Step Up to the Challenge

Perhaps the biggest lesson Appiah learnt in his formative years, was that to succeed, he needed more than just talent.

To my left, was a bottle of Masseto Toscana, resting in a wooden wine rack. Right next to it, were two Giuseppe Quintarelli’s and some other vintage I couldn’t recognise. 

It was the kind of bar, accomplished folks would come home to, open a bottle of a vintage and share tales of their journey with whoever cared to listen. 

And the owner of this one, has quite a bit to tell. From the rowdy streets of Chorkor in Accra, through the cold of Emilia-Romagna, the dark moments under the bright lights of the Delle Alpi to the deafening noise of the soccer city, Stephen ‘Tornado’ Appiah had quite the journey. 

A journey, Appiah says, which would have been impossible but for the orientation he had. 

“You’ll leave home on Friday afternoon and will not return until Monday and it’s all because you want to play Monnkye ndi.” Monnkye ndi is an Akan expression which means ‘share and enjoy’. “By 7 o’clock on Saturday morning, I’d be ready for the first match in Chorkor. Now, because I registered for different teams for different tournaments, I moved around a lot. So, after playing the first game in Sheabu, I would join the next available bus to Maamobi. From there, I had to go to Odorkor for the next match. In the end, I could not play every game for every team but I made sure my performance would force them to call me for the next tournament.” 

This was before Appiah turned 15. In more ways than one, these mini tournaments prepared him for the life ahead. The crowds were very hostile and they didn’t care that these were kids. All they wanted was to see their teams win. 

“When money is involved, people can be unforgiving. But if they can trust your ability to win games for them, they will support you,” he says. At that early age, Appiah understood the essence of winning fans and having them on your side. “It could be a shot from distance in the opening minutes of the game, a slide tackle or even a pointless dummy/dribble that does not progress play.” 

Perhaps the biggest lesson Appiah learnt in his formative years, was that to succeed, he needed more than just talent. 

“The system then demanded more than just talent. There were so many gifted players around, different profiles too. To standout, you needed more. I was fortunate in some ways but I think being disciplined and hardworking, as much as being passionate for the sport made me stand out. Maybe my background had a lot to do with it. When you come from Chorkor, your chances of obtaining a first degree are quite limited. So, you have to make tough choices and whichever choice you make, you have to give it your all because that’s your future. So, when you’re playing at the competitive level, you can’t behave like a kid who went to Accra Academy and can get a scholarship to University of Ghana. This is all you have, you know,” he tells me. 

It is this orientation, as much as his talent, that made his rise so rapid. Aged just 14, Stephen Appiah got his first taste of international success when he won gold with the Black Starlets at the FIFA U-17 World Championship in 1995. That, and his remarkable performance back home with continental giants Accra Hearts of Oak earned him a trial with Turkish side Galatasaraay a year later. It was unsuccessful. Still, Appiah lost no step. Immediately he returned, he made the jump from a precocious talent to a bona fide star. 

It didn’t matter that there were other stars. He blew them out of the water with performances that would later win him the best player in the F.A Cup, winning the competition with Accra Hearts of Oak. The following season, Appiah upped the ante. Aged just 17, he was the standout player in the Hearts team that won the league. 

As it was with many before him, and dozens after him, the Ghana Premier League often loses its stars. But it was not the last we would see of him on Ghanaian soil or in Ghanaian colors. In that same year, Appiah was part of the National Under-20 team – the Black Satellites – that finished in fourth place at the FIFA World Youth Championship held in Malaysia. 

Two years before that, there was a seminal moment in Ghana’s history. 

Photo by Gilbert Asante

The scene was set in Cotonou where the Black Stars were playing Mozambique in a four-nation tournament. After 74mins, and with Ghana leading 2-0, a young Stephen Appiah who coincidentally, was celebrating his birthday on the same day, came on for the legendary Abedi Ayew with ten minutes to go. 

It was a bit recherché. Before then, Abedi Ayew had never been subbed off in any Black Stars match. And even after this, he did not get substituted more often. Not even when he was in the twilight of his career. Seeing Abedi Ayew subbed was as scarce as a hen’s teeth. This moment, as was proven by the events of the next decade, meant more. It was the transfer of power from the old to the new. The passing of the torch, from one torchbearer to the other. 

Perhaps even more; the ethos of the team, its spirit, its rich footballing heritage and along with its failings and mistakes from a storied past. 

But it was not until six years later that Appiah would begin to show shades of his other self; the leader. 

