ROBERT MENSAH: Remembering Africa’s ‘Goalkeeper No.1’

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Goalkeepers stand out on a football pitch, even without trying. Yet, as though wearing different kits from everyone else weren’t odd enough, some goalkeepers can’t help striving to stand out a bit more.

Most goalkeepers, actually.

The archetypal goalie exhibits a wackiness and arrogance that strikes you in equal measure; a combination that occasionally throws you off-balance, leaving you bewildered, and rubbing your eyes in disbelief of whatever one just witnessed. Name a great goalkeeper — Lev Yashin? Fabian Barthez? Bruce Grobbelaar? Rene ‘El Loco’ Higuita? Jens Lehmann? Ricardo Zamora? Jose Chilavert? Jorge Campos? Or Hugo Gatti? — and a peculiar quirk often comes to mind almost immediately. As far as eccentric goalkeepers come, though, there exists a singular example who stands out in the African setting, supreme and celebrated like no other: Ghana’s Robert Mensah.

Mensah represented the Black Stars a little over four decades ago, growing into a real force in the team at the time. Even in an era when the country was spoilt for choice in goalkeeping talent, it was he who kept goal as the Stars marched into the final of the 1968 Africa Cup of Nations — arguably the most notable achievement of Mensah’s international career, but one that ended in a narrow loss to Zaire (now DR Congo).

Still, much of Mensah’s fame lay in his exploits at club level, particularly with his beloved Asante Kotoko, Ghana’s most successful side. Kotoko only represented the crux of Mensah’s career, however, as he had already come a long way. He actually started out at hometown club ‘Mysterious’ Ebusua Dwarfs, later joining Sekondi Independence Club, and onward to Tema Textiles Printing — before Kumasi came calling.

What made him tick?

To start to appreciate his fabled uniqueness, one would do well to consider, first, Mensah’s trademark: a jet-black kit, complete with a checkered, over-sized cap which, coupled with his cat-like reflexes and commanding presence in goal, earned him deserved comparisons with Yashin, his illustrious Soviet contemporary.

Of particular significance was his ever-present cap, rumored to have been bequeathed to him by his dying grandfather, himself a renowned fetish priest from Cape Coast. It was this very accessory that would star in Mensah’s greatest moments as a footballer. It is said that, in the heat of many a game, Mensah would find a means of highlighting the presence of his wonderful cap, thereby inspiring confidence in his teammates/fans and dread in the opposition. Needless to say, the latter objective, on not a few occasions, elicited much verbal and physical abuse from provoked opponents.

Making of a Legend

Arguably the most significant incident of Mensah’s remarkable career — the one for which he would be most remembered and revered — occurred in January 1971, when Kotoko played Zairean giant TP Englebert (known today as TP Mazembe) in the now defunct African Champions Cup, the precursor of the modern-day Caf Champions League. Englebert were no mean side on the continent; this was a club that had the super-affluent and notoriously ruthless dictator Mobutu Sese Seko as its backer, and which, during a heightened peak of Zairean patriotism, was one of the few icons which emboldened an oppressed people. To the Ghanaians, however, Englebert meant much more. Some four years prior, those two sides had crossed swords at that same stage of the competition, with both legs ending in stalemates and Kotoko eventually being forced to give up the title-winning contest in the most unusual and painful of circumstances.

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Thus, for the Porcupine Warriors, this was an opportunity to exact long-overdue vengeance; at the other end, however, corrupt Mobutu also desperately needed victory to consolidate the steadily receding popularity he enjoyed in his country and had even allegedly baited Caf’s appointed referee with a million-dollar reward in return for a ‘favorable’ performance.

Reasonably, then, this was always going to be some clash, and having failed to kill off the tie in the first leg after only managing a draw at home, Kotoko were really up against it heading into the reverse in Zaire.

The Ghanaians’ already dire predicament was further compounded when they conceded first; Kotoko now required two unanswered goals if they were to be in with any chance of returning with the prize this time — a task rendered harder by the minute as match officials begun to put on their worst behaviour. Somehow, though, Kotoko did find those goals — through Abukari Gariba and Malik Jabir — and were well on their way to recording a memorable result, improbable as it had seemed earlier. The hitherto vociferous Englebert fans were beginning to depart in pockets as it became increasingly obvious that their team was proving clueless at finding a way past visitors who now dominated in all respects; up in the Directors’ Box, Zaire’s quick-tempered head-of-state was fuming.

Then, out of nothing, the referee – unwilling to let the proposed booty slip away — conjured a penalty for the hosts, much to the surprise of all but himself. For Kotoko’s officials, this was the last straw; they’d had it. For much of the game, they had endured petty, inexplicable biased calls, but this — now that the scent of triumph seemed ever so strong — was deemed grossly unacceptable. Surely, this was one obviously unfair decision they just couldn’t overlook, and what ensued in the following minutes proved so dramatic it could make any proper Hollywood script.

Coach Aggrey Fynn and his staff quickly ordered their players off the pitch, with the apparent goal of prompting an abandonment of the game. As his teammates heeded those instructions and began leaving the field, however, Mensah, perhaps, inferred the unfolding walk-off as a casual disregard for his renowned penalty-saving ability. Hurriedly, he raced, in a fit of silent rage combined with a sense of duty, to his colleagues and coaches who had all but completed their mission, and after serving a stern reminder of his aforementioned forte and the sense of indomitability stirred up by the club’s ‘kum apem a, apem beba’ motto, summoned them to resume the match, come what may.

