He was touted as the “next Pele” or “new Pele” after he burst onto the scene as a precocious talent when Ghana’s Black Starlets made a maiden appearance at the 1989 FIFA Under-16 World Cup in Scotland. Young Nii Odartey Lamptey glowed with his breathtaking skills and powerful runs which wowed the world’s most celebrated player, Pele, who touted the youngster as football’s next big thing.
In an exclusive interview with the Graphic Sports’ George Ernest Asare, Lamptey opens up on the highs and lows of his career, the weight of expectation as a wonderkid, and his future ambitions.
Graphic Sports (GS): How did your football journey begin?
Odartey Lamptey (OL): It started here in Accra when at a tender age two colts clubs, Great Mohammedans and Great Falcons, started fighting over me. I was about 11 years then. Because of intense battle over me, a policeman had to escort me home and when my mother saw him, she was really scared. My parents had divorced at that time, so my father was in Kumasi while I was staying with my mother. My mother was scared about the situation and it prevented me from registering for any of them, so she sent me to Kumasi to ensure my safety.
Later, I joined Kumasi-based Kaloum Stars managed by Alhaji Inje, who took me as a son and offered me the platform to develop my talent.
At the age of 14, I could not play for Kaloum Stars again because I was above the age limit for colts players at that time.
Subsequently, I joined the junior side of Kumasi Cornerstone Football Club and we started playing curtain raisers for the elite clubs at the Baba Yara Sports Stadium during league matches on Sundays.
After four consecutive matches, I was invited to join the national under-16 team and everything started changing in my life at that tender age.
GS: How did you handle the challenge of playing for the national team?
OL: It was a dream come true because as a child I went through a lot of difficulties. Back then, footballers at that age were branded as truants so my mother always meted out punishment to me for straying from home to play football. On many occasions, I was scared to come home after playing because I knew I would be beaten, so to escape punishment I sometimes spent the night outside home and slept under vehicles. Sometime I was made to fetch water to fill drums at home as punishment, so when I was invited to the junior national team, I felt it was a dream come true because after all what I went through, I realised that my adventure into football had finally paid off.
GS: It must have been a proud moment for your parents too.
OL: To be sincere with you, I did not have that tenderly mother and father relationship when I was a child because of my parents disliked my interest in football. Even in Kumasi where I stayed with my father, who at that had married another woman, he had to choose between my stepmother and I. When it happened I left home to perch with the manager of Kaloum Stars at Aboabo.
GS: Nonetheless, you became a successful international star which should make them happy.
OL: They were very happy that their son was now a star in the making, so naturally, they were very happy and started drawing closer, especially when I became a professional at the age of 16. I was always given a cordial welcome anytime I returned home for holidays and flew down to for national assignments.
When I built my house in Accra, my stepmother who previously complained about everything and punished me for staying outside home came to live with me and that is where I started enjoying parental relationship.
GS: You became a professional player very early in your career.
OL: I played for the Black Starlets at the 1989 FIFA U-16 Championship in Scotland, in which we didn't perform well and were limited to the first round, so when we returned home, the then Head of State, Jerry John Rawlings, rather encouraged us that our performance was splendid so we should stay together for the next tournament. But just after the tournament I became a professional when I signed for the Belgian side, Anderlecht.
GS: Although you claim Ghana did not perform well, it was during the tournament that you announced your arrival to the world as a future star.
OL: Yes, in our first match we played against the host nation, Scotland, and Pele of Brazil [Edson Arantes do Nascimento] who was in the stands watching, picked me as the best player of the match and then declared that I was a bright star likely to step into his big shoes. It put me in the spotlight and after the tournament that Anderlecht came for me.
I was, therefore, a professional when the next tournament organised in Italy 1991 which Ghana won and I was adjudged the tournament's best player the joint winner of the Golden Boot [highest goal scorer] award with five goals.
GS: Winning Ghana's first juvenile World Cup and being selected at the best player must be one of your best moments as a footballer.
OL: It is very difficult to describe such feeling for winning a major tournament, especially winning two prestigious personal awards. It was really a dream come true for me and my teammates because after the tournament many of them became professional players in Europe
GS: Following that triumph in Italy, you also chalked up some other significant feats for Ghana as a young player.
OL: After the Italy tournament, I was invited into the Black Stars and was part of the 1992 AFCON tournament in Senegal where we won the silver medal after losing to Cote d’Ivoire in the finale through a marathon penalty kicks.
I won silver with the Black Satellites at the 1993 FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Australia.
Before then, I participated in the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games where Ghana won bronze and became the first Africa country to win an Olympic football medal.
I didn't value the bronze we won in Barcelona that much until I joined Aston Villa in England. It was in England that I realised that an Olympian was held in high esteem.
GS: Your professional career went off well as Belgium and PSV Eindhoven came knocking. How would you describe your experience with a big club like PSV who then had some established stars.
OL: I went to PSV Eindhoven to replace the great Romario who had just left PSV. I had a very good season and became a joint top scorer.
