Meet Mark Noonan: Ghana’s Head Phobian

Togbe Afede XIV found Mark Noonan through LinkedIn.

The president of Ghana’s National House of Chiefs, and king of the Asogli state, wanted to chat.

Togbe — yes, he really is the 14th — also happens to be majority owner of Accra Hearts of Oak. It’s one of Africa’s top soccer clubs.

Noonan has his own great resume. After leading Staples High School to 2 state soccer championships in 1981 and ’82, then starring on Duke University’s national championship team, he’s served as director of marketing for Gatorade, chief marketing officer for US Soccer, executive vice president of Major League Soccer, and chief commercial officer for the World Surf League.

Togbe Afede XIV

There’s more to Togbe than tribal chief and soccer club owner, too. An entrepreneur with an MBA from Yale, he owns Africa World Airlines, a major finance company and an important utilty.

In October, they met in New York. A few days later, Noonan was in Accra. Hearts — whose nickname is The Phobia — took on their archrivals Asante Kotoko (“The Porcupine Warriors”). It was every bit a classic as Arsenal vs. Spurs.

“The atmosphere was off the hook,” Noonan recalls. “There were colors, horns, singing, and an ambulance on the pitch only to see a guy rise from the dead to score a hat trick.”

Noonan did his homework. He learned about Ghana’s stable democracy and booming economy. And he discovered that Togbe’s role as chief of all chiefs is a very big deal.

Soccer is a religion in Ghana. American fans know the country well: It knocked the US out of the last 2 World Cups. World-class players like Michael Essien hail from there. Twenty Ghanaians playing right now in MLS, with more on the way via US colleges.

Amazingly, Noonan says, the country has done it despite a lack of infrastructure, training and education.

Soccer in Africa — and, specifically, a top club like the Phobians — is a sleeping giant. Founded in 1911, they have an estimated 10 million fans. That’s 1/3 of the entire nation. A few years ago they were rated the 8th best club in the world — ahead of Arsenal and Chelsea. They’re building a youth academy that will draw top young talent, to be properly trained and educated.

The potential is limitless.

Which is why, earlier this month, Noonan became CEO of Hearts of Oak.

His many friends — in Westport, and throughout the soccer world — were stunned. 

But they also knew it was a typical Mark Noonan move.

“If not now, when?” he asks. “I’ve always wanted to run a club. My wife Katie and I have always dreamed of living abroad, and embracing different cultures. Our youngest daughter Tess graduates from high school in June. We’re at a time in life where we can take a swing.”

Katie was very supportive. She loved Mark’s passion for the project, plus Ghana’s unique culture, tropical climate and thriving highlife music scene. (She’s a very talented musician).

During his trips to Ghana — and now that he’s settling in to his new role — Noonan was won over by the people. “They are passionate, God-loving, colorful — you should see the fabrics the women and men wear — and football-mad.

“Despite what is happening politically in our country — they are very aware of comments coming from the White House about Africa — they really  like Americans. I hope to contribute to that favorable impression.”

His vision is to make Hearts “one of the most cherished organizations in Ghana, with a mission of making its people happy, proud and respected. We’ll do that by running a business that makes significant contributions to its communities, and wins the most important trophies domestically, regionally and internationally.”

Mark Noonan (front row, 3rd from left), with Hearts of Oak players and directors.

Noonan knows that sports can make a difference in people’s lives. An international game like soccer has a particularly powerful role to play.

“Given the importance of football here, and Hearts specifically, if we do what we envision we can lift a lot of people up,” he says. “It can give happiness, pride, respect and a belief they can do anything. I’m not sure we could do that in a more developed country. So I’m hopeful that, if we leave the club in a better place than we found it, there will be a social legacy component to the project too.”

Noonan is grateful he grew up in Westport. As a community that “valued diversity, creativity and had a real soccer culture, it prepared me to undersetand and respect the wildly different place I now call home.”

One of the first things Mark Noonan saw, after arriving in Accra.

He asks anyone looking for a new (or other) club to support to become a Phobian. (The nickname came from fears other teams had facing Hearts of Oak. They knew they would not just lose, but be humiliated.)

It’s certainly a very cool club. And — perhaps unlike any other in the world — its colors are “the rainbow.”

Noonan acknowledged that uniqueness when he was introduced to players and staff.

“I’m the only white guy here,” he said. “But my heart is a rainbow.”

The new American CEO got a rousing, Ghanaian ovation.

8 responses to “Meet Mark Noonan: Ghana’s Head Phobian

  1. Katie Noonan

    Nice summary, Dan. We’re excited for the experience, the challenge, and especially to get to know the beautiful people of Ghana!

    • Patricia Porio

      What an incredible gift he and you give, Katie! Beautiful and accomplished people doing beautiful things. What a journey you are undertaking.
      The Ghananians are very special and warm people – you will be happy there. give Mark a big hug from the senior Porios and take one for you! So much love! Pat and sal

  2. Mark will make an incredible impact on Accra Hearts of Oak, their community and Ghana. Along the way, he will make Westport and the United States very proud to have him represent us in a foreign land and culture. There are few individuals who able combine their passion and ability into effective leadership and great outcomes – Mark is one of those guys and has a lifetime track record of success. Follow Mark and the Phobia on Twitter (@MDNOONAN) and support AHOSC as your new African Professional Sports Club. I hear Noons is lining up Westport’s own Fry Daddys (#PeteNajarian) to play the halftime show at the Ghana National Championship.

    Good luck to Mark, Katie and of course the Phobia!

  3. This is so badass I almost can’t stand it. Well done Mark!

  4. I am sensing a Boys Trip to Ghana – who’s in?

  5. Noons: does this mean I won’t see you on the Hill at the 60th anniversary celebration of Staples soccer this fall? Seriously, this is a very cool story and quite an accomplishment. Congrats, and wishing you lots of success in your new position.

  6. Bill Boyd (staples 66)

    Another geat story Dan!
    Best wishes to Mark and Katie on their new journey !

  7. Congratulations to you Mark, that’s fantastic news and what an incredible adventure to come for you and Katie. Hearts of Oak now have a whole CT community of fans behind them, so wishing you lots of success on the field and off. Keep us all posted and safe travels!