Nii Lamptey: The Lost Pele

Nii LampteyI remember playing Championship Manager — that greatest of geeky football manager games — in the early 1990s, and the key to building a long-term dynasty was to sign Nii Lamptey from Anderlecht.

Lamptey was the Ghanaian of whom Pele said, having watched him in 1989 as a fifteen-year-old, “Lamptey is my natural successor.” Capped by 38 times by age 21, in 1991 he outshone Veron and Adriano and Gallardo and Del Piero at the 1991 U-17 World Cup, winning the Golden Ball. The New York Times even reported on him, calling him “The Boy Who Would Be Soccer’s King”.

His journey to Europe had not been easy. Ghana’s authorities revoked his passport, but he ran away to Nigeria, and from there to Belgium, signing for Anderlecht. They changed the rules so he could play for the first team at fifteen.

This video, explaining his moves from Ghana to Anderlecht to PSV Eindhoven, shows Lamptey at his liminal point: dominating the Dutch league, still scoring for Ghana, still smiling. The world was his.

That is the only video of Lamptey available on YouTube. For not long after that, transferred to Aston Villa and later Coventry City under Ron Atkinson, his career went into freefall. Only this week has he finally talked at length about the personal tragedy and torment that became his life in the late 1990s, as he became etched in history as a cautionary tale. He has ended up playing a mere two hundred games stretched across ten countries on four continents.

Nii LampteyLamptey’s childhood was horrific. He was abused by both parents, fleeing to Europe not so much for the riches but to get away from his childhood, as the Observer explains. “At times he was too scared to go home, sleeping under a car or in a kiosk on the streets to avoid a beating or worse. ‘I did not have a family relationship. It was bad,’ he says.”

Even the money he made in Europe he was swindled out of by greedy agents, not understanding the paperwork he was signing, speaking kindly only of Ron Atkinson for ensuring he was, for once, not robbed of his money.

It started off well for Lamptey in England in 1994, a brilliant solo goal against Wigan hinting at his talent; but injuries, inconsistency and a change of management (with Brian Little replacing Atkinson) spoiled his time at Villa.

Lamptey followed Big Ron to Coventry, where he again only shone occasionally, before losing his place after Atkinson again lost his job. He was denied a work permit.

His failure in England on the pitch was matched by an even greater disaster at the 1996 African Nations Cup, where he was sent-off in a losing effort in the semi-finals against South Africa. He was discarded by Ghana at the age of 26.

Lamptey’s personal life is an even more tragic tale, as he moved to Argentina to play for Union Santa Fe on loan from Boca Juniors. He lost two children young, and his family has disowned him for his cross-tribal marriage; he believes he may be cursed, as he explained:

He even hints at dark forces at work, believing there may have been two spiritualist curses put on him, one because he left his Muslim team to go to Europe, the other because he chose a wife from what his own family deemed the ‘wrong race’. ‘It was taken from me. It is really, really painful. Sometimes I’ll be in my room and just cry,’ he says. [..]
‘I have been through hell, through so much pain,’ he tells Observer Sport in the school office, sitting underneath a framed Chinese proverb that reads ‘If life does not give you all that you want, rejoice that you are alive’.

‘If I could write a book about it, it would be something else, I tell you. But how can I do that, when I can’t even write a letter?’ he says.

Lamptey expands on this theory to the Sunday Herald.

The blame for most of his misfortune, Lamptey has no doubt, lies with witchcraft and the juju men who stalk football in west Africa. Things began to go wrong with his first international for Ghana, away to Togo in 1991. “It was there. I can’t hide it,” he said. “I was vomiting blood on the pitch. So it is there when people want your downfall. I know if it was me alone and people had left me to be the way God created me and wanted me to be, for sure I should have been playing for Madrid now.”

He now runs a farm in Accra with 102 cattle, and he has also set-up the Glow-Lamp School in Ghana, a source of great pride for Lamptey, giving hundreds the education he so sorely missed himself. He cannot bring himself to go to the African Nations Cup matches in Ghana going on presently: still just 33, he knows he should be playing instead of watching.

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