The tragedy of Nii Lamptey…and his quest for redemption
Article Synopsis: Lamptey was once Ghana’s most precocious gift. But his star flared all too briefly before being extinguished by a cocktail of dodgy agents, a numbing lack of education and treasonable neglect from the game’s overseers.
Text: Greater Accra, Ghana: Cocoa is Ghana’s leading export. But, lately, cocoa’s visibility as the country’s main foreign exchange earner is, at least symbolically, running into a challenge from Ghana’s talent at football.
Football has established Ghana as a hotbed of talent. And seduced, hawk-eyed scouts scour this terrain of 22 million, desperate to unearth the next big thing…or for the most optimistic, the next Nii Lamptey.
If the name rings no bell, dear reader, blush not! Lamptey was once Ghana’s most precocious gift. But his star flared all too briefly before being extinguished by a cocktail of dodgy agents, a numbing lack of education and treasonable neglect from the game’s overseers.
Ghana’s first genuine wonder kid burst into prominence at the 1991 World Youth Cup where his golden potential made other whiz kids like Argentina’s Juan Sebastian Verón and Italy’s Alessandro del Piero look like base metal.
So dazzling was the Black Starlet that Pele remarked that “Lamptey is my natural successor.” The Brazilian legend had just watched Lamptey pick up the FIFA U-17 World Cup and the Golden Ball for good measure. Lamptey, midfield sorcery notwithstanding, had managed to top-score with four goals as well.
“When Pele said I could go on to become like him, it was a great honour for me,” Lamptey remembers.
Quite a few other voices concurred with Pele’s assessment. Lamptey was fifth on the shortlist for the 1991 African Footballer of the Year Award. Such was Lamptey’s brilliance that the Belgian FA amended an age-restriction forbidding 16-year olds from playing in the top flight to let him sign for Anderlecht and become the youngest-ever player to feature in the Belgian league.
Lamptey’s explosive two seasons at Anderlecht enchanted PSV Eindhoven, who pounced upon him as replacement for the departed Romario. In between these exploits, the 16-year old scored on his senior debut for the Black Stars against Togo, earned Bronze at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, won the 1993 CAF U-20 crown and inspired the same team to a silver in the FIFA version.
It’s this sparkling roll-call of success that makes Lamptey’s unexpected fall from grace all the more tragic. That he had 38 caps for Ghana by 21 is telling. That he never got a chance to add to that tally is a damning indictment of a career put to waste.
Now, 10 years after he prematurely hang up his boots, the enduring question is whether Ghana has taken the bitter lessons from the Lamptey tragedy to heart.
“Things have changed. I don’t think what happened to me can ever happen to a player in this age in Ghana,” Lamptey affirmed in an exclusive interview this month while watching Ghana beat Sudan to become the first African nation to qualify for the 2010 World Cup.
Lamptey’s misadventures are hard to chronicle without mentioning the dubious agents whose parasitic machinations made Hollywood shadiest villain seem like a dedicated monk in comparison. Yet, where even the most forgiving Christian would harbour an eternal vendetta, Lamptey seems to bear no ill-will. He insists that, as much as the agents, his own lack of a formal education contributed to his early demise.
“Dodgy agents are common,” Lamptey philosophizes. “But if I had gone to school, I wouldn’t have been so easily exploited. I signed contracts I didn’t understand, failed to adapt to different cultures and had problems following coaches’ instructions.”
It’s a noble admission, especially as it’s naturally more convenient for superior mortals to blame their own failures on anyone but themselves. Lamptey’s tribulations made him determined to help upcoming youngsters negotiate the minefield that confronts uneducated footballers. The former child prodigy, in a tangible effort to turn word into deed, started a school in Hospital Lane, Accra, Ghana.
“It all comes to education, that’s why I decided to use my money for this school,” Lamptey says.
The Glow-Lamp international school begun with just one student. But now, its population exceeds 500. Classroom blocks at Glow-Lamp School are named after countries in which Lamptey played. And with the sort of nomadic career that would have made the Harlem Globetrotters seem like home-bound hermits, there are enough classes for all students.
“As a parent, the best gift you can ever give to your child is an education,” Lamptey stresses. “One can have all the talent in the world; be it music, business or football. But without education, that talent is doomed to fail.”
Education as the bridge between potential and fulfillment?
From any other person, such a line would seem like a pretentious extraction from a zealous Ministry of Education pamphlet. But from Lamptey, it rings true. After all, to quote the man himself, “I learnt the sheer value of education the hard way.”
Related Media: Genera pictures of Ghanaian soccer available http://www.africamediaonline.com/mmc/gallery/detail/434?tab=events)
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