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THE RESILIENCE THAT MADE SAMUEL KUFFOUR ONE OF AFRICA’S FINEST FOOTBALLERS

Remembering the career of Samuel Kuffour. The Ghanian icon who was a star for Bayern Munich in one of the club's most successful periods.

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The U-17 World Cup in Italy in 1991 was the making of one of Ghana’s bright young talents. Odartey Lamptey, who had excelled in the 1989 U-16 tournament, enhanced his reputation with a fine performance in Italy. Sebastian Barnes, Daniel Addo, Mohammed Gargo and a host of others launched careers in Europe on the back of splendid displays leading to the Ghanaian team winning the U-17 World Cup. The players from that squad did quite went on to do quite well in their later careers: Gargo had a fine time in Italy itself, with his greatest achievement being captaining Udinese, while Lamptey’s talent attracted global attention. It was Samuel Kuffour, however, who had the most successful career.

Samuel Kuffour was not the star of that team, but in the time that he did feature in that tournament, Torino were impressed enough to sign him. Domenico Ricci, the late Italian football agent who oversaw the transfer of many African players brokered the deal. His two-year stay in Torino was unremarkable and was quickly on the move without leaving much of a mark. The move came after an excellent campaign in the U-17 World Cup in Japan and the U-20 World Cup in Australia. This time, Kuffour was a key member of both teams earning runner-up medals in the two competitions.

Kumasi, where Kuffour was born, to Germany (via Turin in Kuffour’s case) is a well trodden path for Kuffour’s kinsmen. Lots of Kumasi folks can be found in Frankfurt, Hamburg and other German cities working hard for a living. The defender was therefore making a very familiar journey in moving to Bayern Munich. And like many of his folks who by dint of hard work in Germany pull families out of poverty, Kuffour’s success in Germany was equally remarkable.

Kuffour’s football journey began like most of his mates. On the sandy pitches and usually barefooted, he and his compatriots turned out for various youth football clubs. They just enjoyed playing the game and were content with tips or being carried on shoulders as reward for standout performance. That was about all the game had for them.  

Progression from youth football to Europe was a mirage if not a pipedream back then. The very talented and fortunate players got moves to Ghana’s league system. For Kuffour, Fantomas to King Faisal Babes represented the journey from youth to league football. His move from King Faisal Babes to Torino in 1991 was not commonplace in those years. Very few made it from youth football in Africa to the upper tiers in Europe.

Against that backdrop, the defender’s mother’s gesture of selling the family television to purchase football boots for him was a demonstration of incredible faith in her son’s talent if not a very risky gamble. Samuel Osei Kuffour grew up with his mother and three sisters and was not blessed with much. So when he got the invitation to the U-17 national team, his mother felt the need to sell one of their valuables to get him the boots he needed to send to the camp.

According to him, his sisters opposed the move. His sisters’ opposition was not just based on them losing their TV, but the obvious approval their mother was giving his football career a lot more, and perhaps, risky consideration. They wanted him to be a medical doctor. The general view in those times in Ghana was that a career in football was for school drop-outs. The success of Samuel Kuffour, Abedi Ayew  and Anthony Yeboah among others helped reshape that view.

By the time he joined the German giants in 1993, he was already on the path of success in his young career. The conviction of Kuffour’s mother did not take long in being justified. By age 17, Kuffour had already given a return on his mother’s “investment”. He had won one winner’s medal in the U-17 World Cup, become a finalist in another, a finalist in the U-20 World Cup and was a member of the history-making bronze-winning Olympic team in Barcelona in 1992. Ghana’s team in 1992 got Africa’s first medal in Olympic football. A move to Bayern Munich only reinforced the successful trajectory his career was taking.

When Kuffour arrived at Bayern’s Säbener Strasse youth academy, Herman Gerland (an assistant manager to Jupp Heynckes, Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti at  Bayern Munich) was the coach of the FC Bayern II (the Bayern reserve side). The former VFL Bochum legend had been in charge of the youth set-up for three years having coached Bochum and Nürnberg between 1985 and 1990. Gerland started off as a striker before becoming a steely defender for most part of his career. He was therefore well placed to teach a defender a thing or two about the art of scoring and preventing goals.

It’s no wonder a fine array of defenders emerged from his tutelage: Mats Hummels, Philipp Lahm, Holger Bastuber and David Alaba amongst a whole host of household names. If you add the midfielders and attackers who passed through his hands, there will be Thomas Mûller, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Owen Hargreaves – a picture is clearly formed of a man with the ability to nurture great talents across the football pitch.

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Under Gerland’s wings, Kuffour grew from a member of the youth team to a regular of the first team via FC Nürnberg . In 1995, after five years with the Bayern reserves, Gerland left for a second stint with FC Nürnberg and took his protégé with himThe defender made 12 appearances in the second tier of German football, scoring one goal. The club got relegated that season, although, had it not been for the docking of points before the campaign, that story may have been different.

However Kuffour returned to Bayern in an enhanced position to stake a claim for regular first team action. Before leaving on loan, he had made nine Bundesliga appearances and four Champions League appearances in the 1994/95 season. His league debut came against VfB Stuttgart partnering Matthäus and Oliver Kreuzer with Matthäus playing the sweeper role. His Champions League debut came against Spartak Moscow where he amazingly scored the equalizer in a 2-2 draw. But even those and the experiences at Nürnberg could not have been adequate preparation for the competition he was to face.

