The American CEO of an African club: Mark Noonan on Ghana's unique love for soccer and his hope for Hearts

Mark Noonan, former U.S. Soccer and MLS executive, is now CEO of Ghana's Accra Hearts of Oak -- the winner of 20 league titles and 10 Ghanaian FA Cups. Noonan starred for Connecticut's Staples High School before winning the 1986 NCAA Division I title with Duke. Following his stint as U.S. Soccer's chief marketing officer, during which he oversaw the marketing of the 1999 Women's World Cup, he served four years (2000-2004) as MLS Executive Vice President of Marketing. He founded FocalSport in 2005 and after his three-year tenure as World Surf League chief commercial officer ended last year he connected via LinkedIn with Heart's majority owner Togbe Afede XIV, who is also the president of Ghana’s National House of Chiefs and King of the Asogli state. Two months ago, Noonan became Hearts' CEO.

SOCCER AMERICA: How did you end up becoming the CEO of a major African soccer club?

MARK NOONAN: After we connected on-line, it was a three-step process. His Royal Majesty Togbe Afede XIV is on the Board of Directors of the World Trade Centers Association and we had some meetings in the New York in October 2017. Initially, I thought I might be able to bring Hearts on board as a consulting client for my agency, but we had a great initial meeting and ...

He invited me to the Ghana FA Cup final where they played -- and sadly, lost -- to their archrival, the Asante Kotoko Porcupine Warriors.

After the match, we kept talking through the holidays into the New Year trying to find the right fit, which we eventually found. And now, here I am.

SA: Hearts of Oak has won 20 Ghana Premier League titles but not since 2009. How do you think you can help Hearts get back on top?

MARK NOONAN: Accra Hearts of Oak SC is what they call here a "Traditional Club," which basically means that it has been run and funded by a well-intentioned Board of Directors and organized supporters groups with a very strong underlying “spiritual” side to it.

As the world has moved on, it became clear to the Board that they needed to have a more professional management structure at the club, which is why I was brought in. The challenge for me is to ensure we respect the history and traditions of the club while modernizing its business practices. It is a delicate balance, for sure, as the spiritual foundations of the club are very strong.

SA: What would you like to accomplish as the club CEO?

MARK NOONAN: My overall goal is to make the supporters of the club happy and proud. In order to do that, we will need to: One, beat Asante Kotoko. We have our first match against them this Sunday at the Baba Yara Stadium, their home ground. Two, play attractive, attacking soccer and in doing so be in a position to win the League and FA Cups every year. Third, we need to qualify for CAF Champions League and advance deep in to the tournament.

We aim to lead the development of club soccer in Ghana and contribute to the success of the Ghana’s men’s national team, the Black Stars, and use the platform of the club to make a significant and meaningful social impact on the country and the communities we serve.

I'm working to create a model that is economically sustainable, while respecting the soul and authenticity of the club.

SA: What's the origin of the club's nickname, the Phobia?

MARK NOONAN: It was inspired by the fear the club inspired in the team’s opponents whenever they had to face the mighty Oak. The motto of the Club is "Never Say Die … Until the Bones Are Rotten."

SA: What are you particularly impressed with about pro soccer in Ghana?

MARK NOONAN: Without a doubt, the playing talent and the passion people have for the sport here. The athletes are off the charts and people play the game all day and night just about anywhere there is open space.

The other night we were returning from an away match and literally in every single village we passed through over the course of a four-hour drive the game was being played, including an amazing display of amputee soccer.

As we were pulling in to Accra around 10 p.m., there was even a pickup game being played in the dirt under the concrete highway exit ramp. It is hard to describe the love they have as it is like nothing I have ever seen in any country I have visited.

SA: When it comes to youth development, the USA is very keen on looking to Europe. Is there anything you've seen in Africa that you think American soccer could learn from?

MARK NOONAN: Certainly, the free play anytime, anywhere, anyhow no matter the conditions and the unbridled passion for the game. Nothing will stop these people for playing the game. I also think that in the developed countries we focus on the arms races of facilities and pay-to-play and forget how simple the game is. These people don’t have that luxury, nor are they overly scheduled.

SA: What's it like living in Accra? How would you describe what kind of city it is?

