If you like your Ghanaian football history, the last few weeks have been amazing. Big names, big interviews, big characters, great stories.
They have felt like high speed trips down the greatest memory lanes but none of that matched the feast Abedi Ayew Pele served on Sunday afternoon.
For the Black Stars, he was an incredible player. A leader on the pitch, the man who could drag the team out of any situation and win games.
He had his critics too but when he talks you listen. That is what three Africa Player Of The Year titles get you. That is also what you get when you play in two Champions League finals in the early ’90s when only one African, Raber Madjer, had done that. That is also what you get when you are roundly considered the greatest Ghanaian player ever.
So on Sunday afternoon, when he sat in the GTV Sports Plus studio, the nation was hooked. And as he did for many years in a Black Stars jersey, the Maestro delivered.
There was the emotional scene and tears as the man who helped set off his career on the colts scene – Herbert Adika – surprised him in the studio. And then there was Abedi in his full glory: evasive on some subjects, frank on many and consistently oozing the confidence and self-belief that made him such a phenomenal success.
With footage of that 1993 Champions League final win over AC Milan rolling, the Maestro, Man of the Match in that game, explained why he seemed to enjoy playing against the team that was then considered the best in the world.
“Milan had great players, great names. Gullit and others and whenever I was facing them, I was so determined to make a point,” he said.
That mentality played a great role in how he eventually became a hit in France. He wanted it so much that it partly contributed to a national team absence between 1986 to 1990.
“I wanted to storm France. I was focused, I needed it more and I wanted all the time to work for it.”
The result of that single mindedness was telling. First rejected by Franz Beckenbeaur at Bayern Munich, he became a mainstay of the Marseille team that battled AC Milan for European dominance in the early 90s.
He won them all. League titles, domestic cups and the ultimate one, the European Champions League. In 1991 when his Marseille team lost the final to Red Star Belgrade after getting past AC Milan in the semi finals, it was as if the whole country had lost the major final.
Two years later, he helped seal a love affair not just with the competition but with his person as many Ghanaians watched and cheered as Olympique Marseille beat AC Milan in the final.
He never shrunk in big games. In that 1993 final, it was his run at Paolo Maldini that resulted in the corner kick before his delivery found Basile Boli, who scored the winning goal.
𝟮𝟲/𝟬𝟱/𝟭𝟵𝟵𝟯 – #OnThisDay
— Olympique de Marseille (@OM_English) May 26, 2020
That triumph was a key reason why he won another African Player Of The Year but he feels he should have one way earlier.
“I wanted it so bad even in the 80s, 88, 89. I was on fire in France, destroying everybody but I never came to play with the national team because I had some personal problems with the national team and that affected it.”
An official delegation to Marseille got him to change his mind. Back then, FIFA didn’t quite care and clubs could decide what to do.
“If you liked you played, if you don’t like, you don’t play.”
We have to be grateful that he changed his mind based at least only on the 1992 Africa Cup of Nations. Named captain under controversial circumstances, he led from the front, directing affairs on the pitch, setting up chances, scoring goals.
He saved the best of them for his final, unplanned appearance of the tournament against the sort of opponent that fires up any Ghanaian: Nigeria.
“In 1992, Nigeria thought they were untouchable because they had the men but we surprised them,” Abedi says.
First Abedi picked up a Yellow Card that would rule him out of the final if Ghana got there. Rather than get downcast, he simply rolled up his sleeves and got to work.
“I just told myself after the Yellow Card that even if I am not going to play in the finals, I must take my team to the finals. I was determined. That brought the goals and everything,” he explains.
His goal was cracking too, maybe the most iconic headed goal in Black Stars history.
“I asked him to give me the ball because I believed the guy marking me, I could move without him seeing it. The guy marking me was nowhere to be found but because I had one step ahead of him, I was gone. That was the only direction I could go and I was fortunate that there was no one on that post.”
The thrill of that goal is consistently taken away for Abedi by a sense that he had let down his country by getting himself suspended for the final.
“The ball was a throw-in, and the ref gave a free kick so I simply told him I was closer and that it was a throw-in and he got upset and showed me a Yellow Card.
“Of course I regret that action. I apologized very much to my countrymen afterwards. It was weighing on me. In that tournament we were on top, the best. People are hurt that I didn’t play in the final and I apologise. I am human. Occasionally you can be so determined and that is where you get it wrong. Sometimes you want it so much that it blows in your face.”
There are those convinced it was not just the determination that blew in his face.
Tony Yeboah suggested recently that it had a lot to do with divisions in the team too that was already reeling from a captaincy change that passed on the arm band from Kwesi Appiah to him. And when Yeboah was passed up for Anthony Baffoe as captain in the absence of Abedi, Yeboah claims it affected the whole mood.
Abedi denies his claim of an Accra and Kumasi faction in the team and says as far as he was concerned there were no such problems.
“No, not at all. It was very good for me. They announced the captainship in Portugal and I never had problems with Kwesi or Tony. Tony was exceptional but you see people were talking and all but Tony never pointed a finger at me,” he says.
Abedi also argues that any suggestion the team was not together is blown over by the fact that the loss to Ivory Coast was simply one of those days in football and that their performance throughout the tournament did not back any theory of a divided front.
“If you look at the performance, where we got to, how difficult it was for Ivory Coast to beat us through that marathon penalty shootout, you would see that we were just unlucky. We had a strong team, didn’t fear anybody and worked for each other.”
Two years later, Abedi arrived at the Nations Cup in Tunisia with significant stress. Marseille had been caught in a match fixing scandal and demoted. A proposed move to the Italian Serie A with Samdporia didn’t happen and he had just joined Lyon without. He says there was simply too much on his mind.
Later he got his Serie A move to Torino, played in the German Bundesliga and wrapped it up in the United Arab Emirates.
Every step of the way, he served us absolute treats, playing in a manner that won admirers and made him the best football export out of Ghana.
His former international teammate Yaw Preko says it is difficult to explain his greatness to someone who didn’t play with him.
As someone who watched him, I have a similar problem. The legend of Abedi is difficult to paint with one article. I hope this one helped.
By Michael Oti Adjei