Zoom interview was scheduled for 11:25 am. The ‘usual’ process with players/athletes is that you get onto your laptop and wait – five or ten minutes at most but Baba Sule was prompt.
He popped up on the screen looking for an old version of himself – obviously because age has caught with him. He sounded good, sprightly but, there was a sort of sadness in his eyes. Sule is easily one of the unluckiest players the sport has ever seen.
How do you make sense of winning the world cup, signing for Real Madrid as a youngster and ending up as a kit man for one of Madrid’s fringe clubs?
A wee 26 years ago though, Sule was on top of the world. He had left the Kumasi Cornerstones as a young boy, walked into the Black Starlets set up and had gone on to win the U-17 World Cup in style while scoring in the final.
He scored Ghana’s opener in the 39th minute in that final – latching onto a loose ball the keeper (Julio Cesar) had spilled from a Joseph Ansah spinning shot from midfield. When the ball crossed the line with little help from Emmanuel Bentil, they wheeled away together and the crowd went crazy.
“That year was a memorable year for me and the team that played at that world cup. That year was very great. It was a good moment for us and the country.” Sule says as he smiles at his screen in my direction.
That 1995 team was unique in many ways. A good blend, players who had gone through different football mills in this country and were hungry for success. This crop won Ghana a second title and there was an unbelievable air of optimism blowing through the country’s football landscape. And here Sule was one of the prospects with the world at his feet. But, as a footballer, finding the club that is right for you requires very subtle alchemy.
Long before he made the trip to Europe though, he had a player for the now ‘defunct’ Kumasi Cornerstones. Cornerstones were Kumasi’s other club, also-rans but they had the knack for stirring up the hornet’s nest. They were a fairly good club back then in football’s early years in Ghana and although they never won the league, they felt the FA Cup thrice – in 1959, 1965, and 1989.
These days the club where Sule started is in turmoil. “It is rather unfortunate that Kumasi Cornerstones is facing these kinds of problems. I played for them and after arriving in Europe, I heard the club had been relegated. Since then they haven’t been able to come back to the First division
It hurts me so much that Kumasi Cornerstones is largely disappearing from the map of Ghana Football. Even though we have been trying a lot these days to get the team back to where it was before I left.” He said.
As it is with every youngster who excels at youth level tournaments, Sule made a move to Europe. As difficult as it was to find a club, he opted for Mallorca and that was where his first strike in a string of football career misfortunes began. Baba was diagnosed with Hepatitis in his first few months at the club. His dreams, hampered by the ailment.
“When I played for Mallorca, I faced a lot of problems concerning the illness. I had Hepatitis and it even nearly caused my contract with Mallorca and I had a conversation with them and they allowed me to come to Ghana for treatment. So I came back treated it and returned to Mallorca. They did the test and I passed through.” Baba recalled as he looked pensively into the little camera lens of his laptop.
The return to Spain meant a fresh start to the man’s fortunes. He left Mallorca for Ourense. At Ourense, things were going so well until it hit a snag again. He broke his tibia in two parts and missed a chunk of games that season. Irrespective of the setback, he however returned to Ghana to play in the u-20 World Cup in 1997 where his two goals helped Ghana to finish in 4th place.
Baba was the midfielder’s midfielder. Potent, a hardman who was strong in his tackles, instinctive in his passing, and had a right that could unleash shots from everywhere well into the opposing team’s half. He was a people person. A man who was solely in the pitch to do his job.
It gave him a big acceptance in Spain and in next to no time, the mighty Real Madrid came calling.
“Real Madrid signed me to replace Makelele”. He told me with what had become a twisted facial expression.
You couldn’t quite tell if he was sad or happy but his voice had dropped a few decibels lower. “They signed me for their second team. Before then the second team was in the second division B. In those days, they didn’t allow foreigners to play in that league. It was only for Europeans and Spanish nationals. So I was loaned to Leganes hoping that I will do very well there and come back. At that time things were going so well for me”.
The good times didn’t last though. Sule was to be called back into the senior Madrid side for pre-season in Japan but, first he had to convince then sporting director of the club, Vicente Del Bosque who had made the trip to Leganes to watch him play.
In that game, misfortune hit him again. “I was controlling a ball and when I tried to turn I fell down”. His words were sharp, filled with pain, and crushingly devastating. “Initially I didn’t think it was that serious and tried to walk it off but when I got I realized how serious it was. The moment I had that injury, I realized that I was going to miss a lot of opportunities.”
Just like that, his Madrid chances were gone. His dreams of wearing the famous white shirt? Gone. He had missed the bus again – the bus that was to take him to the Santiago Bernabeu and make him the first Ghanaian player ever to play for the 13-time European Champions. All lost.
After the botched Madrid move, Sule stayed at Leganes where he played up until 2004. His moves from then on took him to every corner in Spain. From Lleida to Tomelloso to Rapitenca and then to Rayo Majadahonda. He took his journey away from Spain and into West Africa where he played for Kwara United in Nigeria.
Moments after hanging up his boots, he took a job as David De Gea’s chauffeur back when he was still a teenager and coming through the ranks at Atletico Madrid.
“When I hung my boots, my manager was the same manager as De Gea. I had a discussion with him and we agreed that I will pick him up with my car to the training grounds and then to school. At that time he was very young but looking back, it is great to have done that for one of the best players now.”
At the time when he was doing that, he was learning to be an electrician on the side.
Baba now plies his trade as a kitman for Fuenlabrada, a club in the outskirts of the Madrid province. He randomly got a call from the club to join them in that role and he happily took it.
He is always at the club – sorting out kits, boots, balls, and other training equipment. Much of his job lies in making the players feel good and he loves it. “At Fuenlabrada, they received me as part of the team and part of the family even though my role isn’t so big here but they still respect me and treat me as the professional player that I used to be. I have a lot of responsibilities at this club and I love it here”
Football is a fast lane with no pit stops. The littlest puncture and you will be left behind. However cruel it sounds or may seem, that is how that game has gone for years. It typifies Baba’s story in many ways. He has been dealt many major blows in the sport but space in his heart to be grateful. “Football gave me everything. I would’ve been worse off if I hadn’t played this sport”
Magnanimous isn’t it?
By Yaw Ofosu Larbi|3Sports|Ghana