MARK NOONAN: Accra is a really interesting city situated right along the Atlantic Coast. I would actually describe it as two cities: the "expat" city and the “indigenous" city.

Not that they are separate by any means, but there are two distinct economies that might as well be night and day. I guess I would describe it as a mix of the developed and developing worlds with a ton of overlap.

For example, I live in a modern high-rise building that is very "western" in its amenities. However, the neighborhood is mixed with far more traditional and modest housing and local businesses.

Places like the Makola Market are not to be believed unless you experience them, but there are also modern malls and supermarkets -- although I prefer the local markets.

Traffic is insane. If you check out how the roads are arranged on Google maps, you will get an idea why. There is way too much garbage. And the people here carry a ton of things on their heads -- and the most beautiful site you will see is how women carry their babies on their backs.

SA: What do you think it will take for a nation from Africa, which has produced plenty of world-class players, to win the World Cup?

MARK NOONAN: Time and transparency. I have no doubt in my mind that the footballing talent is here to win a World Cup as evidenced by the success of past youth national teams. However, until there are transparent systems in place to identify the most promising young talent, educate them, train them and shield them from selfish outside influences it will be exceedingly difficult.

SA: What went wrong that Ghana -- after three straight appearances, including a run to the quarterfinals in 2010 -- didn't qualify for the 2018 World Cup and what was the reaction like?

MARK NOONAN: I wasn’t here for the qualification process so it is difficult for me to comment on. That said, it hurts deeply in two ways. First, is pride. The Black Stars -- and, slowly but surely, the Black Queens -- are really, really important to the nation’s psyche.

There is no other sport that can compare to football here. There is also economics. Unlike U.S. Soccer, the Ghana FA isn’t sitting on a $100 million surplus to weather the storm until the next World Cup. The loss of FIFA World Cup money is far more important here than in the developed world.

SA: Speaking of not qualifying, what's your view on the USA failing?

MARK NOONAN: A wake-up call. Failure is a very painful teacher, but the lessons learned from this cycle will help us in the next one. The sky is not falling.

When you see what MLS is doing with infrastructure, media, and player development, there is so much to be excited about. I truly believe we will learn and be stronger from this experience.

But it still sucks. Not being able to watch the Red, White and Blue -- or the Black Stars over -- this summer is a huge bummer. I have adopted Los Ticos of Costa Rica as my team this go around.

13 comments about "The American CEO of an African club: Mark Noonan on Ghana's unique love for soccer and his hope for Hearts".
  1. frank schoon, April 27, 2018 at 8:24 a.m.

    Good interview, for what I like most about it is the Pickup soccer theme. Guys , I don't know if you noticed it, but eversince the fall of last year, I began to notice more interviews in SA which talked about or brought up the aspect of pickup/street soccer somehow. I have talked about street soccer/pickup alot for the past 2 years and many didn't understand the importance of it, especially those who never grew playing it other than having only experienced soccer at a youth club practicing 2x a week and playing a game on the weekend.
    <"As we were pulling in to Accra around 10 p.m., there was even a pickup game being played in the dirt under the concrete highway exit ramp">;< in every single village we passed through over the course of a four-hour drive the game was being played, including an amazing display of amputee soccer.">
    These poor folks, don't have PAY FOR PLAY, DA program, licensed coaches running around the streets at pickup games, but I will guarantee you that everyone of those players have more skill in their little toe than any American kid who are the products of PAY FOR PLAY, DA or licensed coaches along with the other benefits of living well to do environment ,a rich suburban setting.
    The US will never have great players until we develop a want a need to play pickup soccer for pickup soccer not only provides a solid skill foundation, a well developed "TOUCH" on the ball but also creativeness on the ball; all of which is lacking in the American player! We will NOT develop great players through a programmed soccer environment, as we do now, all we are producing is robots without a real feel for the game.
    It is time for the USSF to see the need for pickup soccer and should have a campaign of stressing the importance of pickup soccer for a player's development. We have to create a need, a feel ,a want like those players in Ghana have. Once we establish the "want" than Play for play, DA, and other money grabbing oriented soccer programs as they are now will fall by the wayside and change drastically..