PSV wanted to buy me but Anderlecht made huge demands which they could not afford. I was very irritated over the outrageous demands by Anderlecht because I wanted to move forward and PSV Eindhoven was a bigger team where my career would have taken a better turn there.
I signed a five-year contract with Anderlecht but I felt I needed to move on after three years. However, the coach who brought me to Belgium left for England to handle Aston Villa, and that explains why eventually I left for England after my agent informed me that Aston Villa needed my services in the English Premier League.
GS: You went to England when your reputation was very high. But England wasn't particularly as successful as your exploits in Belgium and the Netherlands.
OL: It was not easy to fit into the EPL in those days. Their style of play was too robust for my liking and beside, I met very tall players, so I struggled to cope.
I was also playing many matches for the various national teams in Ghana so at a tender age of 19 years in 1994, it was not easy for me... you can imagine the load on my shoulders as that time .
It was really too much for me, to me it was a wrong decision to move to England at that time. I went there because Anderlecht did not want to approve of my stay in Holland which would have helped me much, and I was also not willing to return to Belgium .
GS: Why do you consider your move to England as a setback in your career?
OL: Their style of play never suited me at all. The players were not only tall, but also they liked playing long balls and running for them. I was short and skillful at that time so it affected my performance so much.
GS: During your time in England it appears Ron Atkinson had a particular liking for you.
OL: He was more than a godfather to me because he signed me at Aston Villa when he left for Coventry City, and he took me along. He really made me feel very comfortable in England
GS: Was that the reason you did not stay in England after playing for Aston Villa and Coventry?
OL: My work permit was not renewed because a foreign player needed to play 75 per cent of matches for his club but because I was almost always playing for the national teams, I did not meet their criteria for a work permit to be renewed. Eventually, I left for Italy to continue my career in Valencia but I stayed for a short time and left for Argentina to play for Boca Juniors.
GS: Was Italian football not suited to you like in England?
OL: Not at all. After four months, the coach who took me there was sacked but there as a new opportunity arrived because the Boca Juniors manager liked my style of play and signed me.
GS: Earlier, you said Pele’s shoes were too big to fit into. Was the weight of expectation to much to bear?
OL: When it comes to football, I glorify God for my little achievements. To retire and to establish a school to educate the youth and also establish a football academy to train and develop young football talents is not a small feat.
Pele gave me the hype in 1989 when I was only 16 and in the teams I joined, perhaps, they were expecting so much from me just as Pele did. I never saw him play, but later I watched his videos and realised that he had much quality and finesse in football, so there was no way I could fit into his big shoes. Perhaps in 1989, he saw something very unique about me so it was a privilege for him to say such good things about me.
His name and personality were too huge to carry along in my career and it was after retiring from active football that I realised why I could not fit into his shoes.
GS: Argentina too didn't look like a very successful adventure by your own high standards.
OL: It was well with me in South America but they had four foreign players and my addition increased the number to five, so I was loaned to another team but did not last there because I had to stop playing active football to cater for a child and eventually I left for Turkey.
Before then, I called Anderlecht because I thought I still belonged to them, but I was told that my agent claimed he had bought my rights and so I did not belong to them anymore. It was a shock to me. I asked for further explanation after which I called my agent, Anthony Calendo, who flew down explained things to me which I disagreed with. He took advantage of my handicap in education for me to sign documents that I did not understand.
As a child I did not attach much attention to my education because I hardly sat in the classroom and rather concentrated on playing football. I did not know what I was signing as a professional player so my agent took advantage of me.
It was because of such experience that I decided to establish Glo-Lamp International School in Accra to offer quality to the youth so that they are not shortchanged as happened to me.
I don’t want the present generation to go through the trauma I went through.
It was for the same reason that I established the Glo-Lamp Football Academy in the Central Region to give back to the youth in football so they excel in both academics and football.
A talented footballer who is also well educated will be an asset to himself, family and his nation because with good education players can understand why they are signing before appending their signature. Players should ensure that they properly understand every document they sign and when in doubt they should seek counselling before doing so.
GS: With the benefit of your experience as a youngster, what would you do differently if you were to begin your career today?
OL: I would have taken some decisions wisely. I would have thought through well before playing in some countries but sometimes footballers take wrong decisions when signing to play in some countries and are unable to realise their dreams.
GS:Do you agree with experts who say you did not achieve your full potential?
OL: Personally, I think I achieved much as a footballer. This is because it was through football that I have invested in some ventures to make a living and to cater for others. I did not play for Barcelona or AC Milan as was the desire of my fans, I did not win an AFCON trophy or the FIFA World Cup for Ghana, but having won gold medal at the highest level in youth football, as well as being selected as the Player of the Tournament and winning the Best Goal award are not mere feats. Winning a bronze in an Olympic Games and a silver with the Black Stars in an AFCON tournament are great.
In spite of my achievement in football the public also has the right to judge me, especially those who saw me in action. But sincerely, looking back, if I say I was a failure in football, then I am not being grateful to my God because I appreciate what He has done for me so far.
GS: During your time, Ghana was doing well at the youth level. Why is Ghana struggling to make it like we did consistently during your time?
