Premium: On the Launchpad
Yunus Musah chose the United States over three more established soccer countries. We visited Spain to speak to the 19-year-old Valencia midfielder who could be the breakout U.S. star of the World Cup.
VALENCIA, Spain — You can’t help but notice it when you visit the Valencia CF megastore at the Plaça de l’Ajuntament in this sun-drenched city on the Mediterranean. Front and center at the entrance this season is a giant image not of star forward Édinson Cavani or captain José Gayà or coach Gennaro Gattuso, a World Cup winner with Italy. Instead the marquee attraction greeting fans is a 19-year-old midfielder who could be the breakout star for the United States at the World Cup.
Yunus Musah is a citizen of the world—born in New York City, blood from Ghana, raised in Italy and England, coming of age in Spain—and the global launchpad for one of the USMNT’s first Muslim players may be in Qatar, at the first World Cup hosted by an Islamic country.
“The World Cup has changed so many players’ careers,” Musah tells me during a long interview at Valencia’s training facility, his British accent shaped by seven years of living in London. “And I feel like so many footballers don’t actually ever get to experience the World Cup during their careers. So it’s an opportunity to grasp and to enjoy most of all. But also at the same time really focus and put your A-game out there. Because the whole world’s watching, and anything can happen.”
Musah fell in love with soccer at age 5, playing in a park with his older brother, Abdul, and a friend in Castelfranco Veneto, a small town in northern Italy. They would run around that park for hours during summer days, until they wore down the grass and only dirt remained in front of the goals. Yunus felt an exhilaration running with the ball and knifing through defenders who couldn’t keep up with him. “That was the initial thing that made me love it: doing a mad run and having a shot go in,” he says. “I still love doing that right now.”
GrantWahl.com is reader-supported. Free and paid subscriptions are available. This is how I make a living, and quality journalism and traveling to Qatar require resources. The best way to support me and my work is by taking out a paid subscription now.
When the U.S. meets Wales in its World Cup opener on Monday, the Americans will have the second-youngest team of the 32 in the World Cup. Musah, who’s expected to start in the central midfield, is unique among the U.S. players in his ability to dribble on long runs that blast open defenses and create scoring opportunities. It’s his trademark. Long before Valencia moved Musah from a wide position to the center this season, U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter identified Musah’s best qualities and put him in the thick of the action.
“It’s just looking at his profile, what type of player he is, and his dynamic is lateral and his change of direction is really good,” Berhalter says. “And it’s great to put a guy like that in the middle of the field, just working with him and believing that he could do it. You look at him, and people are saying he can’t defend enough, but if you give him instruction and a system to play in, he’ll figure it out. He’s a really smart player.”
The remarkable migrant journeys of his parents, Amina and Ibrahim, meant Musah was eligible to represent four different countries: the U.S., England, Ghana and Italy. But the rules of international soccer force you to choose just one in the end at senior level. It’s unfortunate, Musah says, that the decision makes it seem as if he doesn’t care as much about the countries he chose not to play for.
“I feel like all these countries make up the person that I am,” he says. “The country I was born in and has a big part of me is the U.S., and I really enjoyed living in Italy. I had a great time in England, and my roots are from Ghana. That’s the way I take it.” Musah played in the youth ranks for England but in March 2021 he chose to represent the U.S. at senior level, after a John Calipari-style recruiting effort by Berhalter and then-assistant Nico Estévez.
Musah is fluent in four languages: English, Spanish, Italian and Hausa, the tongue of Ghanaian Muslims. He has three brothers, Abdul, Navil and Ismail, and a baby sister, Fatiha. And he can tell you what his name represents. “My first name is the name of a prophet in Islam, prophet Yunus,” he explains. And his middle name, Dimoara? “Dimoara means the guy who’s always happy.”
It’s perfect, really. Yunus Musah may have the most electric smile in all of sports. We know this because it is ever-present. Even before he had announced his choice of the U.S., the giveaway came in the photograph of the starting XI right before his first friendly with the team in November 2020—coincidentally against Wales.