Appiah, along with 22 others, had been called up for a friendly with Slovenia on Friday 17th May 2002, in Ljubljana. The day before the match, Appiah, while at breakfast, decided it was about time the players looked uniform. Those were the days when the four-time African champions were without a kit sponsor as the previous deal with German kit manufacturer Adidas, was only for the Mali 2002 AFCON. 

A few months prior, Bayern Munich defender Sammy Kuffour had been expelled from the team’s camp at the Cup of Nations in Mali for complaining about the quality of kits provided by sponsors. Yet, here they were in Ljubljana two months later, the situation worse. They didn’t even have any official apparel, let alone to complain about its quality. 

In a spur of the moment, Appiah, who at the time was a registered Nike athlete, dialed up the rival brand and placed an order for jumpers and bomber jackets for the entire team. The thoughtfulness. The selflessness. Appiah’s consciousness that the image of the Black Stars was suffering. After all, this was the national team of a gold rich country. A true African footballing royalty. 

Before the game, the coach announced that Stephen Appiah would captain the team for that match. Appiah stood up and challenged the decision. His reason was that, there were a few more experienced players in the team. He felt he was further back in the line of succession. But he would be impressed upon by his roommate and goalkeeper Richard Kingson to accept the role, promising him of his, and the ‘elder statesmen’s’ support. 

But there was still no substantive captain after the game. The sun had set on Charles Akonnor’s international career and with it, his time as captain. However, and as fate would have it, the next in line for the captaincy, Sammy Kuffour, had rejected it. Later, president of the Ghana Football Association, Kwasi Nyantakyi led a delegation to Appiah’s house in Osu, explaining why they wanted him to take the captaincy. 

“It was a difficult decision for many reasons. For one, I didn’t want to betray Kuffour, a man I had admired for so long. He had accomplished so much and had sacrificed a lot for the good of the team. Some of the things he had done for the team were also the reason why some people didn’t like him. It could have been part of why he didn’t want the captaincy. So it was difficult for me. But I accepted after speaking with Sammy. He encouraged me to take it and assured me of his support. I realised I had started leading the team anyway and the armband was only going to legitimise what I already was,” he said. 

Photo by Gilbert Asante

“Together with the players, we decided to scrap the existing bonus structure. It didn’t make sense to me that bonuses had to be paid based on seniority and status. The Black Stars had a history of disunity and everyone knew this. So I felt we needed to shift the paradigm.” 

Appiah did more than just unite the team. But regardless of what he and the team did, there was one major box that remain unticked; the FIFA World Cup. 

The global football festival remained elusive. 

Ghana had never qualified for the World Cup despite having generations of incredibly talented players. There may have been an abundance of talent in the past, probably more than the Appiah generation. But there was something about this team. Something previously not seen with the Black Stars; unity of purpose, incredible focus and remarkable self-belief. Perhaps the most important of them all, was the unity in the team. Although the quartet of Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, Laryea Kingston and Stephen Appiah formed the nucleus of the team, there was no prima donna. They worked together and had mutual respect. 

“The watershed moment for me was the qualifier versus South Africa at the at the FNB Stadium. When we came out of the tunnel for the warm-up, the atmosphere was incredible. It was a carnival. There was so much music. The decibel level was insane. But it wasn’t good for us. It was a distraction. By the time I realised, Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari had joined the party and were dancing. Others did too. Laryea Kingston was then standing by me. So I got closer and told them that we have to be focused, do the job and party later.” Ghana won 2-0, with Appiah setting up the goals for Michael Essien and Matthew Amoah. “When I left the dressing room, I knew we were going to qualify. It couldn’t have gone wrong from there. These guys had a different mentality. They just wanted the next game to come around. But more importantly, we were playing for something more. You see, Ghana has always had great players, far better than us. So even if we had won the AFCON, we would have been just another group of AFCON winners. There has been four already. It wouldn’t be special. But the World Cup. That was the real deal,” he says. 

In the end, they finished the job, amassing 21 points to finish top of their group. Stephen Appiah, though a midfielder, finished as Ghana’s joint top scorer in the Qualifiers with four goals. 

He would go ahead to score one more at the FIFA World Cup – the winning goal in Ghana’s 2-1 win over the United States of America. It was coincidentally the goal that sealed Ghana’s place in the second round. 

In all, Appiah scored 14 times in 67 appearances for the Black Stars, retiring in August 2010. 

There are many who believe Ghana could have won the AFCON in 2008, if Appiah had been fit for the tournament. But as it turns out, Appiah missed out agonisingly due to an injury before the tournament. Totally unfair. 

But perhaps the greatest injustice of all, was that Appiah’s career was sacrificed on the altar of dedication. 

Photo by Gilbert Asante

In July 2004, Stephen Appiah was preparing for what was supposed to be the season he becomes a bona fide star in Turin. After making 30 appearances in the Serie A in his debut season, he was ready to take the next step. However, that did not happen. 

