Geremi Njitap is one of the most decorated players in the history of African football. The Indomitable Lion is a two-time Champions League winner and has a combined five league titles, including two Premier League crowns with Chelsea and a Liga BBVA winner’s medal with Real Madrid.
With the national side, he has won two Africa Cup of Nations titles as well as an Olympic gold and, on top of that, he featured for the Central Africans in two World Cups.
As a player, Geremi was a versatile operator, capable of starring up and down the right flank, as well as controlling a game as a holding midfielder.
Despite these honours, and the fact that Geremi made a valued contribution to two highly successful teams he is rarely considered among the continent’s greats.
The player’s “utility man” reputation and lack of star power belies the fact that he was once a feared operator. In the 2002-03 season, for example, when he was on loan at Middlesbrough in the Premier League, he scored seven goals and made eight assists, putting him second only to Thierry Henry in the EPL assists charts at one point.
But people are unlikely to remember that kind of statistic in the years to come. Geremi’s reputation (much like his club career) may well fade away to the peripheries. People may well remember the honours, but they are unlikely to recall the terrific ability that underpinned those successes.
As things stand, Sulley Muntari is threatening to go down a similar road. Will people remember the Ghanaian as a decorated shell of a player, or as a central midfielder who played at the pinnacle of the sport?
In his career to date, the 29-year-old has picked up a Champions League winner’s medal, two Serie A titles, four domestic cups (one in England, three in Italy) and the FIFA Club World Cup.
As part of Jose Mourinho’s all-conquering Internazionale side, he reached the very top of the world game and collected an assembly of honours that almost any player in the sport would be proud of.
If anyone can argue that Geremi was a peripheral figure, they cannot do the same for Muntari, who played in 27 league games during the 2009-10 season and also featured in nine Champions League matches. He even played the last 11 minutes of the final against Bayern Munich at the Santiago Bernabeu.
He was a player Mourinho trusted, and the Special One turned to the Ghanaian in 2008 when, after failing to bring Frank Lampard to Internazionale, he set about recruiting a central midfielder.
In 2010, following Inter’s Champions League and Serie A triumphs, following a starring role (including a quarter-final goal against Uruguay) in the World Cup, Muntari appeared destined for great things. Here, surely, was a dynamic, well-rounded, versatile midfielder who would go on to rack up a whole host of honours.
Amazingly, having won six honours between the summer of 2009 and the end of 2010, Muntari has won nothing since.
In principle, it was a horizontal step, but Muntari’s move to Milan has coincided with a period of intense renovation for the Lombardy club and the predominance of rivals Juventus.
The recent World Cup was a particularly painful occasion for Muntari and his fans. On the one hand there was anguish in delight. The midfielder’s performance against Germany, in the Black Stars’ 2-2 draw, was terrific.
The game itself was a thriller, but Muntari was particularly superb in the heart of Ghana’s midfield. He spread passes around the park, knowing when to shift the ball wide, when to recycle possession and when to attempt to find Asamoah Gyan with a searching long ball.
His defensive contribution was also encouraging—he made two crucial interceptions and also retrieved the ball with two notable tackles. He also made three successful clearances, helping to ease the pressure on his team as Germany sought to trouble Fatau Dauda.
In terms of 2014 World Cup tackles per game, Muntari averaged four, putting him 14th in the overall list.
Intriguingly, some of his passing and offensive stats were among the highest in the tournament. He averaged an awesome 3.5 key passes per game—fourth behind only Xherdan Shaqiri, Kevin De Bruyne and Miralem Pjanic.
Similarly, he averaged 52 passes per game, putting him 50th overall in the tournament and equal to Italy’s Marco Verratti. Only three African players averaged more.
Finally, and perhaps the clearest indication of Muntari’s all-round qualities, he averaged 2.5 crosses per game…putting that into context, only three players (Pjanic, Mathieu Valbuena and Angel Di Maria) managed more.
It is rare to find a player who can tackle, pass and cross effectively. It is little wonder that, while Muntari was used in a central role for Ghana, he played in a wide berth at the last World Cup and does so occasionally (and effectively) at club level.
Sadly, it all unravelled.
Muntari, along with Kevin-Prince Boateng, was expelled from the Ghana camp ahead of the Black Stars’ final group match with Portugal after being found guilty of an “unprovoked physical attack on an executive committee member.”
Sadly, it was all too familiar. When things are going well, Muntari is described as “fiery,” and when things are going badly, he is a liability.
Had he not been expelled, he wouldn’t have played anyway, having been suspended for the final match following two yellow cards. Controversy, it seems, is never too far away from the Ghanaian—this is the same character, after all, who once saw fit to do this to ex-Catania player Giacomo Tedesco (skip to 1:25).
His rap sheet is outlined fairly comprehensively by Goal.com’s Sammie Frimpong here.
The excellent crossing, astute tackling and occasionally world-class passing were forgotten. Muntari was writing the kind of headlines that, regrettably, we have come to expect from him.
He is such a talented player, but unfortunately, the name Muntari does not conjure up images of him making an astute interception and launching a counterattack.
At 29, Muntari is arguably in the prime of his career, and perhaps heading toward its latter stages. One wonders whether he has the refinement and sense to modify his game once the ravages of time begin to affect his dynamism.
If he wants to be remembered for the right reasons and to end his own personal trophy drought, he must begin to shed these moments of madness.
His compatriot Michael Essien was once renown for a certain kind of savage tackle that coloured his reputation. Essien learned to improve, to eradicate these controversial moments and make the world focus on his talent. Muntari has a bigger perception to change and less time to do it in, but it’s not impossible.
The promise of playing in a fourth World Cup in 2018 (equalling Samuel Eto’o and Rigobert Song in the process) must surely be the driving objective that the former Portsmouth player can use to make the most of this last career cycle.
Inside Futbol, quoting Football Italia magazine, once noted that Muntari was described as "showing himself to possess the touch of Kaka and the combativeness of Edgar Davids.” Those are high standards indeed, but if Muntari can prove that he can escape the reckless behaviour then people may begin, once again, to appreciate the marvellous player that lies beneath.
Who knows, perhaps Mourinho may once again turn to Muntari to replace Frank Lampard.