That smile communicated everything. The U.S. had landed a potential superstar.
Yunus’s own multicountry path at such a young age in many ways mirrors that of his father. Ibrahim Musah was just a teenager himself when he decided to leave his native Ghana. “He’s the youngest of a lot of siblings,” says Abdul, Yunus’s brother. “You can say that he was an adventurer.”
At 16, Ibrahim moved to Nigeria, where he learned a series of trades. A return to Ghana followed, and then he relocated again, this time to Libya. “He has good memories of Libya, actually,” Abdul says. “He told us that with the Libyans, once they get to know you and understand you, they’re very friendly people. Us being Muslims as well, I think that gave a bit of an advantage.”
In 1989, Ibrahim acquired a visa and flew from Libya to Italy. “He could have ended up in Japan,” Abdul says, “but that is another long story.”
Italy was difficult for Ibrahim for the next two years. He was often homeless. Says Yunus: “In Italy, he had to deal with racism and getting rejected for housing and having to sleep outside or in cars.”
“They used to sleep in their car in wintertime. Imagine!” Amina Musah, Yunus’s mother, tells me. “It was very cold and very hard for them. They kept on going to the hospital. They were even working, but it wasn’t easy for them to get accommodations. But later on, the council of that area tried to put them in the right accommodation.”
Ibrahim was working in Italy for a company that produced parts for lawn mowers. But northern Italy wasn’t well-equipped to handle immigrants in those days, Navil says. Ibrahim didn’t acquire housing until three years into his Italy stay. But along the way he built bonds with similar migrants and formed a community.
Soccer was part of it, too. “They managed to form football teams and actually have football tournaments between themselves,” Navil says. “So that was something that kind of brought them together and gave them the courage to move forward.”
Three years later, now on more stable footing, Ibrahim Musah would meet Amina.
Amina Musah is smiling on the screen from London. She’s wearing a white headscarf and a patterned orange-and-peach-colored outfit. Her story is one of movement as well, of raising kids in a long-distance marriage, of reuniting her family, of valuing education, of entrepreneurship in a new land and then starting over from scratch in a new one after that.
Amina met Ibrahim when he returned to Ghana for the holidays in 1995. They soon married, and Abdul, the oldest, was born the year after. But the Musahs say Italian immigration rules prevented Amina and the children (Navil was born in ’99) from joining Ibrahim in Italy until 2002, years after they married. And even then, only one child was allowed to be with them. Abdul, who had been dealing with severe sickness, came to Italy, while Navil stayed behind in Ghana with extended family.
“We saw the resilience of our parents, of humanity, how people keep going and find solutions to hard situations,” Abdul says.
In late 2002, Amina, who was pregnant with Yunus, traveled from Italy with six-year-old Abdul to New York City to see one of her uncles, who was living in the Bronx. It was just a trip to see family. “I decided to go and visit him,” Amina says. “I told him of my 30-week pregnancy. He said, "There’s no problem, you can just come and visit and go back."
It was Amina’s first visit to New York City, and she loved it. “I was so happy,” she says. “If you go to a place like the Bronx, it’s like home. You see a lot of immigrants and all these things, so I was happy over there.”
Her stay had to be extended beyond the original plan once there were concerns about a potential issue with her pregnancy if she boarded an international plane. “I didn’t plan it,” she says. “It just happened.” So Amina stayed in New York City. Better safe than sorry. And on November 29, 2002, she gave birth to a baby boy who was instantly a U.S. citizen. Who knew that it would have such an impact someday on American soccer? “We left for a holiday,” says Abdul, “and we came back with Yunus.”
In Italy she started her own business, an African-Caribbean general store that she called Amina & Co. It had a bit of everything: food and ingredients that were hard to find in Italy, including fufu, fish and ingredients for jollof rice; money transfers; phone cabins; a printing service and more. “It was a big Ghanaian community that gathered around the shop,” says Yunus, “like a barber shop, but a shop.” He would hang around as well and listen to people tell their stories in Hausa.