Appiah was called into a meeting after training one day.  

“I was told the club had received a letter from the Ghana. Even before I went in, I knew that it was about the Olympic Games. I went into the Sporting Director’s office only to see three men; Luciano Moggi – Juventus Director of Football, Geraldo, the club’s lawyer and the legendary Bettega himself. Without even asking whether I wanted to go or not, they explained at length how much they needed me. They suggested I stayed and not represent my country at the Olympics. I asked for time to think about it and decide. They gave me three days,” Appiah says. 

What Moggi did not know, was that Appiah’s mind was made up long before the Sports Ministry drafted the letter, requesting the Old Lady to release its illustrious son. “I had previously spoken to some teammates who had been to the Olympics and what they described was unmissable. Beyond the immeasurable sense of pride of representing your country at the multi sports event, it was a festival. The description of the Games village, getting to see other world class athletes up close and in action was indescribable, they said. This was better than the World Cup. So I had to be there. And on a personal note, I had played at the FIFA U-17 World Cup once, twice at the U-20 but never at the Olympics. This was my chance. And as a matter of principle, only injuries or suspensions could stop me from representing my country. That was non-negotiable,” Appiah concluded. 

72 hours later, the 23-year-old sat in the intimidating presence of the trio. Now, Moggi wasn’t just a director at Juventus, he was potentially the most powerful man in Italian football at the time. Others, like Appiah, believe his influence transcended the confines of Italian football. 

“People don’t know Moggi. Not even the investigators. He was the most powerful man at the time. Look, he was even more powerful than Sepp Blatter at the time. He did things even Blatter wouldn’t dare do. Milan and Inter were our biggest threats at the time. Lazio and Roma were good but they didn’t have any pedigree. So, Milan and Inter, basically. Yet, Moggi could influence our rivals and their matches. It could be through their opponents, refs. I mean the Calciopoli lifted the lid on some of that. But that was only as much as Moggi allowed. The world knows only as much as Moggi allowed to be known about Moggi.” 

If he could influence matches involving the Italian Prime Minister’s club (A.C Milan), then you can imagine the punishment he could visit on Appiah if he were so minded to. As it were, Appiah refused to stay and asked to be permitted to leave. “I know they valued me. I was one of the more talented midfielders there. But this is Juventus where there are always options.”

Photo by Gilbert Asante

And there were lot of them. In that season, Juve had the gifted Adrian Mutu, Rubén Olivera, Mauro Camoranesi and the uber-talented Pavel Nedved among their midfield options. 

As fate would have it, Appiah would not only leave, but also score a howitzer in Ghana’s second group game at the Olympic Games. The whole world watched in admiration as Appiah set the tournament alight. The whole world but Italy. They were at the latest casualty of Appiah’s deadly right foot. 

The following day, the Italian Newspapers had berated him. He was the black boy who run away without telling Juventus. “I don’t know where that came from. Juve know I asked permission and Moggi and Capello allowed me to go. They did so hesitantly but they gave me written permission to go,” he says regrettably. 

When Appiah returned from the Olympics, Capello suddenly no longer trusted the man who had played 30 matches in his debut season. Despite the fall out, Capello had no doubts about Appiah’s ability. Appiah managed to play 18 Serie A matches in the 2004/05 season. But no matter how well Appiah played, the decision to move him on had long been made. In came Patrick Vieira from Arsenal in July 2005. 

For Appiah, Turin was no longer home and no matter how many times La Curva Sud (Juve’s Ultras) chanted his name, he knew the true power bearer in town was Moggi and once he crossed him, and Geraldo and Bettegga, he had to go. There were a number of offers but the one Appiah’s entourage found most attractive, was Fenerbahçe’s. The Turkish giants paid €8 million and off he went.

In Turkey, a chronic knee problem hampered his progress in the three years he played in the Super Lig. Two unsuccessful moves to Bologna and Cesena followed before he signed for Vojvodina in 2011. In the Serbian SuperLiga season, he made 11 league appearances. Fittingly, his only goal came in the deciding last- round home 2–1 victory against Red Star Belgrade. The win put Vojvodina on a final third place in the league and guaranteed a spot in next season’s UEFA Europa League. 

The term special, generational talent has often been used loosely. But Appiah’s rare mix of strength and technique, power and elegance made him a truly special player. Wherever he played, he left no doubt about his ability to entertain while being a ruthlessly efficient too. 

Much like the Toscana or the Quintarelli vintage, Appiah’s legend lives on long after his retirement. For he delivered that which Ghana will never forget. 

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