Robert Mensah and the Battle of Kinshasa

Tue, 9 Aug 2011 Source: Appiah, Papa

The recent football contest between Ghana’s Black Meteors and the Nigerian Dream team was, in a way, a throwback to Ghana’s battles with the Congo, especially in the early seventies. There were allegations of substandard accommodation, of refereeing ineptitude and hints of juju. Back then, however, the choice was not between a three star hotel and a four star one. It was between having a bed or just a table, as Asante Kotoko found out in the second leg of the final of the 1970 African Club Championship in Kinshasa against Tout Puissant Englebert.

TP Englebert had secured a 1-1 draw with Asante Kotoko in Kumasi and with no away-goal-rule at the time, needed to win the second leg outright to win the trophy. Asante Kotoko arrived in Kinshasa and were shocked to realize, that the accommodation reserved for them was a classroom block. There were armed soldiers loitering in the vicinity but they were not there for the protection of the players. They were there to ensure the team did not attempt to move away to another accommodation but would sleep on the tables and chairs in the classrooms and receive their fair share of mosquito bites. The Congolese are yet to confirm whether the mosquito-filled swamp at the back of the classroom was purpose-built for the benefit of Kotoko.

Asante Kotoko were led on the day of the match by Sunday Ibrahim and the team featured such great players like Malik Jabir, Abukari Gariba, Yaw Sam and Osei Kofi but the star of the side was undoubtedly, the enigmatic giant of a goalkeeper, Robert Mensah. Those who saw him in action still swear that Robert is the best goalkeeper they ever saw. His personal charisma and the fact that he died so young may yet have clouded people’s judgement to a degree but from all accounts, he was a genius in the post. Like all truly gifted people, however, he had his flaws and for Robert, this happened to be indiscipline. In fact, he was stabbed to death in “Credo” akpeteshie bar in Tema on a day when his team mates were in camp in Kumasi preparing for a continental game.

Asante Kotoko took the lead early in the game through “goal na mafefe” Abukari Gariba. Congolese strongman Kalala equalized before Englebert conceded a second goal, scored by Malik Jabir. When the referee whistled for a rather dubious penalty for Englebert in the last few minutes, with the score at 2-1, Coach Aggrey Fynn and other Kotoko officials decided to call their players off the pitch in protest against the blatant attempt at robbery. They protested vehemently to no avail until, to the surprise of all and sundry, Robert went up to the officials and pleaded with them to allow the game to go ahead. If there was any justice in the world, he said, it would not be beyond the realms of possibility for him, Robert, to save the day. When the officials finally gave in, Robert Mensah ran to the goalpost, took off his famous white cap and hit the cross bar and the two side posts with it. He put his cap back on, stood on the goal line, opened his arms wide and beckoned to Kakoko, the Congolese penalty expert, to shoot.

There had been simmering rumours about Robert Mensah’s cap and what it did or did not contain but things came to a head once he had started brandishing it as a “weapon” in the heat of battle. The Congolese complained to the referee about “the goalkeeper’s cap” and he ordered Robert to remove his cap before the penalty kick. There was a “volcanic eruption”. Robert Mensah was not about to remove his cap. That cap, a gift from his grandfather, a Cape Coast fetish priest, before he solemnly passed away, and which embodied the glorious spirits of his illustrious ancestors long gone was not about to be cast aside. That cap, his cherished companion in great battles for both Asante Kotoko and the Black Stars in countries far and wide without even the slightest hint of a complaint from anybody was not about to be cast aside at this crucial moment in the final of Africa’s premier club competition. Robert Mensah walked out of the goalpost while the referee shamelessly threatened to end the game in favour of Englebert.

The Asante Kotoko officials who only a short while earlier had been coerced by Robert to allow the game to on, now wished the game over and done with and quietly hoped the giant would change his mind. But who was going to be brave enough to say that to an angry Robert? Soon, an elderly man was seen scuttling down from the directors’ box and engaged in verbal exchanges with riffle-wielding solders who were trying to stop him from entering the pitch. He was the Kotoko president of the time, I.K. Moukerzel. He finally made it unto the pitch, sat by Robert and asked the angry goalkeeper to look him in the eye.

“Robert” he said “you know and I know, that we are being robbed here. But are we going to run away? No! Because that is not the Asante Kotoko way. If need be Robert, we should lose this cup fighting to the very last man.........”

Whether Robert was touched by this message or that he suddenly realized he could be losing the psychological battle will never be known. What is known is that, the great man suddenly leapt unto his feet, threw his cap angrily unto the pitch, run fiercely into the goal, spread out his long arms and beckoned to Kakoko once again to shoot.

Meanwhile, a small group of Congolese soldiers had, amidst cheers from the fans, picked up Robert’s cap with the tip of a bayonet, displaying it as a trophy. Officials of Asante Kotoko finally succeeded in retrieving it, but not before the soldiers had slashed through the inner lining of the cap in a desperate search for the elusive juju they believed was tucked away somewhere in there. Then silence.......! The long period of anticipation and the psychological intrigues had had its toll and one would have thought an earthquake had started, judging from the wobbly legs of Kakoko. It was no wonder, therefore, that he half-kicked the turf as he sent the ball miles over the bar. Asante Kotoko had won.

General Mobuto Sese Seko had had a difficult 5 years in power. By 1970, however, nearly all potential threats to his rule, including Patrice Lumumba, had been smashed. This year marked the pinnacle of Mobuto’s legitimacy and power. Even though Englebert had won the trophy before, Mobuto had been desperate for them to win the 1970 edition to raise the spirit of a depressed nation and serve as a comfortable springboard for future ambitions. Before handing the cup over to Sunday Ibrahim, he turned to his people, his face contorted in disappointment and sheer fury, “You Congolese,” he said “it is because of your foolishness that this cup is going to Ghana.”

Papa Appiah



Source: Appiah, Papa