Stephen Appiah was one of those box-to-box players filled with a lot of energy that enabled him to toil like a beaver throughout the demanding 90-minutes on a field of play. He would start running once the referee blew the whistle, and never stops until the fat lady sings her ditty. Yet there was another deadly element to his game. Appiah was not just the heartbeat of the Ghanaian national team and its creative force, but scored crucial goals for the Black Stars, pushing the West Africans to their first ever World Cup appearance in Germany during 2006. His industrious approach to the game and deadliness near the penalty box earned him the nickname of “Tornado.” But injuries plagued his career until he retired recently. He spoke to Thomas Kwenaite.
TK: On a personal note, how have you adapted to life as a spectator and no longer an active footballer?
SA: It has not been easy. In fact, it has been very difficult. To just stop what you have been doing with love and passion for so many years has been hard. You no longer wake up in the morning to go training, no longer travelling, in a bizarre kind of way you miss the dressing room, the camaraderie and comradeship. But at the end of the day, you also have to count your blessings because while you were playing, you were always away from family. So now I can babysit, catch up and bond with the family and even take the kids to school. And I’m enjoying this role.
TK: Tell us about your role as a BetWay Ambassador in the Search for Talent.
SA: BetWay came up with this programme to search for talented youngsters across the country. I was initially approached by another company I declined their offer because I did not want to be involved with a scheme designed to deceive people. Betway made me to understand that it was not about taking money into some people’s pocket, but the project was a social responsibility programme to uplift the community.
TK: Exactly what do you do and how do you go about searching for these boys?
SA: I believe in South Africa you have something called the Nedbank Ke Yona Team Search well, the BetWay Talent Search is similar. We identify talented boys between 18-25 years and I simply get amazed at the kind of talent that has somehow slipped through the attention of professional club owners as well as national team selectors. The best of them, which is not an easy task to do believe me, we secure them trials with Premier League clubs – AshGold FC, Medeama Stars, Liberty Professionals and Aduana Stars FC.
TK: How long have you been involved with this programme?
SA: It started last year and together with fellow coaches Maxwell Konadu, Eric Antwi, Twumasi Forkuoh, Godfried Aboube, Sam Johnson and Mohammed Gargo, we are proud to announce that of last year’s group, two of the boys we discovered have signed professional contracts in Russia, one has been signed in Egypt and several others signed for local professional clubs. It is truly satisfying that players that under normal circumstances would not get a chance to play professional football, are given a platform through this Talent search programme.
TK: What has been your greatest moment in football?
SA: Without doubt, becoming the first captain after 48 years of trying, to lead Ghana to a FIFA World Cup in Germany was the pinnacle of my career. Ghana has produced outstanding players in the past and the 1982 generation that participated in the Senegal AFCON was probably the finest, but they never got an opportunity to play at the World Cup. And so, it was for me both an honour and a privilege to qualify and play at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
TK: Along the way you beat Bafana Bafana in Kumasi and Johannesburg…
SA: Let me also confess that playing at the FNB Stadium shall remain another milestone in my career. I have played at some of the world’s greatest and finest stadiums, but nothing can beat the experience of playing at the FNB. I remember we entered the stadium to inspect the pitch and to warm up. We were greeted by a cacophony of whistles and something we later came to know as the vuvuzela. It was mind blowing, exciting and scary at the same time. We had beaten Bafana Bafana 3-0 in Kumasi and now we were at a venue where Bafana were considered almost invincible and the noise of the vuvuzela was unnerving. It suddenly dawned on me that if we lost that match, we were probably going to kiss goodbye the chances of qualifying for Germany. We won it 2-0.
TK: Tell us about the planning behind that victory in particular?
SA: Bafana was a kind of bogey side for Ghana. We have never beaten them although victory in Kumasi had given us confidence. But we planned meticulously and arrived in SA much earlier to acclimatize to the notorious altitude. I think when Bafana supporters danced and celebrated in the stands before the game had even started, it motivated us. I must confess that we were scared even though we had defeated them in Kumasi. However, once the game started, we pushed ourselves and after creating a chance for Matthew Amoah who scored, we knew the game was in the bag.
TK: Talking about some of the players of your generation, how did you and Michael Essien establish such a solid midfield partnership?
SA: Essien was the hardest working midfielder I had ever come across. The man had an incredible work ethic and because we had played together at national level since 2002, he knew what I would do when I was in possession. I also cottoned onto what he would do when he carried the ball. I was regarded as the so-called brains of the team, creative and blessed with the ability to distribute and score. Sulley Muntari packed an incredible shot, was very good at crossing the ball and blessed with unbelievable skill while Essien was the fighter who destroyed and won the ball from the opposition. We complemented each other nicely.
TK: Talking about Muntari, some people claim he was a little bit crazy.
SA: (Burst out laughing) Some people say I’m cool. But let me tell you that Sulley was the coolest dude around. You just had to understand him. The problem is that Sulley was strict and hated being taken for a ride. He is very vocal person and calls a spade a spade. Sometimes he goes overboard but I think Sulley is someone who likes to speak his mind and people misinterpret it as arrogance and the mark of a crazy dude.
TK: How was the experience of playing at the World Cup in Germany for the first time?
SA: It was an unbelievable experience. I remember we defeated Cape Verde 4-0 and that was when it sunk in that we had made it. We knew that even if South Africa would beat the DR Congo, we would go equal on points but we had a better head-to-head record after beating them home and away. And when we arrived in Germany, we knew it was an opportunity to show the world what Ghanaian football was all about and I would like to think that we did not disappoint.
