Across the world, there is sadness: Pele is gone.
A football original, Pele was revered, loved and copied, the focal point of a Brazil team arriving on stage just as coverage of football moved from black and white into colour. He became recognisable from Rio to Moscow via television’s increasing reach. Pele was a marvel when that word carried weight, the first truly global great on planet football.
So to be The Next Pele, well…
In a corner of west Africa sits a man who shares the widespread melancholy over Pele’s death. Nii Lamptey is sad, Nii Lamptey is down; but within Nii Lamptey stir feelings different to the rest of us, because once upon a time he was it — “The next Pele”.
More than that, Lamptey was anointed not by a newspaper headline or a fans’ song, but by Pele himself.
The sprinkling of stardust on the young man’s head was, initially, a blessing; gradually, though, Pele’s sincere compliment twisted into pressure and expectation so intolerable that when Lamptey brought out his autobiography in the Netherlands in 2019, its title was: De Vloek van Pele — The Curse of Pele.
Lamptey is 48 now. He was 14 when Pele spoke.
Down a phone line from Ghana, he says: “The name Pele is a special name to carry, a great honour. But it is not an easy name to carry, for sure. It did not destroy me, but it was a load on my shoulders.”
Lamptey’s tone is phlegmatic. He has come to terms with the ultimate football label and what it meant for him, but his present peace does not eradicate what happened in his career and how it unravelled from great teenage promise via disproportionate pressure into an erratic tour of 14 clubs in 12 countries.
Before that came a traumatic childhood in the Ghanaian cities of Accra and Kumasi and along the way there was personal tragedy as well as professional disappointment and exploitation.
There were good times, too, plus a fleeting friendship with Diego Maradona. But the life of the man Pele had called the next Pele should serve as a warning about every comparison in sport: only time will tell.
Nii Odartey Lamptey was born in Accra, the capital of Ghana, in 1974.
His early childhood there and 125 miles away in Kumasi was chaotic. After his parents divorced when he was three, he lived with his mother and her family. Lamptey suffered beatings and his mother was unable to intervene; aged around 11, he was sent to Kumasi to be with his father, but his stepmother frowned on him and there were alcohol-fuelled bouts of abuse from his dad — Lamptey has the cigarette-burn scars to prove it.
The situation led to him being taken in by a local boys’ club chairman until he was 14.
School was something the young Lamptey sought to avoid rather than attend. It is a feature of his life he would later regret and address. When he should have been in class, he was on the streets playing football, sometimes using oranges from market stalls. He joined a club named Cornerstones and became so good he was selected by Ghana to play at the Under-16 World Cup. It was June 1989. Lamptey was 14.
“I was the youngest in the team,” he says. “It was a dream come true to play for the national team. In those days, playing football was like a taboo for me — parents punishing you — so to get to represent your country was a dream.
“At that age your parents want you to go to school, they dislike you playing football. Education was a problem for me because all I wanted to do was play football. My parents would beat me, sometimes I’d refuse their food. I had to go through that to get to play for my country.
“The national team were following me and, when they said I’d been selected and to report to camp, it was a very, very great moment for me.”
That Under-16s World Cup was played in Scotland. Ghana was agog. The country had not been represented at a World Cup at any level before and the boys on the plane over had never been to Europe.
Pele, then 48, was working as a FIFA ambassador. He was guest of honour at the opening match, which happened to be hosts Scotland against Ghana at Hampden Park, Glasgow’s vast, historic stadium.
Plenty of adults have been overawed by Hampden, but not the 14-year-old Lamptey.
A pacy forward with a low centre of gravity, he shone in a 0-0 draw. Up in the stands, Pele watched on impressed and when asked to nominate a man of the match, he chose Lamptey. Then Pele went further, saying he had just seen “my natural successor”, someone who could walk “in my shoes”. Praise in football comes no higher.
“I was excited to go to Scotland,” Lamptey recalls. “We played qualifiers to get there, against Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast)… and we were able to top the group. Then we played the host nation, Scotland, in the first game.
“It was very, very hard; this was my first real game away at international level and it was tough.
“Pele was in the stand watching — I never met him. I was young and I didn’t know who Pele was. He chose me as the man of the match and said I was going to step into his shoes. But I didn’t know what it meant.
“It was only after the tournament, in fact maybe a couple of years after, that I found out what kind of person Pele was. Then I started watching him, his videos — him and Maradona. I was in Belgium by then. That’s really when I got to know who Pele was. It was a big name to carry. I realised then what the praise meant, what his name meant.”
Little did he know it that day in Glasgow, but Lamptey was now on a surreal journey that would take him, in the space of 14 months, back to Ghana, then to Nigeria via fellow African nations Togo and Benin and on to Belgium on a forged passport.