OL: I prefer not to answer this question because I will step on big toes if I disclose the reason why we are not doing well at this time. However, we should do the right thing if we want to achieve any thing at the top level.
Things are also changing because some of the old players have taken to coaching and handling various teams, so I hope we will get the right people to do the right things to bounce back
GS: How is your football academy doing?
OL: The football academy was established 10 years ago and its flourishing well. I have now produced a lot of players, including Kwame Kizito, Daniel Lomotey, Mohamed Brimah who was the skipper of Berekum Chelsea and is now with Legon Cities. There is also Samuel Appiah of Medeama and Mohammed Muntari who is in UAE, among others. Football has made me who I am today and with my experience and knowledge in football, if I don’t give back to society, God will punish me.
GS: Is it your vision to develop players for the local sides or to ship them to foreign teams?
OL: The vision is produce footballers who would play in the local league and for professional careers in Europe
GS: A few years ago you and your former teammate, Charles Ackonnor, who is now Black Stars coach, took up coaching in the lower division with Eleven Wise. It was thought you would also become a coach of a big side but instead you have chosen to develop young players.
OL: Beside coaching the football academy I have established, I also have my CAF License A and so I am qualified to coach any top local team. I did my practicals in Germany so my doors are always opened. If the authorities are desirous to give me one of the junior teams to handle, I am all for it.
GS: How would you assess your coaching career so far?
OL: With what I did with Eleven Wise and with Glo-Lamp Football Academy, I hope the public will appreciate the little I have given back to society.
GS: Outside of football, you’ve had some marital issues which ended up in court.
OL: I will appreciate it so much if we don’t delve into that issue. The issue is now history. The court has already given a ruling in my favour but she [former wife, Gloria] said she was appealing against the ruling so we are just waiting.
Personally, I have moved on and started a new family with three kids and a humble wife. I am very happy with my family and things are gradually taking shape.
GS: Which of the present generation players in the Black Stars do you consider to have very big potential for greatness?
OL: I will mention Thomas Partey, Jordan Ayew, Dede Ayew, Jonathan Mensah, among others, have bright future.
GS: Who are your all time football dream team in Ghana?
OL: This is a difficult question to answer because we had different talented players in Ghana from different generations. However in goalkeeping I will go for Salifu Ansah. I have heard about Joseph Carr and others but never saw him playing. That explained why I have selected Salifu Ansah. With Salifu Ansah I played with him in the Black Stars so I know who is in the post. Salifu was not only aggressive in the post to ward off dangerous attacks, but was versatile in taking all 50-50 balls. He was very agile, with quick reflexes and superb in aerial balls, so I was always confident when he was behind me.
At the right full back, I will go for Haruna Yusif of Kotoko. I saw him as a kid. His overlapping to join the attack and fall back to defend was superb. He was full of stamina and contributed immensely to many victories of Kotoko and the Black Stars. Haruna was simply excellent.
The left full back position goes to Kwasi Appiah. I saw him with Kotoko and played with him in the Black Stars. He was cool and calm all the time, but very smart on the ball and difficult to beat. He talks little but there is no way you can bully him.
Sampson Lamptey of Hearts of Oak takes the Central defence position. He was good in the air, comfortable with the ball and surges forward when necessary and returns quickly to defend.
Ahmed Rockson is my next choice for the Central defence. He was a cool gentleman like Kwasi Appiah, very cool and collected and always defended well to keep his team in control.
The midfield position will go to Adolf Armah. I heard much about both Abdul Karim Razak and Ibrahim Sunday, but never saw them play.
However, I saw Adolf and his style of play . He was a midfield general and always propelled the attackers to surge forward to open the defence of their opponents.He was a gifted left footed player with excellent long and short passes. He could dribble a lot to score as well so he is my man for that position.
The right wing position goes to Kofi Badu because he was extra ordinary with the ball. Very fast, good dribbler, difficult to wrest the ball from him when he was attacking and could score as well.
The inside-right position comes to me. You know my qualities so I need not tell you more, but the centre forward is Anthony Yeboah. Very strong and gifted player who can score with both legs and the head. A team player who can take on defenders and gave assists when necessary. In Europe he was superb and with the Black Stars he was unmatchable. The Inside-left goes to the Maestro Abedi Ayew Pele. Abedi has been a legend since 1982 and has no peer in his position. Opoku Nti is my man for the outside-left position. He was instrumental in Kotoko’s CAF Africa Cup victory in 1983 and instrumental for many victories for the Black Stars. He was a good dribbler, fast on the ball and good ball distributor.
My reserves in defence would be Kwadwo Addae Kyenkyenhene, who was good in the air and on the ground and difficult to beat.
Hesse Odamtten will also good in defence for my reserve team, with Mohammed Odoom as my reserve goalkeeper. Odoom was a good diver and quick in aerial balls. Francis Kumi would also sit on the bench for this team just as Stephen Appiah and Asamoah Gyan and Kofi Abbrey.
GS: Thanks so much for you time.
OL: The pleasure is mine.