Getafe youngster Sabit Abdulai had to pinch himself on 22 April to make sure he was not dreaming as he took to the same pitch as Argentine legend Lionel Messi.
The 21-year-old, who is on loan at Getafe from second-tier Extremadura, has been in Spain since 2017 but administration issues and struggles to impress mean that his first-team chances have been limited.
His original loan was to play for Getafe’s third-tier B team but his performances for them have led to some cameo’s for the first-team, including one as a second-half substitute in a 5-2 loss to Spanish giants Barcelona.
“Before the Barcelona match, I had the feeling that I was going to get maybe 5-10 minutes playing time but when the coach made the selection, he kept one or two best midfielders on the bench,” Abdulai told BBC Sport Africa.
“So I told myself maybe even if there were going to be substitutions it would be them because they are the starters.
“When we went for half-time in the dressing room the coach mentioned my name that I should go and warm up. I said: ‘Me?!’ He said: ‘Yes, you.’ I was surprised. I can’t even describe it. I was overwhelmed.
“When the referee whistled for the start of the second half, my mind was focused on the game but when I was getting close to [Lionel] Messi, I was asking myself: ‘Is this Messi I am going to meet?’. I couldn’t believe it.
“Me against Messi, (Antoine) Griezmann, (Gerard) Pique, (Sergio) Busquets… Although the result wasn’t good for us, I felt happy playing against those kind of players.”
- From B to A
Despite initially being set to play for Getafe B team he was soon training with the first team, which led to his debut on 17 December as he played the entire game of the 2-1 win over lower division side Anaitasuna in the Copa Del Rey first round.
He continued to be part of the first-team training and squad but has to wait a little longer for La Liga debut.
“When the first team resumed training, they called me and I started training with them then I started thinking that maybe I might get my debut but for a month I wasn’t called back to train with them again,” he explained.
“From there, I felt like it’s going to be difficult for me to get my La Liga debut and then in the middle of the season I started training with them again.
His perseverance and determination paid off on 3 April when he was given the final five minutes of a goalless draw at Osasuna.
“I never expected to play in that La Liga game against Osasuna – I had been on the bench 10 times with the first team like against Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao, Seville and Elche.”
- A tough journey
His journey to playing top-tier football in Spain has not been an easy one at all.
Abdulai first landed at La Liga side Deportivo Alaves in September 2017 from Ghanaian third-tier side Spartans FC.
Delays with his paperwork meant he was not able to sign for them despite having trained with the team for several months.
His next stop was in neighbouring Portugal with Rio Ave, where he spent another three months but again administrative issues meant the club failed to add him to their under-19 team.
He returned to Spain where he linked up with yet another club – this time it was fourth-tier UB Conquense where he trained for three weeks before Extremadura UD came calling in July 2018.
Initially he signed on loan but after impressing in his opening few matches he was handed a permanent five-year contract.
“It wasn’t easy at the beginning,” Abdulai’s agent Manuel Sierra Camacho admitted.
“When the guys arrive here [Spain], it’s a completely different life and culture, so the first days, weeks, months are very difficult.
“But with hard work, patience, tenacity and our help, they usually manage it and Sabit in particular.
“Many things have happened but today he is there, very well-adapted now, and three-and-a -half years after his arrival, we can say he is a La Liga player. Thank God.”
Abdulai’s stay at Getafe expires at the end of the season and the club will decide on his future.
The former Ghana under-20 star believes he has done enough to convince everyone at the club about his potential.
“I don’t know what they want to see again. From my perspective I think I have done my best. Now I’m looking at them, the decision is in their hands,” he remarked.
He admits that living up to his childhood nickname is probably not going to happen but has other idols to try and emulate.
“When I was growing up in Ghana, my friends used to call me [Paul] Pogba but I came to realise that I can’t be like him, because Pogba’s style of play is different from mine,” he added.
“But there are some players I would love to play like, for example Claude Makelele and Michael Essien.”
Abdulai also has plenty of Ghanaians, who have impressed in Spain’s La Liga, to try and follow in the footsteps of.
Thomas Partey, Derek Boateng, Kevin Prince Boateng, Mubarak Wakaso, Baba Iddrisu and Mohammed Salisu have all played in te Spanish top-flight.