Anderlecht heard of him through Stephen Keshi. Then captain of Nigeria, Keshi played for the Brussels-based club. They had seen Lamptey in Scotland and were determined to get him, but the Ghana Football Association did not want him or other players to leave, so they confiscated everyone’s passport. Hence the resorting to forgery.
It climaxed with Keshi having to prove to Anderlecht that the little boy in front of them was Nii Lamptey. This was done in a training session after just a couple of touches.
Lamptey was entitled to feel disorientated: at 13, he knew what it was to sleep under a car on the street; at 15, he was playing in Anderlecht’s first team. He was a stray, he was barely literate, and he was brilliant.
The youngster signed a contract at Anderlecht. It turned out, however, that an intermediary was the real owner of Lamptey.
“I was a baby,” he says. “I didn’t know much. I loved to play football, but I did not know anything about professional football really. It was like: here I am playing, then there’s a contract, I’m moving to Belgium, playing.
“Deep down, I did not really know. Now I sit back and reflect on all these things and I say to myself, ‘I’ve been through a lot and now I’m a man’.”
It was December 1990 when Lamptey made his Anderlecht debut. He was officially 16 on a newly-arranged second passport, but the birthdate was wrong by 20 days. So unbeknown to Anderlecht, he was actually 15 when he replaced Luc Nilis in a game against Cercle Bruges. Lamptey scored.
In all, he made 16 appearances in that 1990-91 season, including a European debut against Roma. He scored. There was also, in the April, a senior debut for Ghana in an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier. Once again, Lamptey scored.
Then in August 1991 came the Under-17 World Cup in Italy. The Black Starlets, as Ghana’s youngsters had become known, won it. In a competition featuring Alessandro Del Piero, Lamptey was named player of the tournament.
Lamptey’s career trajectory was upward spike after upward spike, and he was still a child. Surely Pele was correct.
All of this inevitably brought attention from agents and Lamptey signed with the influential Italian Antonio Caliendo. A cheque was handed over and money went into his bank account every month and life was good.
After a second season at Anderlecht, in the summer of 1992, he played at the Barcelona Olympics. Ghana won bronze there, with Lamptey facing Pep Guardiola and Spain in the semi-finals.
Beneath the surface progress, though, cracks were appearing.
Lamptey had sustained a groin injury when away with Ghana; when he returned to Anderlecht he discovered the coach, Aad de Mos, who had become a father figure, had been dismissed.
Regardless of injury niggles, Lamptey continued to play for Ghana at various levels. Anderlecht grew frustrated, feeling their player had been distracted by his agent. In 1993, when he was still only 18, both parties agreed it was time to separate. When De Mos was appointed by Dutch side PSV Eindhoven, Lamptey was signed on loan as a temporary replacement for Romario, who was joining Barcelona.
Lamptey did well at PSV, scoring regularly. But as he passed his 19th birthday, the team underperformed and for the first time, there were public question marks about Lamptey’s attitude.
In the summer of 1994, he was off to his third club in a third country — Aston Villa in England.
“In those days in Ghana,” Lamptey recalls, “the only league they showed (on TV) was the English one. So I knew Liverpool; Liverpool was the famous one. But it was really the only team that I knew — John Barnes, Ian Rush.”
If Lamptey felt confused, we would understand. This young man from Accra, who had rarely been to school, was suddenly in Birmingham, not Brussels, with the famous Villa, a club he knew nothing of. He had grown up speaking in Ga in Accra, now English was his new language. He remains grateful to Anderlecht that the club had arranged regular French and English lessons.
Lamptey’s knowledge of English meant he understood the following when he signed: “As soon as I arrived in England I put on the TV and they were doing a sports show. The first thing they mentioned was that Aston Villa have bought a player who is going to be like Pele.
“I thought, ‘Wow’. That’s when the pressure started.
“At Anderlecht, it did not bother me so much. It was when I went to Aston Villa it started.”
That was the second thing to strike Lamptey. The first was the sight of Ron Atkinson’s Jaguar motor collecting him from the airport.
Atkinson had been Villa manager since 1991 and had built a squad good enough to finish as runners-up in the inaugural Premier League season, 1992-93. The following year was a disappointment, Villa coming 10th and in Lamptey, Atkinson hoped he had found a fresh spark. In the flamboyant “Big Ron”, “the next Pele” found a new father figure.
“When I landed at the airport, it was Big Ron who sent his car to pick me up,” Lamptey says. “It was a Jaguar. He invited me to his house — even before I got to the club. Big Ron was like a father to me.”
In the September, Lamptey made another debut, this time against Wigan Athletic in the League Cup. He was 19. He scored.
Around him were players of experience and calibre — Andy Townsend, Dwight Yorke, Dalian Atkinson. But Villa’s Premier League form did not pick up and Atkinson was sacked in the November.
