‘If you’re not big, you need to be smart’

‘If you’re not big, you need to be smart’

Giving the ball a perfunctory tick to a fellow player isn’t his thing. Tobias Sana wants to have fun and shine when he’s on the football field. The Swede thus prefers to make a surprising play, thereby confusing his opponent and delighting the crowd. This has recently resulted in his receiving his first invitation to join the Swedish national team. We have a conversation with one of the biggest revelations of Ajax’s young season.

Tobias Sana (23) is a multicultural child. Firstly he’s from Sweden, his mother’s country, where he was born and which is closest to his heart. But he also has African roots: his father is from Burkina Faso originally, and moved to Scandinavia. And then there’s his youth spent near Gothenburg, in a popular neighborhood called Angered, where little Tobias grew up in the midst of immigrant families, many from the Balkan nations. “I definitely took something away from all of these different influences, both consciously but mostly subconsciously. I see this as richness. You learn, in a very natural way, to look beyond your own horizons.”
He’s also known poverty. Not from his own childhood in Sweden, although his family didn’t have it easy then either, but from visiting family in Africa. “Except for one brother, my father’s entire family has crossed the border into Ghana over the years. The situation there is better than in Burkina Faso. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world. You don’t believe your eyes when you arrive there for the first time and you see the limitations that people have to live with there. But they’re always cheerful. And, the great thing is that they can appreciate the small things in life like no one else can. If you give a pair of football shoes to a kid in Burkina Faso, he’ll be over the moon for a year. While kids here aren’t even happy sometimes when they get the newest computer game for their birthday.”
Of course, these experiences in Africa have formed his as well, Sana nods - both as a person and as a football player. “I’m always aware that I’m very privileged. I am able to do what I enjoy most, play football, and I get paid for it. I try to let that show when I’m on the field. I was to emanate fun, and I’m always a player who tries to do ‘something’ with the ball. Preferably not going through the motions, but I want to do things that the crowd in the stands can enjoy. If I see the possibility to make a play and get past my opponent, then I’ll never move out of the way. Although at this level you need to take account of the situation in the match. When it’s 0-0, you can’t make any crazy moves.”
Ajax’s number 19 sees himself more as a European player, as opposed to African. “I’m obviously not the biggest guy out there. Where others use their body in the match, I have to go to battle with my head. I mean mentally, of course. Play to your own strengths. If you’re not big, then you need to be smart.”

And the slight right footed player has thus been able to draw the attention of John Steen Olsen, the Danish scout who checks out the Scandinavian competitions on Ajax’s behalf. “I had heard that he had his eye on me when I was still at Qviding”, says Sana, who had a contract with Gothenburg. “Last winter, a new coach came on and they brought in five new players. I was put on the sidelines for a while, and I had the feeling that didn’t really want to go further with me. They still wanted me to sign a new contract, but I had put that aside for a while. In the end, I’m really happy that Steen Olsen saw an Ajax player in me. And I think that he was right. I feel like I’m in the right place here and my performances show that.”