  2. Wooden Ships replied, April 27, 2018 at 11:41 a.m.

    Agree Frank. We won’t do away with the money being spent by parents, nor the revenue providing a way of life for clubs and coaches. In other words, the club culture and money won’t change. What I challenge scouts to do is, go an aggressively pursue the non-affiliated players, teams and leagues. Then provide the means to subsidize the kids and families in order to get these overlooked players into our national programs. Also, a movement per say, of leagues of peer coaching (pick up-free play) disguised of course as organized soccer. Frank, several of us could comprise the Board, coaching staff and referees, but we’ll always have a conflict and not be able to make the games. We could manage through conference calls. At the end of the inaugural season we will recognize the team that played on the most difficult surface(s) or most unusual setting. 

  3. frank schoon replied, April 27, 2018 at 12:31 p.m.

    Ships, I agree, pay for play is here to stay, but we always have had pay for play, like club fees, uniforms and the like. As a coach, I was always paid, as well as team clinics and in giving private lessons. The problem is that pay for play has become institutionalized along with various controls that are conducive for financial benefits. Of course, parents not knowing any better have no recourse and therefore are forced into the system. As we both know ,being old-schoolers, the players haven't gotten any better skilled over the past 50 years. THe only thing that's gotten better is the money.
    The setting, I'm proposing is that kids ,like in the old days, or like other countries need to play pickup than later join a club like I did but continue playing street soccer. So today let us say a kid is in a DA program, he can still play in his free time for that is where the youth develops his individual creative talent which is not done in the DA or pay for play settting. As in Ghana,everybody is playing and surely some belong to clubs as well. We have to nurture ,establish a need for pickup games and once that is done and has become full fledged, you will see that the DA programs will be become less of an influence. I will guarantee you, coaches from the DA will be trolling around pickup courts looking for talent and giving a good offers . But right now we don't have an outlet. Can you imagine if the USSF during the world cup offer 30 second commercials expounding the benefits of Pick up soccer...Showing a whole slew of these commercials that will give, testimonials by great players, and what not...This is how it  starts

  4. Wooden Ships replied, April 27, 2018 at 2:16 p.m.

    Yeah, a like the idea of the 30 second commercials during this upcoming Cup. And, beyond too. Somehow we need to figure out a way to convince kids that pickup-street soccer is the in thing-glamorous. It really comes down to having 1,000’s of older pied pipers leading the way. We had those guys in St. Louis and it was on the cheap. 

  5. frank schoon replied, April 27, 2018 at 2:51 p.m.

    Ships ,you're right and "beyond too". Get those old schoolers from St.louis. Can you imagine a bunch of neat commercails shown during WC or at MLS games discussing the merits of Street soccer. Have testimonials of Pele,Xavi,Iniesta, Ronaldo,Messi and other greats. Let them talk and show the various places where they as kids played, and where they are still playing, show a few seconds of street soccer in Marseille where Zidane played, there a short clip Cruyff playing street soccer, ...I mean, it could be done so well to make an impression on the kids, coaches ,etc. 
    You know the video of pickup soccer in Atlanta just amazed me and it should be discussed as well during halftime at a MLS game
    The Black Soccer Culture No One Knew Existed - YouTube. They were playing music while playing but once these kids get used to meeting at a place to play pickup it also becomes a social thing, and make new soccer friends, but it can be done anywhere it doesn't have to be so extravagant as shown on that video.

