Tortured genius: burnt and beaten, Ghana golden boy is lucky to be alive
Nii Lamptey could be leading out his country today. Instead, he looks back on a harrowing life of pain and abuse
On the wall of his office in the school Nii Lamptey runs here in the capital of Ghana hangs a brief passage of motivational text he picked up in China. "If life does not give you all that you want," it begins, "rejoice that you are alive."
Life has certainly not given Lamptey all that he wants but, if he is not quite rejoicing, the memories of a life of pain and regret have at least not stopped him functioning. By establishing his school – which now has almost 400 pupils, including the elder two of his three daughters – he is trying to help others avoid the agonies he has suffered.
"The best gift you can give your child is education," he says. His parents gave him only scars.
Lamptey's case is often cited as an example of the dangers of hyping a teenager too much, but it is far more complex than that. His talent was indisputable. From the age of eight, clubs were scrabbling for his signature. At 13 he was playing in Under-20 competitions. When he was 14, at the World Under-16 Championship in Scotland, Pele hailed him as his natural successor. At 16, he was playing international football for Ghana. He was quick, he was powerful, he was skilful; he had a natural and instinctive feel for the game: he was, in short, a genius. Behind the grins and the awards, though, lay a life of pain.
"I would go and play football and coming home I would be beaten, or sent to go and fetch water before they would give me food," he said of his early life. "Some nights I would sleep under a car or a kiosk, and the next day start my life again."
His parents divorced when he was eight, after which Lamptey followed his father from Accra to Kumasi. "There was a new marriage and me being there was a big problem," he said. "His new wife didn't want a new son. My father used to beat me, but I got used to it and did not cry any more. So he would smoke a cigarette and burn me with it." Eventually, he moved out of home and in with the team he was playing for, Kaloum Stars.
"They were Muslims," he said, "and because of that I had to become a Muslim. It was very difficult. I would be in the mosque praying and he [his father] would come and there would be a fight there." He was eventually reconciled with his father – and readopted Christianity – in 1997, only to lose him to an alcohol-related illness.
Football offered an escape. After the tournament in Scotland, Rangers, Vasco da Gama and Anderlecht all expressed an interest in Lamptey, and Steve Keshi, Anderlecht's Nigerian centre-back, sent his agent totry to sign him. The problemwas that the Ghanaian Football Association (GFA) wanted to keep the squad together, sothey confiscated all the players' passports. "That guy came to our training camp and he spoke to me, he said Keshi wanted to bring me to Europe," Lamptey remembers. "The GFA were very annoyed at him for coming to talk to me and wanted to arrest him. I had to beg on his behalf. When he was leaving he gave me his card."
Two weeks later, the camp broke up and Lamptey decided to follow the agent. On 15 August 1989, he left.
"I did not tell anybody, not even my parents, and I took the small amount of money I had and went to the bus station and met a car driver who was going to Nigeria," he said. "I told him I didn't have a passport but wanted to go to Lagos. He said if I could pay him he'd take me and pretend I was his son."
At border points he either feigned sleep or hid behind the driver's seat and, after a journey of more than 24 hours, through Togo and Benin, he reached Lagos. He took on another identity, as Keshi fixed a passport for him claiming he was his son.
Life at Anderlecht began well, and Lamptey was player of the tournament as Ghana won the World Under-17 Championship in 1991. He made his full international debut later that year against Togo, and that was when things began to go badly wrong.
"I was vomiting blood on the pitch," he said – the result, he believes, of a curse placed on him by members of Kaloum Stars who were angry that he had abandoned them. Although he had one good season after that, as Romario's replacement at PSV Eindhoven, it soon became apparent that his was a talent never to be fulfilled.
He has not played for Ghana since 1996, and his career consists of fewer than 200 league games. He signed for Aston Villa, then Coventry City, but English football was too direct and physical for him. He moved on to Venezia and then Boca Juniors, but was the fifth foreigner in a team only permitted four and was loaned out to Union de Santa Fe. There, his wife, Gloria gave birth to their third child, Diego.
"He came one month early, and the doctor said he was OK," Lamptey remembers. Lamptey broke his contract with the club to take his son to hospital in Buenos Aires. The boy had severe breathing difficulties and despite a battery of tests, doctors could not crack the mystery illness. "He was [in hospital] for about two-and-a-half months, so he was about four months old when he passed away in intensive care," Lamptey said. "They did everything, all the tests, but he could not breathe."
He returned to Europe with the Turkish side Ankaragucu, then went to Portugal and Germany, where he lost another child, Lisa, to the same illness. And so his wanderings continued, to China and Dubai. Eventually, in 2006, he returned to Ghana, and won a league title with Kotoko. His final game came in a friendly against Feyenoord. "I was man of the match even then," he said. There was sadness, though, in that line, because he knew he should have been in Germany, playing for his country at the World Cup.
He is only 33, and had things gone differently he would have been leading Ghana out against Nigeria in the African Nations Cup quarter-final today. "Sometimes I will be in my room and I will cry," he said. "You can see that there is something you can still do, but that thing has been taken away from you. It's really, really painful..." As tears come, he cannot finish the sentence.
He has not given up entirely on resuming his football career, but it is the school and the farm he owns outside Accra that now occupy most of his time. "Once we cannot get what we like," the inscription on his wall concludes, "let us like what we get."
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