From Red Sand to Turf: How Cameroon Shaped Defender Jeannot Esua

Jeannot Esua is a long way from home.

The 23-year-old is entering his second season in Edmonton after a successful rookie campaign that saw him win the ‘Best Player of the year Award’ for the club. The athletic right-back credits his upbringing for his drive that appears to provide him with endless energy on the pitch.

“When I look at where I’m coming from it always reminds me I need to stay awake and I need to work even when others don’t want to work” he said. “I know people that are way better than me that are still in Africa right now because they didn’t just put in the work.”

Esua was born and raised in Cameroon alongside two brothers by his mom, a now retired nurse, and his father, who works as an electrician. He thanks his parents for being up to the task of raising three young boys and helping them gain an education despite the difficult conditions that surrounded them.

While he’s thankful for his education, the goal for Esua has always been the same: to play professional soccer.

“That was the only sport I really wanted to do. I was always kicking stuff around at the age of five, and at the age of eight I started training with my boyhood club.”

“Pretty much for me it was soccer, school, soccer, school. Because in Cameroon school closes at three and after that I’d go for training and get home at seven. I used to do that every day.”

While Esua now looks back on these childhood memories fondly, he admits it wasn’t always easy learning the game without all of the necessary equipment needed. “For me that was hard, sometimes I found myself in situations where my soccer cleats got bad and I was trying to fix them up and still use them.”

The facilities weren’t much better either, often consisting of small fields with little to no grass. It was there where a young Esua began to learn his craft. “I can remember I was always working on my technique because to play on fields like that your first touch needs to be perfect. You need to think quick and react quick” he said on the uneven dirt pitch.

“Now when I play on fields that are good, surfaces like turf or grass, it’s so easy for me because I’m used to playing on fields that are way worse.”

Despite the less than ideal environment around him, Esua always felt safe as a youth in Cameroon, devoting his time and energy to soccer as an outlet. “Some of my soccer friends along the line stopped playing soccer because they were influenced by one or two things growing up. I’m the kind of person that’s not easy to influence, so I was able to pull away from that circle and kept my mind going on soccer.”

“The fact that I played soccer helped me a lot because I have friends right now that are dead. It kept me away from being out late, because growing up in Africa most kids when they turn 16 start coming home drunk.”

Instead, at 16 Esua moved away from home for the first time. Opting to sink himself into the game at one of the largest football academies in West Africa, that just so happened to be in his home country. 

There a young Esua began to hone his skills with his mind set on one day playing outside of Cameroon. “To make it out of Cameroon is not easy. We have a bunch of talented players, so for you to make it you need to have some aspect that those players don’t have.”

For Esua, he believes is was his mentality, not his physical attributes, that helped him separate himself from his peers. 

“The work and the mindset is mostly what makes the difference.”

In 2017 his lifelong dream finally came to fruition when he signed a contract with the Orange County Soccer Club in California. Just like that, a young 20-year-old that had never even been to North America, was off to the Golden State.

“I had never really left Africa before, leaving Africa on contract with the US was like a dream come true to me. Even when I was on the plane I was so anxious to get there and see what it looked like.”

Esua would spend a year in Orange County before heading back to Cameroon for a season, eventually finding his way to Edmonton in February of 2019, a chilly introduction to say the least.

“The first day I got here I can’t forget” he laughed. “The leaves were all dried up and the next day we had to do a team bonding so we went into the woods and that was my first time being in the snow, it wasn’t easy.”

Now the survivor of two harsh Canadian winters, Esua is beginning to settle into Edmonton and has adjusted to living far away from his family and friends. “I would say I’m getting used to it, but I’m always going to miss my family when I have to stay long without seeing them.”

While he hasn’t been home in two years, the Esua family remains closely knit, finding new ways to stay connected.

“Every day I talk to my family. We have a group chat and we talk there. Depending on the time difference it’s hard to do FaceTime unless we have something important to discuss as a family. Mostly it’s texts.”

Now on the other side of the globe Esua hopes to lay down his own roots, and he wouldn’t mind Canada being the country he lays his foundation. “I feel it’s a good country for any young person to establish themselves and see what the future holds for them. It’s a good place.”

He feels his talent is better utilized for North American soccer than back in Cameroon where the game is more focused on long balls and fighting to win the ball back. “Growing up I used to have that problem where some coaches would just maybe put me on the bench cause I didn’t fit into that game plan” he explained. 

“I feel like now I have the opportunity to enjoy the game and express myself more to where I am with the ball and make my own mistakes and learn from them. I’m enjoying my talent now and hoping to grow more.”

Now that Esua has realized his goal of playing professional soccer, he aims to keep working hard to see just how far his talent and drive can take him. 

“I know what brought me here today is the hard work I’ve always put in and my mindset. I always rely on those things to keep on working. Because I know if you got talent and you don’t put in the work, the chance of you getting to the top of football is slim.”

No matter where soccer leads Esua next, one thing remains certain: a piece of his game will have always been shaped by those small, grassless fields back home where he dreamed the dream he’s living now.

“Cameroon is always going to be my root.”