Nii Odartey Lamptey can remember, crystal clear, the day he first met Pele. They were in Glasgow, at the opening fixture of the 1989 Fifa Under 16 World Cup.
Among the duties for the great Brazilian was to designate a “man of the match” at the end of a goalless draw between Scotland’s best adolescents and the youths of Ghana. Pele resisted making a partisan choice and picked Lamptey.
Even then, at an event designed to celebrate prodigies, Lamptey seemed ahead of the rest. On the official team sheet, his birthdate put him among the very youngest of all competitors at 14 years and six months. It meant that when the next edition of the tournament came around, after Fifa changed the format to the U17 rules currently in use, Lamptey was there again.
He and his Ghanaian colleagues would lift the game’s most prestigious junior trophy in Florence, Italy, in August 1991.
Lamptey, at 16, was named Player of the Tournament. Pele labelled him as his natural successor in greatness, and he was set on a path of promised glory, but also one of confusion and suffering.
“As Pele put it, I was going to step into his shoes,” Lamptey said in Accra, Ghana’s capital, some years after he had retired as a player. “Well, that one did not happen. That’s still a bit painful.”
He is aware that, within football, the name Lamptey has become a shorthand for exploitation, burnout, and brutal mismanagement.
But to hear his account of how his career plateaued and then spiralled downwards, with a catalogue of personal heartbreak, is to know the vivid cost of abusing talent.
Lamptey’s gifts with a football may have provided him with an exceptional chance to rank alongside Pele, to be the world’s outstanding player in the generation between Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, but he lacked the supportive environment to do so.
Certainly, he rarely found it in his early childhood. His parents divorced when he was young, and he reports that his father beat him and burnt him with live cigarettes.
He found some release on the football field, where he was nimble, intuitive and had an eye for goal. His ability put him in demand.
“As early as eight years old, there were clubs in Ghana fighting for my signature,” he said. “One day, a policeman brought me home from the football field, and when my mum saw him, she was very scared. He just explained he was there because his club wanted me.”
It would be a foretaste of things to come. By the time of the U16 World Cup, Lamptey was sought across continents.
He lists the suitors: “Vasco da Gama, Rangers, Anderlecht.” The Belgian club were most proactive, sending word to Lamptey via their defender, Nigeria’s captain Stephen Keshi, they would like him to come over. Lamptey, estranged from family, poorly educated, was unclear about the procedure. So, two months after the Scotland tournament, he embarked on a helter-skelter journey.
He was in training camp in Accra with the Ghana youth team, and had been given the business card of a Keshi associate in Lagos, Nigeria. His passport was with the Ghana Football Association, but he had a little money in bonuses from the U16 trip.
“When we broke camp, not telling anybody, even my parents, I went to the bus station and met a driver who was going to Nigeria,” he said. “I told him, ‘I don’t have a passport but I want to go to Lagos.’ He said if I could pay, I could pretend I was his son.
“I arrived in Lagos, gave the card to a taxi driver and he took me straight to the guy’s house.”
The wheels were in motion. Lamptey travelled to Belgium on a Nigerian passport that had somehow materialised for him.
Within weeks, the Belgian league had lowered the age minimum and Lamptey, who is still grateful to Keshi, now coach of Nigeria, for his help, was starring.
Anderlecht signed him to a five-year deal. The money? “I don’t remember, it was so small. But I just wanted to play football.
“When I really started to make money from football was when I signed a personal contract with Adidas. That was 1991/92, after my first season with Anderlecht. My first season was very good.”
So good, bigger clubs swooped. Lamptey, brilliant in Ghana’s bronze-medal team at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, was sold to PSV Eindhoven, where he scored 10 goals in 22 matches from midfield in the Dutch Eredivisie.
The English Premier League beckoned, and a transfer to Aston Villa. It was then that Lamptey got his first inkling that, with all these moves, he ought to be benefitting a little more financially.
“I didn’t even know I had a right to a signing-on fee,” he said. “The manager of Aston Villa, Ron Atkinson, told me, and in the club office they gave it straight to me.
“Two weeks later, my agent came over and I think he went to the club to get the money. They said they had given it to the player. He was very upset with me.
“So many things were happening behind my back. At 16, I was too young to sign papers, so an agent came to Accra to get a signature from my parents.
“In the end, there were so many people cheating me, just looking after their own interests.”
Nobody seemed concerned, either, at the physical demands being put on him. Accounts of his decline sometimes speculate he may be older than his documents suggest. That has never been proven. What does seem clear is that his body was overused.
“One thing that maybe destroyed my career a bit was that,” he said. “When I was in England playing for Villa, Ron Atkinson had to fight with the Ghana FA. I was playing for their senior team, I was playing for their Under 20s, I was playing for their Under 23s. Can you imagine the load on me?”
Reforms to the international calendar have since reduced the risk of players being similarly sapped, and Fifa now scrutinises more closely the international transfer of players under 18. Lamptey would have appreciated greater protection and advice.
“My education was very poor,” he said. “Twenty years ago, I couldn’t express myself, couldn’t say what I wanted to say. My education was only football.”
That matters to Lamptey, now 38, and he has made the education of others a priority.
It was while playing at Al Nasr, in Dubai in 2003/04, that Lamptey resolved to invest some of his earnings from there in building the Glow-Lamp School in the suburbs of Accra. When he showed a guest around the grounds, he was also continuing the story of his hopscotch life as a fading star.
He had decorated the school’s library with some of the press cuttings from his era as the game’s child sensation: articles from Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport, reports from the 1992 Olympics.
He had named several of the classrooms, through which 400 pupils were spread, after the many countries whose clubs had taken him on: Belgium, the Netherlands, England, Italy, where he played at Venezia. And then, as his stock fell, injuries accumulated, and the teenaged prodigy lost his spark, the gigs in Argentina, Turkey, Portugal, Germany, China, UAE.
Partly, he had kept moving because he was beholden to agents, seeking their cut, partly because the dream kept fading, and in one terrible case, because he emotionally needed a change of scene.
While in Argentina, Lamptey and his wife lost a son, Diego, who died after a long period in intensive care in a Buenos Aires hospital. In Germany, they lost another child to illness.
Lamptey played his last Ghana international in 1996, his last competitive club game, for Asante Kotoko in his native league, 10 years later.
He shied away from football for a period after that, but is now coaching, and encouraging young Ghanaian players to make the best of themselves.
A winger, Frank Acheampong, 19 and a graduate of the Golden Lions academy where Lamptey coaches, moved to Anderlecht earlier this year and is gaining rave reviews in Belgium.
Lamptey recognised that scenario. “Players who moved abroad still thank me because they say I opened the doors to Europe,” he said.
His legacy may not be as the next Pele, but he carries with him an encyclopaedia of the treacherous pitfalls young footballers should beware.