When Rhode Island Reds defender Issifou Kankarafou arrived in the United States from his native Togo six years ago, he knew his life was about to change in a myriad of ways.
Not only would he have to learn a new language and acclimate to a different culture, but he’d also have to adjust to different way of playing the game he loved back in Togo.
After years of kicking the ball around with friends at the local park, the French-speaking Kankarafou had to wait until his freshman year of high school to play his first proper soccer match.
“I only played 7v7 or 5v5, and played for fun,” Kankarafou said. “Here in the U.S., it was a full team, it was definitely hard, and I had to learn more, and I had to be a team player.”
The adjustment to playing with 10 teammates, partaking in proper training sessions, and taking instructions from a coach was only part of the challenge for the Togo native.
Like many inner-city schools, Shea High School’s student population is comprised of a number of different nationalities. So when Kankarafou laced up his boots for his first practice, it turned out that English wasn’t the only language he’d hear out on the pitch.
“There were a lot of immigrants on the team,” Kankarafou said. “There were a lot of Cape Verdeans, a lot of Africans, and a lot of Portuguese. But the soccer culture I’d seen was very high. Everybody practiced it, even though we all spoke different languages.”
With the beautiful game allowing the squad to overcome the language barrier, Shea showed itself to be a Division II power in the RI Scholastic League during Kankarafou’s freshman year. With the team brimming with talent, the Togo native noticed that his own game was rapidly improving.
“I knew I had a chance to go far, because it was very well organized, and the stakes were much bigger (than they were in Togo),” Kankarafou said. “There was real competition – it wasn’t easy because everyone in Togo wasn’t as a good – there were very good players here, and I had to acclimate to that.”
The following season, the school was promoted to Division I, and the team continued to thrive as a result of the skill that head coach Pierre Ridore had at his disposal.
“It was one-touch, two-touch soccer,” Kankarafou said. “The soccer was very good, and everyone was talented, the coach was excellent.”
By his senior year, Kankarafou was named team captain, and his efforts allowed the Raiders to lift the Division 1 title in 2012.
Kankarafou’s soccer journey continued at Monroe College in the Bronx, NY, where he played in 13 games during his freshman and sophomore years while suiting up for the Reds during the 2014 and 2015 NPSL seasons.
While seeing many teammates come and go during the league’s compact – and at times, unforgiving – three-month season, the Togo native has remained committed to the cause.
“He has lots of determination,” Reds head coach Kabba Joff said. “He’s always looking for challenges in the game he has the ability to recover quickly in games.”
That determination is regularly showcased when the Reds take the pitch. Kankarafou is the only player on the roster to play in all 12 of the team’s matches during a trying season in which there have been a number of sound defeats.
Even so, Kankarafou has stuck with his squad, even if it meant enduring a 9-0 beating given to them by the New York Cosmos B team two weeks ago.
While some defenders would try to forget a match like that as quickly as possible, the Reds fullback actually called it one of the performances he’s most proud of.
“They were a much, much better team than us, but I played as hard as I could,” Kankarafou said. “After the match, the Cosmos B coach (Alecko Eskandarian) came up to me and said, ‘You played so hard.’ I took a lot of pride in hearing that, because it showed I was committed.”
With the Reds season wrapping up, Kankarafou will undertake another adjustment in the near future. He left Monroe College following the spring semester is hoping to enroll at Rhode Island College for the fall. He believes that it’ll allow him to get more minutes and play in a more comfortable environment.
Kankarafou said he’d like to return to the Reds next year. He said he would like to help the team perform better in 2016, which is something that Joof has to be happy about.
“He could be our future captain,” Joof said. “That is how much of a leader he is.”