Soccer for most is a hobby they pick up when young and drop by the time they hit high school. For UCSB senior Fifi Baiden, soccer was his ticket to escape the oppressions of Africa and establish a better life and a bright future in the United States.

A defensive midfielder for the men’s soccer team, Baiden has taken advantage of his opportunities in America and will likely be selected in the 2014 MLS draft after an outstanding career as a Gaucho, an incredible fact considering where he was just years ago.

Baiden was born in Ajumako, Ghana, and is one of four children in his family. Around the age of five, his uncles, who played soccer frequently, took him to watch them play and from that moment on Fifi fell in love with the game.

When Fifi was 10, he received the opportunity to participate in Right to Dream Academy, a soccer academy in Ghana that helps young boys attain a proper education and learn soccer skills.

“In Ghana it’s tough living there and life was hard. Our parents wouldn’t be able to afford the education we needed,” Baiden said. “I got lucky to get selected to go to the academy at the age of 10. Right to Dream provided everything to help develop me as a player, and not just on the soccer field, but also a person through education.”

After developing as a player and attending school, Baiden was presented with a remarkable chance to move to the United States through the academy.

So, at the age of 15, Baiden left everything and everyone he knew and loved in Ghana for the opportunity to create a better life in America. The academy placed him at Dunn School, a private boarding school in Los Olivos, a mere 35 miles northwest of UCSB.

During his time at Dunn, Baiden learned to value education and grew as a soccer player, earning team-MVP for three consecutive seasons while garnering interest from universities. Despite his immediate success, the transition from Ghana was not without its bumps.

“When I got here it was hard for me to transition from Ghanaian culture to here. The accent was hard for me to adjust and my English wasn’t good,” Baiden said. “It was difficult but I had the support system around me when I got here to help me to learn and understand the culture.”

In addition to playing for Dunn, Baiden also played for the Santa Barbara Soccer Club, leading to his discovery by UCSB.

Once he stepped on campus at UCSB, Baiden immediately made his impact felt as a Gaucho, playing in 18 games as a true freshman and starting in seven. As a sophomore, Fifi increased his role even more, starting in all 23 games for Santa Barbara.

“He is responsible for directing our entire midfield, protecting our back four and at the same time linking up our midfield with the rest of our team,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “In my opinion, he plays the most important position on the field for us and does it at a very high level.”

Baiden’s junior season really saw a takeoff in his game as he ended the season with All-Big West First Team honors along with a spot on the Big West Academic All-Conference Team. With a chance to go pro, Baiden decided to return to receive his degree and play his senior season, a campaign in which he was named All-Big West Second Team.

“In terms of a teammate, he’s kind of evolved. He was very quiet his freshman and sophomore year,” Vom Steeg said. “Last year, by necessity, he became more of a vocal player and this year he’s the first one in the locker room to urge the guys and encourage them and get after guys. Players listen to him because we know what he’s meant for the program and what he’s done for the team.”

With the soccer season approaching its end, Fifi is prepared to shift his focus from college to the professional leagues. Baiden will receive his Bachelor’s degree in Sociology in less than four years and begin the process to be drafted in the MLS this season after UCSB concludes its season.

“He’s a player that in my opinion has the tools needed to play at the next level,” Vom Steeg said. “He’s going to get an opportunity to at least be on an MLS roster with a chance to make that team. Hopefully that happens, and I think it will. We’re pretty optimistic that he’ll get that chance.”

Now with his status as a budding professional player, Baiden has also shifted his focus to helping the people in his native country. This past summer, Baiden returned to Ghana and saw his family for the first time since he was 15.

“It was a really fun experience for me to go back to see my family and also to work at this orphanage to teach the kids and help them to value education and also run some drills to help them improve their soccer skills,” Baiden said. “My long-term goal is to actually be a humanitarian and travel around the world, going to impoverished communities trying to help in any way possible I can.”

Due to the absence of modern technology in Ghana, Baiden was unable to communicate with his family frequently until they were finally able to afford a cell phone.

As UCSB challenges for the Big West title and an NCAA postseason appearance this season, no player has been as vital to the team’s success than Baiden.

“You look at two or three things that had to go well for us to be successful and having a healthy Fifi play all season and become a leader on this team through his play is certainly one of the key, if not the most important components of our success,” Vom Steeg said.

It is not every day an individual has the courage to move across the world alone at the age of 15, possess the work ethic and determination to succeed on the field and in the classroom, and possess the humbleness to continue working towards aiding his native people through humanitarian efforts.

Baiden’s journey to the United States pales in remarkability to all he has managed to and will continue to accomplish. And to think it all started with the kick of a soccer ball.


A version of this article appeared on page 8 of November 14, 2013’s print edition of The Daily Nexus.

Photo by Peter Vandenbelt of The Daily Nexus.