Lamptey’s time at Villa Park was soon over, too. It had been interrupted by matches for Ghana.
“We were unlucky at Villa,” Lamptey says. “In the beginning, we had big potential. We had Dwight Yorke, Mark Bosnich, Ugo Ehiogu, Paul McGrath — what a player. We had a very good team but things did not go well.
“I was playing a lot of games for Ghana. I was about 19 and I was playing for the under-20s, under-21s and the national team. Big Ron became furious and talked to the Ghana FA, saying they were using me too much.
“I was in Ghana when Ron was sacked. I called him and we had a chat. He moved to Coventry and after a few months, he took me there as well. Coventry had very good players, too — Dion Dublin, Peter Ndlovu, Paul Telfer. But I wasn’t playing enough to renew my work permit for Coventry City. I had to leave.
“I made some mistakes. I did not keep up relationships, but I made good friends in England — Dwight was a very good friend, John Fashanu; at Villa, there were about seven black players and later I got to hear they said Big Ron was racist. I said, ‘No, no, no, no. You do not know Big Ron, this man loves Africans’.”
Atkinson also fixed a clause in Lamptey’s contract, saving the player significant sums.
It was 1996, and Lamptey was approaching 22. He was now married with two children. A brief spell in Italy with Venezia fizzled out and then he made a dramatic switch to Boca Juniors. Or as he puts it: “So I went to Argentina.”
Maradona had returned to the Buenos Aires club in 1995 and while Lamptey says, “I didn’t go to Argentina because of Maradona,” he adds, “but I met him when I went to Boca Juniors. It was a dream come true.
“He would come in first to training and be the last to leave. He was doing his free kicks. He was 35 but he was still practising. You could see he was a gifted man, he had everything. It was a privilege to know him. He was one of my idols — himself and Pele. I had a son at that time and I even called him Diego Pablo Lamptey because of Maradona.”
But Lamptey never played for Boca. He was one foreigner too many on their books and was sent to Union de Santa Fe, another Argentinian club, on loan. And tragically, Lamptey’s son fell ill and died.
“He had to go into intensive care — for about two months. I had to stop playing. And then he couldn’t survive. When that happened, I had to leave Argentina. I came back to Europe.
“I was 22. I went through a lot at that time.”
Lamptey hoped to return to Anderlecht but it was not to be. He changed agents and the next stop was Turkey, then he went to Portugal, then Germany; in 2001, it was China, in 2003 Dubai. Meanwhile, he and the Ghanaian FA fell out — Lamptey’s last international appearance was in 1996. Somewhat ironically, there was also a row with Ghana’s Abedi Pele.
Did Lamptey ever think: ‘What is happening to me, to my career?’.
“Well, you know, at that time I was young and naive, I was not mature. My career was not in my mind, I wasn’t thinking about that until I went to China. Then things changed — I enjoyed my career in China, two and a half years. Then I came to Dubai and after about six months I decided to call it off. It was a really tough time. I went through a lot.”
There were a couple more stop-offs, one in South Africa, where again he did not play, and finally Ghana, before retirement in 2006. He was just 31.
Nii Lamptey had not been the next Pele and he never did get to meet him.
“It was 50-50,” he says of the infamous label. “In the beginning, it felt good for someone like him to say I was going to step into his shoes — wow; but then, after a while… there was no way I was going to be him.
“So I was happy he said it from what he saw of me, but that name gave me a lot of pressure. People expected me to play like Pele, which is not possible, not at all.”
When was he happiest?
“In the beginning at Anderlecht, after all the hassle I went through as a child. Then in Italy in 1991, I was chosen as the best player in the tournament, that was my happiest moment. I can still remember my childhood, the beatings, the punishment, but there I was in this tournament as the best player. Del Piero was there, there were a lot of stars there.”
Lamptey runs an academy today and one of its graduates, Mohammed Muntari, a naturalised Qatari, scored the host nation’s first ever (and so far only) goal at the World Cup. Despite everything, Lamptey would like to be involved with the Ghanaian FA.
But before the academy, on returning to Accra, he did something else; he invested in the one thing he used to avoid: a school.
“Education is key. What I went through as a child, not able to go to school, not reading what I should read, all that… I decided I did not want my kids or other kids to go through that. So I set up a school with my money.”
Lamptey did not earn as much of that as he was due. He was exploited by people he met along the way, and by football itself.
His was an epic journey even before Pele said what he said. Pele would not have wished such pressure on anyone, but after what Lamptey went through in childhood, the Brazil icon might have been even more impressed by the boy he saw at 14, and by the man he now is at 48.
“What did I achieve in football?” Lamptey asks. “I thank God I was able to achieve something.”
The Curse of Pele (English edition) is out soon, published by Pitch Publishing.
(Top graphic: John Bradford for The Athletic; photos: Getty Images)
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