TK: Injuries prevented you from taking part in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
SA: That is true yes. But I always lived in a real world and if you recall, I had been club less for three years and did not have much game-time. I knew that I could contribute if I played but I was also realistic and honest enough to accept that it was not about Stephen Appiah but about Ghana. And playing at the World Cup one needed to be 100% and so I played my role behind the scenes and I am quite satisfied about my contribution, even though I never got to kick a single ball.
TK: Has Ghanaians forgiven Asamoah Gyan for that penalty miss?
SA: (Laughing) Well, we can’t crucify him forever. It is after all football and in any case, Leo Messi, Christiano Ronaldo, Roberto Baggio, all of them global superstars but at one stage in their careers, also missed penalties at the World Cup and life goes on. It is eight years since that infamous miss but we have left it behind and looking forward to rebuilding a team for the future.
TK: It must have been painful failing to qualify for Russia 2018.
SA: It has always been Ghana’s ambition to qualify for every World Cup tournament and not only make our country proud, but to raise Africa’s reputation. We fought very hard in South Africa and who knows what could have happened had Luis Suarez not handled that goal bound shot? Ghana do not go to the World Cup to add the numbers; we go there with the intention to win the tournament. Even in Brazil 2014, I would say we didn’t play badly, notwithstanding the misunderstandings and all the money issues, we still fought hard and that is why it was so disappointing when we failed to qualify for Russia.
TK: What would you say caused the five African representatives to all bow out in the group stages?
SA: It was not inability to play because we (Africans) have talent in abundance. It was a mental thing, a lack of concentration, inability to focus and you can go check the statistics, we concede goals anytime from the 88th minute, why? I was particularly disappointed by Nigeria. They were five minutes away from qualifying for the knockout stage against Argentina, but instead of the senior players showing their leadership qualities and calling on all players to switch on, kill time, slow the game down, break Argentina’s rhythm or alternatively continue kicking the ball into touch, they still wanted to run all over the field and paid the ultimate penalty. We need to learn these things.
TK: Tell us about your Technical role within the Black Stars.
SA: I am the senior national team’s Technical Co-ordinator, which means I am the go-between for the players, the team and the FA. It is a difficult task but one that I enjoy as it enables me to interact mostly with the players and work very hard behind the scenes. I am also learning stuff that I never knew existed while I was still playing and it’s much more difficult than being on the pitch, where the technical team concentrate on 4-3-3; 4-5-1; 4-4-2 or whatever formation, something that I don’t think I’d like to do as it has made me realize why some people suffer from heart attacks!
TK: The Ghanaian Technical bench is made up of former internationals and that is what we are advocating for Africa, but recently Senegalese El Hadji Diouf claimed that African Federations should consider employing Europeans on the bench as players seem to respect them more, your views?
SA: I respect El Hadji and of course he is entitled to his views. But I think in Africa (myself included), we do not support our own in the same way that we support a European coach. An African or indigenous coach does not get the same support compared to a foreign coach, yeah we certainly do not treat our own coaches in the same way. I think we must learn to empower and trust our own. If you look at someone like Alex Ferguson, where he started, it was not easy but he was given a chance to improve and gained confidence to a stage where he was considered the best in the craft.
TK: Are you supporting El Hadji Diouf’s views that we should consider employing foreign coaches for our own good?
SA: No. I’m saying in Africa; players usually do not respect local coaches because local coaches sometimes are not aware of their own powers. When you are appointed coach, you are the boss and I’m not implying that you should therefore then start pushing your weight around. But you need to be aware of your responsibilities and how to exercise your powers. Be fair to everyone but at the same time firm. Take decisions that will benefit the whole and even if you have Christiano Ronaldo in your team but you feel that he is not pulling his weight or performing his duties to your satisfaction, do not molly coddle him but substitute him. The problem is that some local coaches unfortunately never played their club football up to the highest level and you find in some instances, others hero worshipping certain players. The tragedy is that they do not realize that they dig their own graves the minute they start asking so-called top players for their opinion about certain issues as well as which formation to play. The players will assume that you are clueless and inevitably take advantage. You must show you are the boss but in a manner that is fair and beneficial to the entire group.
TK: Tell us about the objectives of the Stephen Appiah Foundation.
SA: I grew up in the toughest and hardest neighbourhoods in Ghana where survival was the motto. I dropped out of school in grade 5 because there was simply no money to pay for school, let alone a meal at the end of the day. The street vendors from the fishing community where I grew up used to feed us, because we just did not have anything to eat. Some of the friends I grew up with have sadly ended up as junkies, others are in jail for various offences ranging from house breaking to bank robberies while tragically, others are mental patients due to substance abuse. Football has been good to me and because it has been able to put some money into my pocket, I established the Foundation to assist people from my neighbourhood with anything ranging from health issues, paying for medical supplies, school fees for the neighbourhood kids, hospital fees and just about anything you can think of. We use my fashion label StepApp to purchase material in Turkey and design clothing that we sell and the proceeds help sustain the Foundation.
TK: Recently you attended the 60th birthday of former WBC boxing legend Azumah Nelson in the company of Abedi Pele.
SA: I was truly humbled that we have been able to celebrate Azumah Nelson while he is still alive. Growing up as kids, Nelson inspired us kids to dream after becoming a world boxing champion and he did more than enough to put Ghana’s name on the map. Abedi, well, there is only one Maestro (Abedi Pele) in football and he also played a huge inspirational role to most of us kids as we wanted to emulate him and everything that he had achieved. I live a mere 3km drive from Abedi and we often visit each other to chat and I continue to learn so much from him.
TK: Tornado, we can chat all day long and never cover everything that you have achieved, thank you very much for talking to us.
SA: It was an absolute pleasure.