Beyond The Pitch: Insight Into The Lives of Former African Football Stars

By Zelifac Asong

Remember the world cup in 1974 and that record 9-0 bashing of the Zaire now Democratic Republic of Congo from the then Republic of Yugoslavia or the time when African countries were rated the under dogs at major international tournaments? Remember the time when there was no African name listed amongst the global stars of the game of football or when only a handful of professional players were able to ply their trade as professionals in the hugely mediatised and competitive European scene? Well football has taking the lead in the transformation of Africa. Africa is yet to win the world cup but African countries are today dreaded and Africans rank amongst the best talents in the world today. Hard to know of any soccer adept in the world today who does not know the Cameroonian Samuel Eto’o Fils or the Ivorian Didier Drogba.  These two and many others from Africa competing with the best around the world today owe their fame in part to the exploits of their illustrious elders like Roger Milla,Thomas Nkono and Francois Omam Biyick of Cameroon, Stephen Keshi of Nigeria, Kalusha Bwalya of Zambia, Abedi Pele of Ghana, George Weah of Liberia and many others. So what became of these glorious pace setters once off the pitch? The article takes a look at some of the activities of the old stars.

Talk about African football stars and one of the first names that comes to mind will be Roger Milla of Cameroon. The old lion mesmerized the world not only with his goals but with the dazzling dance in celebration at the 1990 world cup in Italy. Called from retirement, Roger Milla ended the tournament with four goals which saw an African side reach the quarter finals for the first time. He starred in a coca cola advertisement for the 2010 world cup as the originator or dancing when celebrating a goal. Roger Milla is today a Roving Ambassador in Cameroon appointed by President Paul Biya.He is an honorary member of the International Football Federation FIFA Executive body. He is also honorary President of the Cameroon football Federation and runs an NGO which helps to cater for the interest of retired footballers in Cameroon. Where there is near unanimity on his talents on the pitch, the same does not hold true for his off the pitch contribution trailed with layers of controversy. Not the most eloquent of speakers, he is constantly at logger heads with the football authorities in Cameroon. He has been vocal, sometimes too vocal of the management of football in the country and has been a thorn in the flesh of foreign coaches from Pierre Lechantre, to Winfried Schaffer, Otto Pfister and Denis Lavagne.

At the Seoul Olympic games of 1996, Zambia walloped Italy 4-1. It was a first of its kind victory especially in terms of goal margin for an African side over a European country. The main architect of this victory was Kalusha Bwalya. Lucky to escape the plane crash that decimated the Zambian National Team in 1994, Kalusha Bwalya is today the President of the Zambian Football Federation. After making Zambia a respectable football nation on the continent as a player, Bwalya continues to lead with brio as under his tenure as President of the football Federation, Zambia today boasts of its first continental title. It was an emotional sight when Zambia lifted the African Nations cup this year co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. With the finals played in Libreville Gabon, the victory was a befitting tribute to Bwalya’s team mates who died in the 1994 plane crash, coincidentally over the coast of Gabon. Zambia Football Association President Kalusha Bwalya basking in Glory after his country won the Gabon/Equatorial Guinea 2012 Nations CupBwalya is also a standing Committee member of the Confederation of African Football as well as the world governing body FIFA.

Big boss Stephen Keshi was a dreaded defender in his days as a player. The former Super Eagles of Nigeria Defender plied his trade amongst others with Belgian and European giants Anderlecht. As a coach, he earned further acumen when he qualified little fancied Togo for the 2006 world cup. The exploit however had a bitter ending as the Togolese fired him and brought in the German Otto Pfister to take the country to the world cup. The outing was a fiasco but many believed that with Keshi still at the helm, the Togolese will have had a better tournament. Keshi went on to coach Mali and qualified them for the 2000 Nations cup. He is today the coach of the Super Eagles of Nigeria where he is quietly working on a revolution with local talents getting the kind of chance that has been systematically denied them under previous coaches who relied solely on foreign based players.

Abedi Pele the emblematic Ghanaian footballer who was the first African to win the champions league trophy in Europe with French elite side Marseille today runs his own foot ball club. The club called Nania .F.C is designed with future hopes of nurturing the young talent to augment the fledging league of the country. Not long ago it was embroiled in a promotion play off –bribery scandal for which he was found guilty by the football association of Ghana. The allegations stemmed from a 31-0 victory of Nania Fc over Okwawu United. The guilty verdict attracted fines and suspensions for Abedi and others but were quashed by the Appeals Committee following irregularities in the initial judgements. The scandal aside, Ayew commands great respect across Africa for a career emulated by many. Africans were full of pride to see him shine in the Marseille side of Papin, Chris Waddle, Mozer, Boli; etc which was the best in Europe in the early 90s.In appreciation of his devout services to the country, the Ghanaian government awarded him the country’s highest honour the Order of the Volta. The first Ghanaian sportsman to be so honoured.

Abedi Pele in glasses presenting the BBC African Footballer of the Year Award to his son Andre.
Abedi Pele in glasses presenting the BBC African Footballer of the Year Award to his son Andre.

