his ability to use his legs, but the family cannot afford the surgery he needs.

In the meantime, he enjoys conversing with FCC fans and supporting the club from afar. Inspired by the gear Hangar 937 sent him, Tunechi started his own Ghanaian supporters group, called Kumasinati.

“We just want to support the team and bring our passion,” Tunechi said.

Provided photo: Tunechi (front left) poses with FC Cincinnati fans in Ghana.

Most of the soccer fans in Africa support English Premier League or Spanish La Liga teams, and they don’t know much about Major League Soccer.

Tunechi is unique in his support and even has been teased at the bar for supporting a struggling team like FCC, but the idea of a fan group has drawn more interest in what he’s doing. Kumasinati started with about 10 of his friends. Now it’s up to 41 people, and Tunechi was able to share 20-30 pieces of FCC gear sent to him by local fans. His group meets the first and last Saturday of each month.

Kumasinati is just a small sample of what Tunechi hopes to experience someday in Cincinnati. He remains hopeful he will one day get to meet all the FC Cincinnati fans who have been supporting him – whether it’s for a short visit or more permanent arrangement.

“Cincinnati will be the happiest thing in my life,” Tunechi said. “I think it will bring so much joy for me and my friend Ahmed, we are so grateful. This will be the greatest adventure for me.”

Spaulding said Tunechi has never asked for anything, but he wants to see Tunechi thriving like his own kids and knows both Tunechi and Ahmed “long to get out of their current situation.” He’s hopeful a local company will step up and offer to a job opportunity and help with a work visa or perhaps a college opportunity will present itself if GEDs can be obtained, but even just a weeklong visit is difficult to arrange.

Raising the money was the easy part. Spaulding said he just can’t imagine bringing Tunechi here for a visit to get a taste of his dream and then sending him back to poverty. Even if it seems far-fetched now, Spaulding likes that Tunechi has something pleasant to dream about each night.

Of all the things FC Cincinnati fans have given Tunechi, that is the biggest gift.

“Really the big thing is hope, having something to look forward to,” Spaulding said. “He’s had this dream for so long, and seeing things come to fruition has given him so much hope. Seeing something is possible is a big thing. They are so grateful for every little thing we do. As I go through this, I just want to provide hope that there is a future.”

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