Sports Features of Mon, 22 Nov 201020

Ode to the Brightest Star - The El Capitano (2)

By Shaban Barani Alpha

Here was a young man who set out to start a career in football at the risk of his education – dropping out of school at Primary 6 to pursue football, more so in one of the deprived suburbs of Accra called Mamprobi. He started off at the Mighty Victory Colts team.

He earned the nickname ‘Tornado’ due to the fact that he was very dominant in midfield and also very strong. A combative player, Stephen Appiah has a strong 'engine' and good tactical awareness. He is an all-round box-to-box midfielder who is able to defend as well as create and score goals.

Professionalism and a career in football however, smiled at the ambitious youngster when at age 15 he was spotted by Accra Hearts of Oak back in 1995, during a game in which he grabbed two goals. As was the case with most youngsters, Appiah was shipped off in 1996 to undertake trials with Turkish giants Galatasaray’s youth squad. An unsuccessful stint meant that Appiah had to return to his mother club, Accra Hearts of Oak.

A year later whiles on national duty playing in the World Youth Championship, Pietro Lomonaco spotted the ‘tornado’ and gave a strong recommendation of the youngster to Italian club Udinese Calcio, who in turn signed him for their Serie A campaign.

At the Friuli Stadium – home of Udinese - Appiah had virtually been changed from an attacker to a midfielder of his current standing. Justifiably so, because at the time, European clubs could only allow established strikers to play the role but with a young player as Appiah, perhaps the transformation to a midfield role was a blessing in disguise.

His Udinese debut was against Lecce in February 1998, then time came when the el capitano said good bye to the Friuli Stadium after three years of service. His next destination was to Parma, also an Italian elite division side, although viral hepatitis had earlier threatened to derail the move.

Unfortunately for Appiah, his move looked to be a source of worry as he was sparsely used by his manager at the Ennio Tardini Stadium, the technical team at Udinese decided to loan him out rather than allow him to ‘waste away.’ As a result, he spent the 2002-03 season on loan at Brescia Calcio, where he enjoyed a first-team place, scoring seven times in 31 games.

Then came the big move which the capitano has described in several ways as a blessing. The champions of the league at the time, referred to as ‘old ladies’ of Italian football - Juventus - were impressed with his performance, subject to which they secured his services on loan. After a sterling loan year, Juve exercised a clause in the loan deal and signed him permanently. In his words, "It is a terrific opportunity for me; you cannot ask for more than to play for a team like Juve."

In the same 2003, Stephen Appiah was nominated by the Confederation of African Football for African Footballer of the Year, finishing eighth, with Cameroonian Samuel Eto’o, then with Mallorca, winning the title.

At the Delle Alpi Stadium in Turin, he enjoyed a solid season playing in as many as 30 Serie A games and the Italian Cup final, although Juventus lost out to S. S. Lazio over two legs. He went on to enjoy a solid first season for Juventus at the Delle Alpi Stadium, playing 30 Serie A games, appearing in the Coppa Italia final, won by S.S. Lazio over two legs, and making his debut in the UEFA Champions League.

Although Appiah lost his place in the team to Manuele Blasi early in his second season, he played 18 Serie A games as Juventus won the domestic title for the 28th time – a title that was revoked by the Italian FA due to the calciopoli match fixing scandal.

Then came July 2005, when the El-Capitano transferred from Juventus to Fenerbahçe, who were the defending Turkish champions. There he won the Turkish Super League Championship with Fenerbahçe in their centenary year (2006).

The year 2007 was a bright one that opened the gates for trophies with Appiah winning the Turkish Super League and Super Cup with his club, but the Fenerbahçe romance was not to end as it started as the former skipper speaks about how he nearly died as a result of an operation that went horribly wrong.

Then was the subsequent pull-and-push that characterized whether or not Appiah could leave Fenerbahçe and what the conditionality, if he was leaving, was to be.

As if that was not enough pain, Appiah was to miss out on the Nations Cup on home soil during CAN 2008. But he stayed with the team in an inspirational capacity to give the side a much needed boost that only a leader as he offered albeit off the field.

Clubs across Europe were all this while purported to be interested in the services of the man who had been out of action for a little over a year. Trials with Tottenham and FC Rubin Kazan were not successful and the el-capitano in the latter part of 2009 settled for Bologna in the Serie A, playing just two games for the club.

Appiah’s seeming desperation to get a club stemmed from the urgent need to get back to fitness and fight for a place in the Black Stars World Cup squad following wide media debate about whether or not it was a prudent decision to include him in the squad.

But whatever opinions were expressed about him were not to result in him missing out on the World Cup as he was named in Milovan Rajevac’s squad that was to play against the likes of Germany, Serbia and Australia. The captain played a largely fringe role making substitutes appearances, and scoring one of Ghana’s spot-kicks in the defeat to Uruguay.

He expressed the will to continue in a Black Stars shirt despite calls for his retirement from the team but that was not to be as he announced his retirement from the team, effectively from international football.

He joined Cesena, a newly promoted side in the Italian Serie A and his leadership qualities had shown so early that he had been handed a temporary role of captaincy at the club. We wish the captain, a legend in all respects, the very best in his endeavours and look forward to the day he sees his wish of coaching any national team come true.

But as one who uses the Ring Road – a major road in Accra - almost all week, I cannot but admire seeing the effigy of the captain in different shades in front of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC), celebrating a goal in one instance, standing at the far end of a Stars group photo, in a challenge against former Juventus teammate and Czech international, Pavel Nedved, when the Stars played Czech in the Germany 2006 World Cup.

But the one image that strikes me most shows the former skipper, with eyes closed, hands on chest and I suspect soaking the words of the national anthem ahead of one of many games during which he had given mother Ghana his 100% output.

As is becoming a trend all over the world with popular personalities who make loads of money coming back to give to society, Appiah launched the StepApp Foundation which organized football events amongst selected communities within the Accra metropolis.

The foundation also bore the full cost sometime last year of registering a large number of people living in the Chorkor area, a suburb of Accra, where the captain was raised. Then came the big one in October this year; Appiah returned from the World Cup to outdoor a Community Library and Mother & Child Center for the people of his community - .a move that would undoubtedly go a long way to assuage the rather deplorable situation in which members of the community live, amidst the deprivation in terms of resources on already strained national resources.

TEN FOR THE MAN-IN-TEN

From the slums in Chorkor to Italian city Turin

The only thing that mattered to him, winning

From Hearts of Oak to top clubs in Europe

Spearheaded teams with his superb soccer scope

From a twinkling Starlet to the brightest star

The journey may have been very dire and far

From Ghana thru Africa, Europe and beyond

Doubt it, debate it, he goes down as a legend

From dedication to inspiration, he was the capitano

Deservedly so, a standing ovation for the Tornado

© 2010 Shaban Barani Alpha

Source: Shaban Barani Alpha

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