As Abdul says, “You would learn people’s backgrounds and their stories and their struggles as well. And you listen, and they laugh about it, and you’ll laugh about it as well, because they go through it. But it’s things that if someone wrote a book about it, people would get emotional. From a young age, you understand the privileges that you have.”
But the entire family would make one more move together, in 2011. Yunus says his father told him just a week before their departure that they were leaving Italy for London. “Obviously they had planned it before that,” he says. “I was upset to leave and didn’t want to go. But then years later I found out the reason was because of the crisis in Italy with jobs and money. My parents were looking for a better life for us in the U.K., and they felt like London was a good option.”
Beyond the better economic opportunities in pre-Brexit London, the Musahs reasoned that their children would receive an improved education and master English to set up their futures. And they demanded a lot from their kids. “Within academics and sports, they provided everything that we needed,” says Abdul. “I don’t know if you have spoken to a lot of people from African backgrounds, but average is never good enough.”
The soccer skills that Yunus had developed in Italy started taking him places in England as soon as he arrived at age 9. He played a couple games with a schoolmate’s local team, and the coach brought in a scout from Chelsea. After three good training sessions there over Easter break, an Arsenal scout called Musah’s father and persuaded him to try out there instead. Yunus ended up signing with Arsenal, where he progressed in its youth program for seven years. From 2016 to ’19 he also made 32 appearances for England’s youth national teams.
But in 2019 and ’20 Musah made two enormous life decisions: leaving Arsenal for Valencia and choosing the United States over England. He bet on himself and promised not to have any regrets.
“Arsenal and England are both great places, and no one was kicking me out or anything,” Musah says. “But I had this feeling that I could achieve something else, something more. At Arsenal, I was ready to step up and [the opportunities weren’t there]. So that’s why I came to Valencia. That belief in myself helped me make all the big decisions in my life. Having that mindset of whatever happens after this decision, I’m not going to be like, ‘I wish I didn’t make this decision.’ I’m going to stick by it and make it work.”
Valencia was in an entirely new country, Spain, and Amina took some time to come around to the idea of losing her 16-year-old son to another nation. But eventually she acceded. Yunus spent his first year living in the academy, and while the adjustment was difficult, he made the leap to the first team at 17 for the 2020-21 season. He now lives in a house with Abdul, who serves as one of his agents and makes sure to keep Yunus focused on improving his game.
And what a game it could prove to be. “I enjoy being really dynamic, getting on the ball, making sharp turns, driving past people, making a nice pass and having a nice shot,” he says. “And then getting stuck in as well on defense.”
His favorite player to watch as a child was the great Ivorian midfielder Yaya Touré. “I loved the way he drove past players,” Musah says. “I felt like I could relate to him and the style of play because he was so powerful and he had so many goals and assists and made these nice passes. He had so much quality, but he also had this power.”
One coach Musah has already impressed is Gattuso, the first-year manager at Valencia, who was a pit-bull midfielder in his days as a player. The night after Musah played in the U.S.’s tie at El Salvador in June, he got a call from Gattuso. The coach started speaking in Spanish until Musah started rattling off things in Italian, and they’ve hit it off ever since. Gattuso liked how Musah played centrally with the U.S., and he moved him there for Valencia. And Musah has developed an affection for Gattuso, who’s just as physical as a coach as he was during his playing days.
“In the summer when the new players were coming in, every time he would present them he would actually slap them on their neck. Every time,” Musah says with a laugh. “So at one point we started telling the new guys like, ‘Yo, he’s going to slap your neck in the meeting now, so watch out.’ That's just his love language.”
Valencia is a proud club with more than a century of history and which reached the men’s UEFA Champions League final as recently as 2000 and 2001. But it isn’t at the same level in recent years, which provides motivation to rediscover the glory days.