All eyes were now on this bullish warrior of a man — standing at all of six feet — even as he strode majestically back into his area, placed the ball right on the penalty spot, and laconically returned to his post. Cue Kagogo, spot-kicker extraordinaire and the specialist on the Congolese team. According to those who witnessed it, the poor soul was so visibly shaken and intimidated, yet not just by the demeanor and actions of the man he had to face. Even worse, as his countrymen realized, there was a far more threatening reason for Kagogo’s fright: the object so loftily and ominously perched on Mensah’s head!

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And so they tried to make him take it off, but a more grievous error couldn’t have been committed, for even Mensah — admirably unflappable throughout the unnerving episode that had just transpired — apparently had his own limits and thus resisted their thoughtless demand with such ferocity that he nearly sparked a one-man mutiny by himself as a consequence.

Now, though, it was his turn to be reminded by his own that Kotoko (and, by extension, its players) weren’t ever known for shying away from a challenge. Buoyed by this hardly disputable truth, Mensah animatedly hurled his cap away and jumped right back in goal with a mien even more troubling than before.

Shorn of his ‘talisman’, Mensah was now supposed to be at his most vulnerable, yet even that realization seemed to do precious little to boost Kagogo’s depleted confidence. Tensed, he wobbled up to the ball and blazed it high over the bar, miles into Zairean skies. Mobutu almost choked on his cigar; quite possibly, someone had to remind him that he couldn’t leave just yet, for it was his duty to present the trophy to the victors, who were now certainly going to be Kotoko. And so it happened: the club’s maiden taste of continental glory, and Mensah had significantly more to do with it than anyone else.

Call it his Grobbelaar-spaghetti-legs-moment, and you wouldn’t be wrong, for none could begrudge Mensah the acclaim and adulation that feat brought him. It is, without a doubt, the one story about Mensah that encapsulated everything he ever possessed: bravado, charisma, and influence, all pinched with a dose of heroism. Sadly, though, Mensah wouldn’t get to enjoy the increased prominence for long. On the night of October 29 that very year, he met with what would ultimately prove his demise, and when it came, it occurred as a somewhat direct consequence of his lamentable lack of discipline — the one unsavory facet of his otherwise lovable persona. On that fateful evening, Mensah had visited a bar in Tema (Community 7), his suburb of residence, to indulge in his other great passion: drinking.

Prayers for a dying hero

The story is narrated — and with varying degrees of accuracy — that a quarrel broke out between two other men who also frequented the place, and from the account, Mensah might have played a role in the drunken brawl so significant and provocative that it prompted one Isaac Melfah, a mechanic, to stalk our dear maverick and stab him with a piece of glass, at a site some 150 yards from the said bar, resulting in profuse bleeding and subsequent death on November 2.

It wouldn’t be the last time a highly esteemed African goalkeeper would fall victim to some senseless act of savagery. Exactly a week to the 43rd anniversary of Mensah’s murder, young Senzo Meyiwa — then captain of Orlando Pirates and the South African national team – was fatally gunned, albeit under tragic circumstances of a different sort.

Legacy

Mensah was only 32 when he died. By goalkeeping standards, his was a career truncated far too early, and the masses — for whom he remained a darling — mourned him for days. Few could believe it, as with the kind of seeming omnipotence and vitality the big man constantly exuded, it probably wasn’t conceived that anything — not even the grand inevitability of death — could ever subdue him. But there he lay: lifeless, powerless . . . cap-less.

Mensah’s life had been spent mostly in the Ghanaian cities of Cape Coast, Tema, and Kumasi, and it was thus only reasonable that he was greatly celebrated in these places. It was in the latter – his adopted home — however, that Mensah’s funeral took on its biggest proportions, as thousands interrupted their businesses and thronged to the Baba Yara Sports Stadium to pay their final respects to the remains of the man who thrilled them endlessly while he lived.

The final leg of Mensah’s funeral saw his cortege carried to his native Cape Coast where he was finally laid to rest at the St. Francis Cathedral. That year, quite incidentally, Mensah was recognized posthumously by the prestigious France Football Magazine as runner-up to teammate Ibrahim Sunday as Africa’s best footballer.

In the aftermath of his death, Mensah earned his place in Ghanaian folklore when, in 1972, the popular high-life band ‘Negro Kings’ composed an ode in his honour. It featured a fictional dialogue between Sunday and Osei Kofi, two of Mensah’s peers at club and national level, in which they are heard brooding over their deceased colleague as well as expressing the hope that his memory would forever be etched into the Ghanaian game’s annals.

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Then there is that poem-song recited by Ghanaian children — usually in somber mood — during play in which they recount a summary-of-sorts of Mensah’s life and subsequent death, referring to his killer as a villain or, quite literally, ‘a fool’ — a telling indication of the elevated light in which the man Mensah is still regarded among his people down till now, 48 years after his passing. On a brighter note, Mensah attained significant recognition — in a country often chastised for denying many of its past sporting heroes their due — when, some years back, he had the Cape Coast Stadium re-named after him.

Such was the man, and such was his ability to pull off the most outrageous deeds — a baffling catalogue that included having the guts to carry a newspaper along onto the field and actually reading it leisurely when he could, acting the clown during games to the amusement of cheering fans, daring opponents to shoot at his goal with his back turned to them, or even urging them to strike their spot-kicks in a particular direction with bold taunts, among other patented antics — he almost always got away with it.

‘Bob’, as he is still affectionately referred to, was really that good, and although there are barely any surviving graphics to back much of what has been said, the orally-related tales on which his legend stands provide evidence no less valid or vivid than anything a 3D highlight reel could offer as to how truly special this one was. And, thus, if at the beginning of this tribute you were perhaps doubtful of how Mensah, admittedly an unknown in the present-day game, could somehow lay claim to being Ghana’s Africa’s ‘goalkeeper No.1’, well, now you know.

The next time you are out on the streets, just keep your ears wide open: you’d hear them tell it all.

NY Frimpong — Daily Mail GH

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