Football: European Cup Final: Kuffour aims to put cuffs on Yorke

A young Ghanaian with an old head aims to thwart Manchester United's ambition tonight. By Richard Williams
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The Independent Online
IT'S NO secret that most of Manchester United's squad owe a debt to Brian Kidd, a hero of the 1968 European Cup team who left Old Trafford for Ewood Park in mid-season. But, unexpectedly, one member of tonight's Bayern Munich team is also keen to express gratitude to Alex Ferguson's former deputy. Samuel Osei Kuffour, the young Ghanaian defender, has happy memories of a brief but rewarding association.

"In 1993," he said the other day, "before I went to Japan with the Ghana Under-17 team, we stayed in Manchester for training at Bobby Charlton's soccer school. Brian Kidd came and talked to me in training, and he saw me play some matches. Then in 1996, when I was with the senior national team, he came to Ghana for two or three weeks and worked with us. He was so fantastic with us. He used to be a great player, you know, and he taught us a lot of things."

Kuffour's job in the Nou Camp tonight will be to man-mark one of United's two central strikers, Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke, probably the latter. Thomas Linke will be on his right-hand side, looking after the other one, while Lothar Matthaus sits behind them in the sweeper's slot, occasionally using the element of surprise to move forward into attacking positions.

As you might expect, Kuffour is not slow to express admiration for the 38-year-old Matthaus's qualities. "He's an older player, very intelligent, with a lot of experience. He directs me a lot, moving this way, do this, do that. It's very good. He always directs me in a very good way. He's a great organiser. He doesn't have so much speed now, but at 38 the way he's playing is fantastic. He's taught me a lot."

Sammy Kuffour has learnt a great deal since the days when his mother sold the family television set in order to buy him a pair of boots for his debut with the Under-17s. He was 14 years old at the time. "My mum did a very wonderful thing for me," he said. "And when I got paid for playing, I gave her the money back and saved the rest in the bank."

At home in Kumasi, a city of two and a half million people, he grew up playing for the Phantoms club and watching English league matches on Wednesday night broadcasts. "My favourite team at that time was Liverpool. John Barnes, Peter Beardsley, Ian Rush, playing so fantastically. Manchester United were good but Liverpool were better. And I was always looking out to see Tony Adams, Mark Wright from Liverpool, and Des Walker. In 1990 Des Walker was a fantastic defender. I was very young but I noticed him. Very great. He was a black guy, very fast, very intelligent, like Franco Baresi or Julio Cesar. Or Matthaus. Players you have to look up to when you are young. Maybe you can copy one or two things from them."

At 14 he moved from the Phantoms to Kumasi's King Faisal club. But only a year later, when he had barely turned 15, he was taken to join Torino in Italy's Serie A, along with two friends - Mohammed Gargo, a defender, and Emmanuel Duah, a forward. "It was difficult for me. We went to Italy and played with the youth teams and everything, but I never had a chance to be in the first team because we were so young, although we were doing well. Everything was quite good for us, but because we were young we missed our home. So it was a little boring for everyone."

After two years in Italy he was approached by Bayern, then managed by Erich Ribbeck. Shrewdly, they sent him to Nuremberg on a season's loan in 1995-96 before bringing him back and gradually integrating him into the first team.

He established himself as a first-choice player under Giovanni Trapattoni, whose second spell with the club ended last summer. "Trapattoni had a lot of time for the young players who were coming up," Kuffour said. "After the training you could hear from him what is right and maybe when you made a mistake in the game he'd come and say: `Do this, do this, do this,' and when you came to the game you'd put it into practice, and you'd see that you were doing much better."

But he was equally keen to praise Trapattoni's successor, Ottmar Hitzfeld. "He is also one of the greatest coaches that I've met in my life. I'm only 22, and to be with such coaches as these is a very good opportunity for me. In the last Champions' League game, against Kiev, I think Hitzfeld did very well. In the first game they were playing three midfielders and three strikers, with four back, while we played 3-5-2, so it was difficult for us to organise the way that we should play. In the second game he changed the tactics. He let me play as a central defender on the left side, and he put Michael Tarnat in front of me, and Alexander Zickler in front of him, so these two looked after Shevchenko and Rebrov on the left side. It worked for us, and afterwards I was very happy for him.

"There's unity in the team now. We talk to each other. Last year it didn't work out the way we wanted. This year it's good, and we must give a compliment to the coach because he's tried to do everything the way it should be. Every player is happy with the changes that he's made. It's fantastic. Everybody wants to get into the team. It's a good challenge when you have 22 or 24 players all trying to win places."

Kuffour's father is an airport worker in Canada, while his mother and three older sisters remain in Kumasi. His mother, who is 50, recently stopped working. "I told her, mum, you've done a lot, have a rest. No problem." Today the two friends with whom he left Africa eight years ago are still in Europe, Gargo in Italy, making regular appearances in the Udinese first team, while Duah is playing for Leiria in the Portuguese league. They meet up whenever Ghana's senior national team assembles.

"The football standard in Ghana is quite good. Ghana have won twice the African Cup. We play normally a 4-4-2, with lots of skills, like the Africans do. We have various players in Europe now. That's good for the national team. And everyone is young, around 23 to 24."

His enthusiasm for English football turned Bayern's group match at Old Trafford into a particularly enjoyable experience. "I couldn't play in the first game because I had a slight problem with my leg, but the second game was very good for me and the team, because we got a draw in Manchester and a point that allowed us to qualify for the next stage.

"I think English football is very good, with the fans so close, and all the shouting. It was a great game for me in Manchester because of the fans. Every two minutes the stadium was going crazy. For me it would be a dream one day to play in England."

Meanwhile the English challenge is there to be overcome. "It's a big feeling for me, at the age of 22, to play in a match like this," he said. "Cole and Yorke are brilliant strikers. They are fast and very intelligent, but we'll do our best. Will it be enough? Only God knows that. My family is a very Christian family. Every morning we used to pray together and sing together and thank God for letting the day come to us.

"Now I am praying to my God to help me to win this cup, because I think only four African players have done it already. And I would like to be the next one."