For Jennifer Cudjoe, growing the women’s game in her home country of Ghana means everything. The 28-year-old midfielder currently plays for the National Women’s Soccer League for NJ/NY Gotham FC. She joined the New Jersey-based team in 2020 following an open tryout, and quickly became a fan-favorite.
Getting to this point was not so straightforward for Cudjoe. Growing up in Ghana, the idea of a woman playing soccer as a career appeared far-fetched at best, and now she hopes she can use her voice to help grow the women’s game in the place she calls home.
Speaking Up for change
Cudjoe does not take lightly speaking out publicly about what she and her peers have experienced playing soccer in Ghana, but it is the only way she feels she can fight for positive change for the future of the sport that she loves in the country that she loves.
“When you speak up, sometimes it rubs people the wrong way so I try my best to make it clear that I’m not trying to blast my national team, but there’s so much that has been going on for years.” Cudjoe told AllForXI.
Unfortunately, as Cudjoe explained, many of her Ghanian teammates who have played for the Black Queens over the years are still missing pay from the federation.
“It’s been going on for a while,” Cudjoe explained. “The federation doesn’t realize that for most of these young players, it’s the only income they have.”
Through the good times and the bad, Cudjoe and her teammates are determined to fight to bring women’s soccer to the next level in Ghana. A large part of that is providing the same professional services to the senior women’s side that is currently available to the men’s senior side.
“The senior men’s team gets scouts, fitness trainers, psychologists, and other things that we on the women’s side don’t have,” Cudjoe explained.
Although players have been speaking up about it over the years, there hasn’t been much change. Despite that, the Black Queens at all age levels are still hopeful for the development of the sport in Ghana even as they travel the world to earn their living. “Young players have traveled to play soccer because you can’t make it a job here and earn what you deserve,” Cudjoe explained.
Because of these issues, Cudjoe has not played for her country since 2014. She left Ghana in 2013 to pursue her dream of attending college in the United States, which soon became her focus. “I’ve been invited in since then, but chose not to go,” Cudjoe said. “I was asked to go to the Africa Cup of Nations in 2015, but I was still in college. I had to choose between school or the national team - and my education came first.”
Despite not going, Cudjoe continued to support her teammates from afar. Looking back, she always wanted the opportunity to represent her country on the world stage of soccer, but because she and other players were seldom rewarded for their work, she had to make the hard choices of pursuing her college degree and a pro career in the United States.
All the while, Cudjoe hopes that one day, the Black Queens will have the resources they need so that players like her can earn a living while playing soccer at the highest level for their country, and she wants to be part of it. “I want to be able to be in a place where I can help bring new information and speak out,” Cudjoe says.
The last time Cudjoe played for her federation was during the 2014 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Canada. In the group stage, the squad won their first match against hosts Canada and their final match against Finland, with Cudjoe scoring the game-winning goal. Ultimately the team did not make it past the group stage because of goal differential, and Cudjoe flew back to the United States and back to college.
According to Cudjoe, she and her teammates never received pay for that tournament, including the three months she spent in Ghana training with the team in the lead-up. She explained that at the time, the players were supposed to be paid per win. Other times, pay has been so delayed, it could be years before players received any amount.
This is painful for Cudjoe and her teammates who are watching the countries around them develop and grow, and Ghana’s women’s side seems to be getting passed by. “For me, it hurts to see it. There is so much great talent here, but there are not enough resources, like film from their own national team, to even pursue careers abroad.”
In 2021, Cudjoe turned down a call-up to the team - partly because of COVID, but also due in part to the ongoing realization that the concerns of the Black Queens were falling on deaf ears. “Players started having meetings, trying to ask questions of what we’re getting. We’re all spending our time, and money became one of the questions. Do we get compensation for this work? But no one was giving us answers,” Cudjoe explained.
Most players chose to go, but others didn’t go to make a stand and fight for change. “It became a huge issue. I didn’t go because I’m standing with the players - all the players - who decided that if we don’t know what we’re getting paid, we’re not going to come,” Cudjoe said.
Growing the game in Ghana
As women’s soccer continues to grow around the world, Cudjoe wants her country to grow, too. In her eyes, more development programs with proper resources for young girls are paramount to this success. “Club teams have to have enough resources to provide for players,” Cudjoe said. “It’s getting better, but it’s not where the level needs to be.”
Another important change she would like to see is creating the proper trajectories for young players in different age groups. It is not uncommon for 15-year-olds to have to play against 20-year-olds because there is only one league to join. This lack of opportunity makes competitive play difficult for young girls growing up.
Cudjoe also wants to see more sponsorships and advertising for women’s teams. A lack of advertising of the women’s game means less eyes on the team and less economic growth. “You have to have a strategy to advertise the women’s game and get people to come watch. Not just in Ghana, but in Africa. The way that advertising is here in the United States helps people see [the players and the game] - and I think they lack that [in Ghana].”
It was because of this lack of opportunity that Cudjoe decided to pursue her soccer career and college dreams in the United States. Many of her peers thought college might be a waste of four years, but for Cudjoe, getting her degree was about so much more. “It’s not just about playing. It’s about finding yourself and finding out what you’re good at,” Cudjoe explained. “I came here for soccer, but also for school.” Instead of trying to play in Europe, Cudjoe followed in the footsteps of her sister Elizabeth who also attended college in the United States.
Not only did Cudjoe earn her degree in accounting and find her own pathway to go pro, she realized how much she loves coaching and private training, and decided that one day she wants to build her own business. It was important to her to find what she loves and what she can do once she finishes her career.
While many players back in her home country see the four years spent in college as time not spent playing, Cudjoe sees it differently. “You can come to America, go to college, and if you’re lucky you’ll get drafted [into the NWSL]. If not, you can still go play in Europe. But in the end, you’ve learned something about life itself. When you’re done with soccer, you can take that with you,” Cudjoe says.
Becoming a hero for Gotham
Now, Cudjoe is a mainstay on NJ/NY Gotham FC. The midfielder has logged significant minutes for her club since joining from an open tryout in 2020. After a brief hiccup where she was drafted by expansion side Racing Louisville during the 2021 Expansion Draft, Cudjoe found her way back to New York/New Jersey via a trade.
“That was hard! When you start in a place you feel good about, you want to see how it will continue. I’ve loved all the years I’ve spent here - there have been ups and downs - but the challenges make me who I am,” Cudjoe said.
During the in-between period where she was unsure if Gotham would be successful in trading back for her, she struggled. “I was preparing myself emotionally and physically to go to Louisville, but then all of a sudden it switched back - it was meant to be,” she said.
She got her first start of the year earlier this month during Gotham FC’s first 2022 Challenge Cup game. Unfortunately, the squad fell to the NC Courage with a final score of 2-0. The loss was tough for Cudjoe, who wanted her own performance to be better. But she knows that in order to have the highs, you have to experience the lows.
“We have something great in this team. We’ll have ups and downs but it’s a test for us. We’re going to make the fans proud and anyone who knows Gotham knows us and it’s just a bump in the road,” Cudjoe said.
As she continues to grow her game here in the United States, Cudjoe never stops thinking about growing women’s soccer back in Ghana. It is important to her that the leaders in Ghana know that she is speaking out for the benefit and growth of the women’s game in the country.
“The players in Ghana are so valuable and have the right to play in the top leagues, and for that to happen, they have to be in the best environment and have the best national team treatment.”