In this historic new year for Australian football, we are seeing many things: an Independent Commission for the NRL, a new team for the Gold Coast, a Melbourne rugby union team, and a brighter future for the A-League after an historic grand final.
We have also seen sporting tragedy: Collingwood draftee Tom Hunter forced into retirement at 20, and vibrant Wests Tigers winger Taniela Tuiaki cut down in his prime at 28.
When witnessing these tragedies which sport can bring, I cannot help but cast my mind to Nii Lamptey, the most tragic of Pele’s notorious predictions.
Pele predicted many things; that an African team would win the World Cup by the year 2000, that Nick Barmby would be as good as Zidane, Maldini and El Phenomenon Ronaldo.
His predictions have been so frequently wrong it is an amusement to sports fans around the world, and shows that a great practitioner isn’t always an expert.
No kiss of death was more tragic than the day he dubbed the young Ghanian Nii Lamptey the “next Pele”.
Lamptey was born to an indifferent mother and an alcoholic father, who would frequently whip his son into submission and burn him with cigarettes.
Nii would take refuge in organized sport. Many a child has bemoaned their father not turning up to their games, Lamptey Sr. would frequent them, abusing his son from the sidelines as he dazzled onlookers with his fleetness of foot and reckless goal scoring abandon.
His parents divorced by the time he was eight, and his new step-father kicked him out of the house, leaving Lamptey no option but to convert to Islam to find refuge in a Muslim football camp.
His father would turn up to fight the men and women running the camp, accusing his son of betraying his Christian values. It would be amusing if it weren’t so sad.
Lamptey hit the big time with outstanding performances for the Ghanian Under-17’s at just 15, winning player of the tournament over Juan Sebastian Veron and Allesandro del Piero, and leading to Pele’s famous pronouncement. So the African Pele was born.
Signed to R.S.C. Anderlecht, the limit on young players was altered in Belgium to allow the young prodigy straight into the first-team, scoring nine goals in 30 appearances in his three years in Belgium. He was named Africa’s fifth-best footballer at the ripe old age of 16, before moving to Dutch powerhouse PSV Eindhoven.
The abused boy had made it, signed his contract with an Italian player agent, and the world was his oyster.
Alas, after his brief time of freedom from his father, he belonged to a new man.
He couldn’t read, so he surely couldn’t read the fine-print, and his new agent stood to gain 25% of any transfer fee that young Nii would generate, and held complete ownership rights over him as a footballer.
It was the perfect storm. Unable to make a living any other way, Lamptey followed his orders.
While Lamptey may be traced through the digital libraries of the Internet, nowhere can the name of his wealthy agent be discovered.
After a season, Lamptey was transferred to Aston Villa, a move at the time like one from the Brisbane Lions to the Casey Scorpions, for a British transfer record.
In one of the few deliverances of kindness in Lamptey’s life, Villa manager Ron Atkinson cheated Lamptey’s agent out of his fee, so the Ghanaian had something to begin life with in England.
Nii’s style of slick dribbling and light-footed playmaking was not suited to the hard running, hard tackling style in the rainy town of Birmingham, and he soon went to Coventry in 1995, followed by Venezia, in Venice in 1996.
It was in Italy where Lamptey’s third son died soon after birth, and legal red tape ensured Nii’s one wish, that he be buried in Ghana, was refused.
Lamptey buried his son in Venice, before leaving him on his way through Union de Santa Fe (Argentina, 1997), Ankaragucu (Turkey, 1997) and Uniao Leiria (Portugal, 1998).
In 1999, German Second Division side SpVgg Greuther Furth signed Lamptey, where he spent a lonely two years. Due to the colour of his skin, the local fans booed him, his teammates refused to speak to him, would refuse to pass to him despite his unselfish team play, and one openly refused to sleep in the same hotel room as him.
In the midst of all this sadness, his newborn daughter Lisa died soon after birth.
In 2001, at 27, Lamptey arrived at Shandong Luneng Tai Shan in China. These days he described as the best of his life, adored by fans and listed with superlatives by the media, and finally given a team where he was made one of the boys again.
He lasted one season.
Then it was on the road again, to Al Nasr in Saudi Arabia in 2003, a return to Ghana to Asante Kotoko in 2005, and an eight-month spell at South African side Jomo Cosmos, finishing in 2008.
The African Pele returned to his homeland that year, with barely a cent to his name, breeding cattle outside Accra, the capital of Ghana, and setting up a school for talented footballers to receive education.
He’s still tending his cattle, he works as an Assistant for a local league team, and maybe, just maybe is better off than he would have been without his freakish talent.
This friendly yet less jovial man holds no disdain or hatred for the events and people who tore down the greatest African player of his generation.
He claims not to look back with regret, though admits he could and perhaps should have graced the fields of the Santiago Bernebeu of Madrid with his lightning speed, crafty footwork, otherworldly vision and passing finesse.
To all you Roar writers who might travel through Ghana one day, maybe you could track down the illiterate son of a drunk. His story is one he would like to be told, but while he knows phrases from countries on nearly every continent, he can neither read nor write down a single one of them.