Nii Lamptey should have been a worldwide superstar, but instead, very few people know his story. At the age of 19, he had the footballing world at his feet. Hailed as his natural successor by Pelé himself, he had outshone the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, Demetrio Albertini, Juan Sebastián Verón, and Josep Guardiola at youth tournaments, and he was the top scorer in the Dutch league for PSV the previous season.
However, he has tragically become a prime example of an unfulfilled talent. A talent so rare should have been protected and nurtured. However, abuse and exploitation were all that he received. So here is his story…
His childhood was not a happy one. He was neglected and horribly abused by both of his parents, resorting to sleeping under cars and in street kiosks at times to avoid being beaten at home. He cannot even remember the name of his school and turned to football as a refuge from his life at home. However, when his father discovered his talent, he showed up to games simply to shout abuse at him.
Even today, he still has scars on his body where his father burned him with cigarettes and lashed him with his belt. He was also beaten by his mother until she left, following a divorce when he was only eight. Soon after, his father remarried, and he was kicked out of the family house and offered the chance to stay with a Muslim football club, on the condition he converted to Islam. He was happy to do so to escape the abuse at home.
At the age of only 14, he played in the U16 World Cup in Scotland and used the small amount of money from this to flee Ghana, moving to Belgium. He told nobody about this until he was already there. However, the Ghanaian FA wanted to build their team around him, and following a youth tournament, the organization confiscated his passport to prevent him from returning to Belgium. To escape, he hid in the back of a taxi, illegally crossing three international borders until he reached Nigeria. While there, he met the agent of the Nigerian captain Stephen Keshi, one of the few people Lamptey ever trusted.
He flew to Belgium on a fake passport, posing as Keshi’s son, but on his arrival, nobody at Anderlecht, where Keshi played, believed it was the real Nii Lamptey. He was sent to train with the older boys as a test, and within moments, they were convinced they had the real thing. He signed a 5-year contract at the age of 16 for the club and made his debut soon after, following a change in the rules by the Belgian FA to allow him to appear at such a young age.
His first two seasons for Anderlecht were excellent, scoring nine goals in 30 appearances, before being transferred to PSV. In his only season there, he notched ten goals in 22 games, leading the scoring charts for the club.
However, his tragic decline had already begun. He could not read or write, or even express himself in English, and he was horrifically exploited by football’s money men. He was tricked into signing an exclusive deal with an Italian agent, Antonio Caliendo, which gave the player’s registration to Caliendo and not Lamptey's club. As a result, it was in Caliendo’s interest to drum up the highest transfer fees possibly for Lamptey, regardless of the effect on his career.
He was sold to Aston Villa the following year, where he was taken in by Ron Atkinson, who even arranged for the signing-on fee to be paid directly to Lamptey and not through Caliendo. Lamptey admitted that his agent hadn’t even told him that there was a signing-on fee. However, after a stunning debut goal, he struggled for the remainder of the season, and when Atkinson left for Coventry, Lamptey followed him there.
More disappointment was to follow for Lamptey in 1996 when he was sent off to Ghana in their semifinal defeat in the African Nations Cup against South Africa. He played in one further friendly match for Ghana after this, but never played again for his country, a fact that still hurts him today. “It was taken from me. It is really, really painful. Sometimes I’ll be in my room and just cry.”
All this seems so long ago, but it really hits home when you consider that he would only have been 33 when Ghana hosted the African Nations Cup in 2008, a tournament in which he may have led his country to victory if things had been different. He admitted that he could not bear to even go to the stadium to watch the games. Rather, he had to watch them alone at home.
In 1997, he moved to Boca Juniors, hoping to follow in the footsteps of his idol, the legendary Diego Maradona. However, due to foreigner rules, he was loaned out to rival Argentinean club Union Santa Fe. Tragedy struck when his son took ill, and the whole family moved to a Buenos Aires hotel to be closer to him.
After almost three months in intensive care, his son passed away. This was a huge personal blow for Lamptey, which was made worse when Ghanaian authorities refused to let him bury his son in Ghana. This episode was sadly mirrored three years later when he lost another child to the same lung disease, whilst playing in Germany.
Thirteen clubs in only 16 years begin to give us an indication of the lack of any form of continuity over the course of his career. When you consider that at the age of 19, he was a World Champion and Golden Ball winner at the 1991 U17 World Cup in Italy, Olympic Bronze medallist in 1992, and a runner-up in the 1993 U20 World Cup, whilst being linked with the likes of Real Madrid. It seems like a tragic waste of potential.
One thing that seems to torture him more than anything is his lack of education. “I have been through hell, through so much pain. 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 said in a 2008 interview.
He has now set up a junior school in Ghana, which has close links to a local football academy, in an attempt to give the children of Accra the opportunity that he never had. The school currently has over 400 students, and Lamptey has now relinquished his football career to focus on projects such as this. He reconciled with his father shortly before his death, complying with his dying wish to reconvert to Christianity. However, he buried his father alone as his brothers still do not speak to him for marrying a woman from another ethnic group.
This is a truly tragic tale of a vulnerable player so badly exploited by others purely driven by greed. Rarely has a young player shown so much talent, and thus he should have gone on to a career that was reflected by his talents. However, throughout his life and his career, he was betrayed by those closest to him. Tragedy in the death of his two children has scarred him deeply, and his desire for the game of football seems to have dwindled in recent years.
It is important to remember that he is only 35 years old today, an age at which many footballers are still playing at the highest levels. However, his school gives young children a hope for the future, providing the chance that he never had. In his own words, “It all comes to education, that’s why I decided to use my money for this school. This school makes me happy.” And happiness is one thing that has not come easily to Nii Lamptey. We should all be happy that he has found a way to put the demons of his life behind him.
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