  6. Ric Fonseca, April 27, 2018 at 4:52 p.m.

    Senores, just a little historical tidbit on the "pay for play" mess: My son began playing the sport  when he was still a toddler, in fact my aife used to take him to watch my practices and games when I was HC at LA MIssion College and then at CSUN; his entry into "more organized" soccer was with the local ayso K-league in my neighborhood, and because of my coaching experience, I was automatically told that I'd be the coach of 5 and 6-year olds. No problem, or so i thought. I was also tabbed to do the K-league "all stars" and so after not more 1 1/2 years, I opted to leave and joined a "club team."  As for the cost factor, the then ayso fee was $40 and additional cost for the "all star" competition, uniformes, etc. Our entry to "club soccer" cost a mere $50.00 for th entire year or then, nine months.  The uniforme were recycled and replaced every two years or as needed; the fee covered registration, refs, uniforms; coaching was done by knowledgeable guys, Latinos, English, Africans, immigrant-US citizens at no cost to the parents.
    Sadly, as I write this comment, the very club we joined (it shall remain unknown) now charges in excess of $3,000, plus a summer camp of sort, required of all kids; it has expanded, yes, but has also brought in paid coaches who end up doing this as a full-time job; in fact one of the coaches is a "left over" from the time I was last involved with the club. Don't get me wrong now, but as other pay-for play clubs the cost factor is almost the same accross the board here in SoCal, in fact I've heard thst some even charge one or two thousands bucks more, etc. yada-yada, and the club I refer to here now touts itself by having meeting placed in a local and exclusive golf-club, a well put together web-site, and boast how many of its "club alumni" have been accepted to some major local, but primarily, out-of-state universities, but fail to mention if they're on the varsity.
    Long story short, while I agree with the pick-up game premise and to let the kids U-10's just play the danged game, it is very sad for me to note just how much these, yes well-to-do clubs charge, and while they also boast that they offer "soccer scholarships" to join the club, the concept of 'free-play" without adult interference may or will never happen in various places  here in our wonderful country since we are to restricted and constricted by the many laws that permeate local parks, school grounds, etc especially since we're a very litigeous society.  
    And to WS, yup, those were the days of old, and the Billikens of St. Louis University, back to the late 60's into the mid '70s sure could tell us and regale us with some keen and wonderful stories on how they picked up the game, just like here in the vast SoCal/Los Angeles-Orange counties!  

  7. frank schoon replied, April 27, 2018 at 5:10 p.m.

    Ric, $3000, UNBELIEVABLE for a 10year old, and you a get a camp to boot with it, WOW. These guys are making money, what a racket...It's a despicable ,for I know what a 10year olds can only actually learn. I would get the parents together, have a meeting to see how these kids can play pick up together and make it fun. Get other groups of parents together from other neighborhood or however you want to do it and let these kids play bring in parents that can play soccer, bring in  some older kids( brothers) to play with them. Later make up teams and have tournaments...there are so many ways of doing it. It might be a little rough in the beginning( just think of the rough spots youth soccer had in the beginning ,years ago, but it began to iron little by little and look what it has grown into). There is no way that I will $3000 for my 10 year old knowing the nitwits teaching these kids. 

  8. Ginger Peeler replied, April 27, 2018 at 10:34 p.m.

    Bless you Ric for pointing out the elephant in the room...places readily available where kids can gather to play. I’ve lived in urban and suburban areas of California, Texas, Arkansas and Florida. Some of them have had thriving soccer communities and some have had little interest in the sport (as a community). In all of them, there were few places where people could freely gather for any sport without reserving space.  Most available areas were restricted to the local YM(W)CA and/or the local school grounds. Most parks prefer not to have a bunch of kids running all over the place. I don’t disagree with the free play pick up play aspect. But the logistics of this huge country make it very difficult. For years, we’ve had a guy with a Greek name (I’m sorry to say I’ve forgotten it) who has preached and posted about a “soccer revolution” with pickup type games and futsal. I’m not sure what has happened to him, but he had good ideas, too. The 2nd elephant in the room is our changing culture. Small children rarely gather in an empty lot to play sports these days.  Rather, their parents schedule one on one play dates. And the kids are considered “safer”. The kids spend an amazing amount of time on their parents’ smart phones playing games. When I was a registrar for our USYSA Cal South traveling team club, the girls played all the way through high school, but the boys began dropping out of the programs beginning around 14 when they discovered girls. And there was an absolute exodus when the boys began driving. Of course, there are always those kids totally committed to the sport. But identifying those with skill all over the country and nurturing them through the years is extremely difficult because the next Pele may be right under your noses in a part of the country where soccer is considered a game for sissies. Or the kid’s parents don’t have the money for their kids to “play up”. Do parents still coach the kindergarteners? Are there still small town local newspaper sports editors who refuse to cover local soccer teams because they think soccer’s a communist sport? I love this game. In the years I’ve been taking SoccerAmerica since Soccer Digest folded, I’ve seen positive improvement in the US game. One of these days somebody will figure out how to get the whole country on more equal footing regarding soccer. I hope I’m around to see it.  