Nominated in 2001 to serve as Chairman of the football association .He later on passed on the opportunity to a more experienced person so as to gain some more experience he says. He is a member of FIFA’s football committee and of the players status committees of FIFA and CAF. The South African football Association had him as a spokesperson during its bid to host the 2006 world cup.

George Weah remains the first and only African till date to be named as FIFA World Footballer of the year in 1995.At the pinnacle of his career, King George starring for French side Paris St Germain was one of the most feared attackers on the planet. Weah who later starred for Italian giants Milan AC was a tremendous source of succor for his compatriots caught in the viciousness of a civil war. He ran unsuccessfully for Presidential elections in 2005 and lost to Ellen Johnson in the second round. Perhaps buoyed by the critique from some that he was not sufficiently educated, Weah went back to school and earned college degrees in the USA. In the 2011 elections, he ran for Vice President on Winston Tubman’s ticket. Watch out for Mr. George when he makes a third run when Ellen Johnson ends her last term in the next couple of years.

It will not be a surprise if Mister George becomes President of Liberia someday
It will not be a surprise if Mister George becomes President of Liberia someday

He just might be the first former footballer to become a Spresident. Weah has been known to be heavily involved in humanitarian courses and is UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.

In 1992, Ivory Coast won the Nations cup hosted by Senegal. At the time, the country was a strong and prosperous country free from the ethnic cleavages and sinister politics that later plunge it into civil war. The man who had the honour of lifting the trophy for the Ivoirians was Gadji Celi Alain. Today a household name in music, many forget that before music, Gadji was a soccer star. His compatriot Francois Zahoui is today the coach of the Ivory Coast National Team. At the recent Gabon/Equatorial Guinea 2012 Nations Cup, the Zahoui led Ivorian National Team emerged runners up in what was considered a very disappointing outing .

Arguably the greatest goalkeeper Africa has ever produced; Thomas Nkono remains a reference for many in the continent and beyond. Juventus and Italian National Team Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, also a goalkeeper, declared he decided to play in that position after seeing Nkono’s performances at the 1990 World Cup. In addition, he named his son Thomas in the Cameroonian’s honour. Nkono has had stints serving as Goalkeeper Trainer for the Cameroon National Team and was at some point Assistant Coach.

Arguably Africa's greatest goalkeeper, Nkono remains inspirational to many
Arguably Africa's greatest goalkeeper, Nkono remains inspirational to many

He continues to be associated with Espanyol Barcelone of Spain, a side where he spent the bulk of his professional playing career.

Many other stars who graced the game in Africa have served or still serve as coaches, Christian Chukwu, Austin Eguavon, and Daniel Amokachi of Nigeria. François Oman Biyick of Cameroon whose header brought the Argentina of the legendary Diego Maradona back to planet earth at the opening game of the 1990 world cup was until last year the Assistant coach of Cameroon. The stint did not go so well as for the first time in recent memory, the Lions failed to make it to the Nations Cup.

It was not always easy for the African stars of yesteryears .Serious challenges were faced from racial barriers, to cultural differences and the general believe that African footballers could not be as good as the Europeans or South Americans for instance. These factors ultimately impacted on wages earned. Today, Eto’0 Fils is the highest paid footballer in the world. It is heartwarming as well to see that the same zeal with which some of them defended the colours of the continent is been emulated by their sons. Andre Ayew the son of Abedi Pele was instrumental in Ghana’s Quarter Final run at the 2010 world cup in South Africa. At the 2012 Nations Cup, he and his brother Jordan were part of the Ghana National team that made it to the last four. In a rare twist of history, both Andre and Jordan play for French side Marseille, the club which their father excelled in the 90s. In Gabon, Pierre Aubame Yaya has about three sons who have earned calls to the National Team. One of them Aubameyang was a major revelation at the recent Nations cup.

These monuments still have so much to contribute to the game and do not only need to be revered but also given the opportunities to be of share their knowledge and experience. Most of the top clubs in Europe are coached or managed by those who made the game what it is .From Platini who heads the Federation to Rummenige heading Bayern ,Blanc coaching France, Guardiola until recently serving as Coach of Bayern etc, . Without necessarily copying everything wholesale, even off the pitch African stars must be given the opportunity to continue to be of service to the continent. How about Kalusha Bwalya running CAF someday, how about Bell Joseph Antoine serving as Coach of Cameroon? Lucas Radebe serving as a club President in South Africa? If Africa is a power house in the world today, it is thanks to them and perhaps at the local level, their expertise will only help lift the continent to even greater heights.

Hard to wrap this piece without a word on the passing of two monuments within a week, Rashidi Yekini of Nigeria and Jules Francois Bocande of Senegal.

Yekini in green and Bocande will be fondly remembered by football fans
Yekini in green and Bocande will be fondly remembered by football fans

Both were players of the same generation and were amongst the best in their days with incredible goal scoring prowess.

At the 1994 world cup in USA, Yekini became the first player to score a goal for Nigeria at that level. There may be gone but the glorious contributions towards the international image of African football would remain a lasting legacy.


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