“It’s a really historic club that’s trying to get back to where they once were, and so we’re always demanding of each other to get back there,” Musah says. “The fans want to see Valencia back at the top again. And I feel like that’s the ambition we always have at the back of our minds about what we try to achieve every season.”
Compared to Musah’s relationship with Gattuso, his ties with the U.S.’s Berhalter are a bit more cerebral. How did Berhalter and the U.S. win the recruiting battle for Musah? A few reasons. Estévez, Berhalter’s former assistant, used to work at Valencia and heard about Musah when he signed there. Estévez put in the time to introduce himself and work with Musah on analyzing his game regularly. And when Berhalter himself rang, Musah listened.
“I was like, ‘Yo, this the first-team manager for the U.S.,” Musah says. “I was like, ‘Is it for Under-20s or the first team?’ He’s like, ‘First team.’ I was 17, and the first-team manager’s calling me. This is huge. So that already prompted me to try it out, and then I ended up trying out a camp in November, which I absolutely loved. And I didn’t change my mind since.”
Musah was a midfield stalwart during World Cup qualifying, and since making his decision to represent the U.S. he has found himself tapping into his American side more than ever.
“I just love landing in the States and seeing the size of the streets and the buildings and the cars and walking down the street and some random person says hi to you,” he says. “And you can just come up to a person and have a conversation. Everyone’s so easygoing, so nice. And especially with the national team, we’re such a good group, and we’re not all from the same parts, but we connect so well.”
Last year Musah visited New York City for the first time since he was born there in 2002. Teammate Tim Weah, who’s also a New Yorker, showed Yunus some of his favorite places in the city. But most of the time Yunus just walked the streets of the Big Apple by himself, gaping at the surroundings.
“I wanted to explore so much. I’m not much of a walker really. But I kept on walking and walking because there was just so much to see. And then one day I went to visit my uncle at the house where my mom stayed at the time with my older brother. He was so happy to see me. It was an amazing feeling to finally see the place where I was born after so many years and see where I’ve come now.”
Sunset in Doha. The prayer call fills the air as the days count down to the start of the World Cup. Yunus Musah hears those calls and feels a connection deep in his soul. This is the first trip of his life to a predominantly Muslim country, and he has been looking forward to it.
“It’s huge,” he says. “From when they said it was going to be in Qatar and we qualified, I thought about that because I’ve always wanted to experience how it would be to live in a Muslim country where there’s a mosque everywhere. You’re able to practice your religion really well, and I’m enjoying it.”
As an observant Muslim, Musah prays five times a day, eats halal food and reads the Quran. This week in Doha he was in a shopping center when the time came to pray. “And I could just go to the mosque right opposite the shop to pray,” he says. “That’s a key thing in our religion, to be able to pray on time.”
So much about this World Cup is special to him. His family, including both his parents, will be in Qatar. He’ll get to play against England, his former national team, which still holds a place in his heart. And this World Cup itself offers the chance to change his life forever.
“In my career, ultimately I want to become one of the best players in the world,” he says. “I want to win competitions with my country, with my club, and just be seen as a stylish player, like Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, those guys.”
During the 2010 World Cup, when Ghana played the United States, there was a frequent customer who’d come by Amina & Co. in Italy. He was American, and he made sure to point that out on every visit. Abdul remembers introducing the man to his soccer-playing younger brother, Yunus, and telling him he could represent the United States as well.
“I don’t know where he is now in the world,” says Abdul, “but I hope he remembers during this World Cup and says that’s the guy I used to play around with.”
When billions of people are watching, there’s a decent chance that might actually happen.
Check out the GrantWahl.com merch store now, featuring artwork from Dan Leydon.
Correction that has been fixed in the copy: Musah is not the first Muslim USMNT player, though he is in the modern era. Amr Aly and Imad Baba both played for the USMNT as well. Thanks to reader Vincent Stravino for catching this!
What a loving and resilient family. I feel so lucky he picked the US.