  9. frank schoon replied, April 28, 2018 at 10:45 a.m.

    Ginger , You view pickup soccer too much through the eyes of structure and organization of which you have experienced dealing with soccer. Quoting you, <"there were few places where people could freely gather for any sport without reserving space";."places readily available where kids can gather to play";Most available areas were restricted". The beauty of pickup soccer is that you dont need to reserve lots of space , just any space will . I can run a whole of list of creative spaces you can employ and  dont' have to be large, for example  1v1; 2v2, 3v3 ,.How 'bout one's backyard, cul de sac, behind the shopping center, at any elementary school, or other schools, like the parking lot, the basketball court, or may on a sidefield, just for starters.  The complaint about lack of space is laughable. I coming from a country ,Holland, which is probably the most densest populated in the world  and I have no problem finding space to play pickup soccer, even in the city of Amsterdam. The greatest technical player Holland ever had was not Johan Cruyff, but a guy Gerrit Muhren, his teammate. He often played in his backyard (bricked)20ft x12ft.  2v2 or 3v3. Unless you have played pickup soccer grown up and spendind the greatest majority of the time spend learning the game and experiencing the real subculture of it, you have little understanding of what it is really about. And watching some kids kicking or playing with a soccer ball around in the neighborhood doesn't mean pickup soccer. Pickup has a certain culture that comes with it and the culture needs to cultivated or kick started. We as country need to grow ,cultivate it.
     Pickup soccer will first be initiated by older players, youth, then it will later start to filter down to the younger ones. It's like Starbucks, first it was an adult thing, later on high school kids, then middle and elementary kids began patronize the place.. It will be the kids committed to the sport that will go out and play pickup....

  10. Wooden Ships replied, April 30, 2018 at 6:50 p.m.

    Ginger, you’re thinking of Cony Constan something. 1,000’s of futsal courts. Haven’t seen a post of his for months. As you mentioned, there are still many parts of the country where the sport is really despised. It is slowly changing. With many things, those that don’t know, fear. 

  11. Bob Ashpole, April 27, 2018 at 10:34 p.m.

    In the past soccer apparel and shoe advertisements have made freestyle juggling and before that hacky sack look like a fun activity. That would be the right target audiance for "street soccer".

    A very real roadblock is parents. Soccer families already play "street soccer," so it is the parents in non-soccer familes that are the road block to street soccer. (Couldn't resist the pun.)    

  12. Samuel Levy, April 28, 2018 at 7:59 a.m.

    Fantastic article. I appreciate the global perspective. My family is moving to Zanzibar and the soccer culture there is the same: people play daily, all over the place.

  13. humble 1, May 1, 2018 at 12:36 p.m.

    Good article.  All the best to Mr. Noonan in his endeavor.  We love Ghana soccer style.  On the topic of street soccer.  In Italy my son plays in the street.  Same in Uruguay and Peru.  From my dutch friends I understand there is less street soccer there, following on the trends mentioned above that we see here in USA.  My boy has only every played street soccer once in the USA.  One summer in Vail CO, when we encoutered a game run by Mexican kids, since he spoke spanish, he was selected to the Mexican side.  This was on a turf pitch that is an ice-rink in winter.  He always enjoys those pick-up games.  What that little event shows is that it is the interest - not the facilities that is mainly lacking here.  In eighth grade at 13 y.o. kids can choose baseball, basketball, football, softball, vollyball, etc, etc.  Soccer has a long way to go to generate the 'interest' to have pickup games.  It maybe never will.  I've been all over Germany and France, never saw a pick-up game there.  This is why I don't relate pick-up soccer to national team success, only to fun.  Throughout Germany, France, you will see a soccer infrastructure that far surpassed ours.  Even in Uruguay.  Montevideo, city of 2 million 18-20 first division team, each with a stadium and practice facilities for academies.  Every couple of blocks has a place to play soccer, many hidden away, but they are there.  Montevideo is about the size of Milwaukee, WI.  Imagine 20 MLS or even USL clubs in Milwaukee.  So what comes first, chicken or egg?  This is for brighter more experienced folks that me, just sharing what I've seen, and trying to say again, 'street soccer' is a charactaristic of a great soccer country, but not necessarily the reason they are great.  

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