There has always been the tendency to downplay it. Riddled with age cheats and bedeviled by many stories of high profile failures, Ghana’s football youth development system has consistently taken a beating, been ridiculed and lampooned. As we reflect on 58-years as an independent nation, it might be worth looking at it again.
When the idea of special articles on the best sporting achievements of the last 58 years was, a lot of fascinating thoughts came to mind. The many victories of the iconic Azumah Nelson in the boxing ring and the belief he instilled in every Ghanaian during what was a difficult period for the country generally. Then I toyed with the idea of doing something about the early dominance of Ghana football on the continent. Four Nations Cup titles by 1982, long before Egypt and Cameroon became so dominant. That included two titles between 1963 and 1965 but the joy of those titles is tampered in my mind by the debilitating failure to win any since the last one in Libya 33 years ago.
So I opted for something I can relate a lot more with. And it is not one single sporting triumph. It is a development that changed Ghana football, turned poor boys who could not afford simple basic meals into millionaires and has become the reason why to this day, football has become a profession those who loathed loved, their actors hated, despised but envied down to the last man.
It is the moment when Ghana decided to take age group competitions seriously. There will be those thinking what he is going on about. I know the usual complaints. It has been infested with cheats, players were slashing huge years off their ages and several years down the line, some say, it did not bring much benefit. False.
When Alex Opoku lifted the world U-17 Cup in 1991 in the Italian city of Florence on August 30th, it triggered a wave of interest in the players, which was unprecedented. Opoku himself departed for Germany. Isaac Asare, Yaw Preko joined Nii Odartey Lamptey in Belgium. Mohammed Gargo, Sammy Kuffour and Emmanuel Duah went off to Italy.
That of course was after they had been feted as heroes when they returned to Accra. Streets were named after them but their biggest legacy perhaps was that they opened our eyes to the fact that football could genuinely be a money making tool, a honest means of making a very good living.
Nii Odartey Lamptey was already playing in Belgium and often we have had conversations about his rather complex life. He smiles when he talks about his then Toyota Celica convertible that drew crowds in Accra. He was the symbol of what football could do, how it could change lives. The first time I met I was in awe. I was part of the generation of Ghanaian football fans whose love affair with the sport was sealed by that 1991 team. We loved his body swerves, the one arm salute to celebrate goals.
These days he has become a by-word for those convinced the system is broken. In a sense it is true. In a sense too it is false. Odartey who owns a school, runs a football academy, a thriving livestock farm and is generally well off may not have become the next Pele that the real Pele predicted. But he tells a powerful story of where he would have been if that national U-17 side had not saved him. Without the required education, football gave him life, he took and has contributed in his own small way by giving others the chance to earn their own living and chase their own dreams.
It is a familiar story with many of the players. Take Sammy Kuffour for instance. They tell the mocking tale of how he was just added to the deal that took Emmanuel Duah from King Faisal to Torino as a thank you gesture. In truth he was nowhere close to the most talented defender yet alone player of that generation. But he was hardworking; he was determined and took his chance. The stories he tells of how he used to shine shoes for a living, how his mum sold her only TV set to buy him a boot are gripping especially when you listen to him tell those tales at his staggering home in East Legon or his office complex overlooking the new ‘tourist attraction’ in Accra that is the circle footbridge.
For those of you too young to have seen any of what Kuffour or Odartey look like or appreciate the stories of their remarkable rise, Michael Essien or Sulley Muntari would do. Then there is John Paintsil, John Mensah, Jonathan Mensah, Samuel Inkoom, Daniel Opare and many, many others earning decent incomes who can look back to the same flawed youth system we love to so often complain about.
Of course there are many sad tales of failures. There are many stories of how weak structures that does not track birthdates has allowed age cheating to thrive. What we have not often said too is that age cheating has been endemic in this society. In a society where some are prepared to walk to Europe, under declare their age so they can make it there or simply lie about it so they work long why do we have this holier than thou attitude when footballers do it? With potentially multi-million dollar contracts at stake, the motivation does not seem far-fetched.
Thankfully the right authorities have made that aspect of youth football unattractive with the MRI scans. What it won’t stop is the high rate of failures.
When I did a quick search for this article I discovered a certain Adriano from Brazil had won the golden boot for top scorer in the 1991 when Nii Odartey Lamptey won the best player award. The clubs he played for afterwards? No names that you will readily recognise.
It illustrates a point. Youth success has never guaranteed future success. There have been far too many examples in football and other areas of life to back that up. But what youth football has given Ghana goes beyond that. It has given many young men life they never dreamt. You can’t discount what that alone means.
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