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.

12 thoughts on “Nii Lamptey: The Lost Pele

  1. ursus arctos

    I saw Lamptey play for Anderlecht, and have always felt that he was the greatest unrealised talent I’ve seen. My only hope is that he at last gets some peace and good fortune, and is able to gain some enjoyment from what can still be a very long life.

    His is a very sad story.

  2. Brian

    Superb post, Tom. Lamptey predates my awareness of European soccer, and for all that I’ve tried to take in as much of the game’s history as I can, I honestly don’t think I’ve ever heard of him. Thanks for setting that right. What a sad story.

    The worst part is that had he been born 10-15 years later, there would have been so much hype surrounding him at an early age that, financially at least, he would almost certainly have ended up in a better situation.

  3. Tom Dunmore Post author

    Thanks Brian, glad you liked it. You’re right, of course, and a couple of seasons playing for Villa and Coventry now — where apparently, thanks to Big Ron, he wasn’t shaken down so grossly — would have been enough for him to start twenty schools in Ghana.

    One can only hope, as ursus says, that he lives a long life and finds his peace. Not being the next Pele is really the least of his troubles from the past.

  4. Jennifer Doyle

    Tom,

    Sorry to ask such a geeky question about such a moving story, but Where is that first image from? Is that a painting?

    Thanks for the story – and for the links for those of us who want to know more about him.

    J

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  6. Tom

    That’s an amazing story. It’s remarkable some of the adversity and struggle many players have to face to get where there are now. Not just professionally but personally too. Thanks for the background story.

  7. H D Ferreira

    The photograph in this article is not of Nii Lamptey but Anthony Yeboah.

    Henk Ferreira
    Ghana Liasson Officer Africa Cup of Nations ’96

  8. Rulo Vinello

    Very good written. I’ m loving reading these articles , it is such a rich topic, and a great chance for fans to share their knowledge & passion!

    R.Vinello

  9. Ian

    Shocking story, never heard of the guy until now. We can only regret that he wasn’t born some 10 years later, he would be one of the best i believe…

    Great post