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Football’s most evocative tale

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He was the natural successor to Pele. Even the great Brazilian himself said so, upon watching a then 15-year old gangly boy from Ghana terrorise defences in the U-16 World Cup in 1989. “He is my natural successor,” said Pele, a comparison not usually forthcoming from one of football’s legends. Within two years, the boy was on the verge of proving him right. He was best player in the U-17 World Cup in 1991, made his debut for his national side aged 15, had 38 caps by the age of 21, tore it up in his first season in Europe at Anderlecht and continued it as top scorer for PSV Eindhoven – a club where another famous Brazilian would soon make it big. But then it all went wrong. At the age of 21, Nii Lamptey had it all. Now, few even know about him. Along the way he has chartered perhaps the most enduring football tale in existence. A tale of hope, greed, dreams, sorrows and corrupt agents. This is his story.

The story of Nii Lamptey begins in the streets of Accra, the capital of Ghana. As a child growing up amidst poverty, the only atypical part of Lamptey’s childhood was the regular abuse he suffered from both his parents. His alcoholic father’s regular beatings and his mother’s marked indifference meant that the young Lamptey spent most of his time sleeping in the streets to stay out of their way.

Football was his only refuge, and he played often on the streets.

At the age of eight, Lamptey was effectively thrown out of the house as his parents divorced and both subsequently remarried. Having no place to stay he moved in to camp with a Muslim football club who offered him a haven if he converted to Islam, something the young boy gladly did.

Learning his ropes in the barren fields, Lamptey soon caught the eye and was drafted into the Black Startlets team for the U-16 1989 WC. It was here where his pace, trickery and exquisite balance led Pele to say that he would be his natural successor.

And Lamptey didn’t disappoint. Following his success, he caught the eye of Anderlecht’s Dutch coach Aad de Mos, who bought him to Belgium as a 15 year old in 1989.

With so much hype surrounding the move Belgium football laws in place where changed to allow him to make his debut for the club aged 16 and he wowed fans with the sheer breadth of his talent.

His first season in Belgium was only a teaser and being picked to represent Ghana at U-17 level in the 1991 World Cup, he finally showed the world how good he really was.

Ghana won the tournament, thanks wholly to Lamptey and his fellow starlets but the spotlight was firmly on the star from Belgium.

For his exquisite play, Lamptey was voted the winner of the Golden Ball beating off competition from other rising stars chief among who were the little-known Argentine Juan Sebastian Veron and the Italian Alessandro del Piero.

He returned to Anderlecht and repaid their faith in him with a series of sterling performances which led to his first contract at the age of 16.

And that is where the seeds of the precarious future were sown. His registration, he later found, was then not owned by Anderlecht but by his agent Antonio Caliendo, who at that time also represented Dunga and Roberto Baggio. It was to be a fatal move.

Lamptey however was more interested in the football.

And rightly so.

After two fabulous seasons at Anderlecht, he was loaned by PSV Eindhoven and given the task of filling the shoes of one Romario.

It was 1993 and Lamptey was 19, but took to the task with aplomb. He netted ten times but it was his visionary play as a second striker that really caught the eye and forced a near two million pound bid from Aston Villa.

Even the notoriously fickle Doug Ellis knew what he was doing. Or so he thought.

Lamptey was by that time a major part of the Ghanaian African Nations Cup Final team, top scorer in his first season at PSV Eindhoven, and while at Anderlecht had become the youngest marksman in any major European Competition. But the writing was on the wall.

PSV were at that time a much higher-profile club than Villa and it was a shock that one of their stars would move at such a pittance.

But since his registration was owned by his agent Caliendo, the Italian could auction him off anywhere and pocket a 25% commission. And that is exactly what he did.

In his first game at Villa, Lamptey who was blissfully unaware of such facts scored a superb goal.

Hopes were raised even further but after only ten games and two starts during which he truly did not impress, Lamptey was pedalled off to Coventry City.

Another seven games and a year later it was to the relative obscurity of Venezia in the Serie B, where according to his agent, his career needed ‘resurrecting.’

Lamptey was still only 22 and things had begun to unravel.

After a year at Italy, Caliendo convinced Lamptey that his dream of playing for Boca Juniors – the club of his idol Diego Maradona – would come true.

He secured a move but Boca had too many foreigners and he was loaned to Union de Santa Fe.

At this time personal tragedy struck and his son Diego named after Maradona passed away.

The grieving Lamptey was still offered no respite as Turkey was to prove his next destination.

By this time his career for the Black Stars also seemed to be over after he was sent-off in the African Nations Cup semifinal of 1996 against South Africa. He had roundly criticized his teammates for lacking heart and was promptly cut from the squad. He was only 21 at that time.

Turkey proved another failure, a huge culture shock but there was to be no respite. The very next year he found himself in Portugal turning up for Leiria and even before he could settle there, Caliendo had sold him off to Gruether Furth in Germany.

Two seasons in Germany were not entirely unsuccessful but he suffered racism and also lost another daughter.

But it was not an altogether lost cause as Lamptey finally managed to rid himself off Caliendo and agents for good.

It was 2001, and he was only 26. As far as his football career was concerned it was not impossible to re-ignite, albeit without the heady comparisons.

But Nii Lamptey, the man who was once going to be the new Pele, chose life over football.

Refusing the lure of numerous second-tier clubs in Europe, the country where he had first travelled to on the basis of a dream and with a fake passport, Lamptey turned his back on his football career and decided to live for his family.

But football was still the only thing he knew how to do. Having been cheated out of vast sums of money due to his lack of education, Lamptey was not a rich man.

So the offer to be a marquee player in the humble Chinese side of Shandong Luneng was too hard to ignore.

He and his family relocated to Asia and at Shandong he received the adulation that was his due. Subsequent moves saw him transfer to Al-Nassr and Asante Kokoto finally earning the man some semblance of peace and a grain of the fortune his talent was worth.

In 2006, at the age of 33, while Ghana’s Michael Essien and company spearheaded the team into the finals of the African Cup of Nations 2008, Nii Lamptey was watching on TV and busy tending his sheep in his farm.

Or watching over his pupils in the Glow-Lamp junior school in Accra – a school he founded to provide kids with the education he never had.

For a man who had once rubbed shoulders with and stood above heady names such as Alessandro del Piero and Juan Veron, and for a man who was said to be next Pele by Pele himself – it was a heart-wrenching fortune.

Nii Lamptey may have regrets, his lack of education being chief, but with his wife and two kids and a school that now houses 400, it is indeed a far cry from the early days in Accra, when he would sleep in kiosks to escape his family.

The man who was once labelled a wonderkid, the man whose dreams forced him to skip three borders hidden in the boot of a taxi-cab, the man who regaled the world all to briefly with his breathtaking talent and the man who was supposed to be the greatest – instead became one of the most travelled.

The journeyman’s career has drawn to a close but with his family, his school and his two surviving children living in the very city where his dream began, Lamptey has finally been able to achieve the acceptance and belonging that he never had.


Written by quazi zulquarnain

March 10, 2008 at 3:05 pm

One Response

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  1. Wow! Its weird that i NEVER heard of this guy. But truly an amazing story..!!

    “In 2006, at the age of 33, while Ghana’s Michael Essien and company spearheaded the team into the finals of the African Cup of Nations 2008, Nii Lamptey was watching on TV and busy tending his sheep in his farm.”

    In 2006…they led to 2008…. please ExPLAIN !!!???


    March 13, 2008 at 5:38 pm

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