Bayern Munich had built their UEFA Cup wining season of 1995/96 on the defensive partnership of Kreuzer, Matthäus, Markus Babbel and Thomas Helmer. Otto Rehhagel regularly deployed a back three.

Matthäus had assumed the sweeper role as his career ebbed towards the end. Helmer was a member of the Germany national team in the 1994 World Cup and 1996 Euro Championship. Kreuzer had played four seasons in the Bundesliga with Karlsruher SC before his 1991 transfer to Bayern Munich. Babbel was a member of Germany squad at Euro 1996 and had vast experience in the league at Bayern Munich and Hamburg SV.

Giovani Trapattoni, the man who gave Kuffour his debut, also returned for the start of the 1996/97 season after an unsuccessful spell at Cagliari. If he was to get games against the experienced competition, he needed all assistance. A manager who showed faith in his talent was a good starting point. Matthäus and Helmer started the season as the preferred partnership, as Kuffour’s chance came in the seventh league match of the season against Karlsruher SC, replacing the former German captain. He kept his place in the team in the next match; a 3-0 loss to Werder Bremen. From that point he took turns to partner one of the preferred starting two, enjoying a run of 13 games. He ended that season with 22 league appearances and won the first of his six Bundesliga titles at the end of that season.

Kuffour’s first league goal for Bayern came the next season, scoring an 84th minute equalizer against VfB Stuttgart.  His growing importance to the team and Trapatonni was demonstrated when he was deployed in a left wing-back role in a league match against Wolfsburg. Kuffuor and Oliver Khan gained acclaim in the media for their role in the 3-2 victory. The season brought more laurels in the form of DFB Ligapokal and DFB Pokal and his incredible form and growing prominence was recognised by his country as he won the Ghanian Footballer of the Year accolade.

Ottmar Hitzfield took over Bayern Munich from Trapattoni in the 1998/99 season. Kuffour, however, was unshaken remained a key part of Bayern’s backline, featuring in 15 league games and starting the Champions League final against Manchester United in 1999. One of the enduring images from that final was the Ghanian crying and thumping the turf in agony after the match. The tears may be what the world remembers, but he was instrumental in Bayern’s journey to the final.

He played eight times in the competition including both legs of the semi-finals against Dynamo Kiev. By the end of that season, Kuffour had won two Bundesliga titles, two DFB-Ligapokal cups and one DFB-Pokal cup. He had the record for the youngest defender to score in the Champions’ League and he had firmly established himself as a regular in one of Europe’s biggest teams.

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The general view of African defenders was that they were rash and had too much inclination to resort to dangerous tackles more than game reading skills. Whilst attacking players thronged Europe in droves, the chance for African defenders in Europe came in spurts. Kuffour stood out with his game reading skills, decent ability on the ball and front-foot defending and the tutelage of master tacticians such as Gerland, Trapattoni and Hitzfield only helped hone his talent.  

Ghana had a decent record at the African Cup of Nations, being one of the tournament’s most successful nations. However, at the time Kuffour was in peak form, it had been quite some time since they had last won the competition. The defender participated in 1996 and 1998 tournaments, with lots of expectations on him, seeing as he had been such a celebrated figure in Germany. However, both times he and his nation failed to impress. In 1996, they would finish fourth and two years later, they would fail to make it past the group stages.

Ghana’s trophy drought was 18 years old when it co-hosted the 22nd edition of the African Nations Cup in 2000 along with Nigeria. The tag of being four-time winners of the tournament was now starting to become a burden on them, having failed to catch the eye at any AFCON edition since they won in 1982. As co-hosts, expectation was higher than before, and the country believed they had the right personnel to go all the way, led by coach Giuseppe Dosena, the World Cup-winning coach in the same year Ghana last won Africa’s top international prize. The message for the team was clear, however, disappointment would ring around the nation again.

After scraping through to make it to the second round, they came up against South Africa in the quarter-finals and would fall to a solitary Siyabonga Nomvethe goal on the cusp of half-time. At the final whistle, the hostility was rife, with accusations from fans that the players didn’t care about their country and that their money and domestic football was their top priority. This was a difficult period for Samuel Kuffour and Ghanian football as a whole.

That was not the only time accusations were going to be thrown his way from his involvement with the national team. Prior to the 2002 edition of the African Cup of Nations, there was a major shake-up of the squad. Kuffour survived it but many of his former teammates, including captain Charles Akonnor, didn’t. In protest at the manner his colleagues had been treated, he turned down a promotion from deputy captain. His participation in the tournament itself was in doubt until the President of the country intervened, such was his value to the squad.

His stay with the national team didn’t last long, however. After the team’s first match in the tournament, he was expelled from the team for indiscipline. Kuffour’s transgressions were not made public but there were sketchy reports a few sketchy reports of him breaking camp rules and choosing to go to night clubs. These reports were contradicted by other accounts that suggested Kuffour was made a scapegoat for complaining about poor kits and general conditions at the camp.

At club level, though, his career trajectory was only bringing more success. A year before the fiasco with the national team, he won the Champions League with Bayern Munich, becoming the third Ghanian to do so, thus wiping out the pain of two years prior. He played the whole of the final, including the extra 30 minutes and was a rock at the back. Also in that season, he added the Bundesliga and DFB Ligapokal to his gleaming honours list, playing an important role in both. At the end of the year, die Roten’s defeat of Boca Juniors in the Intercontinental Cup capped off a perfect year for the player.

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Controversially, he didn’t win the African Player of the Year honour that year, with the award ending up in the hands of El-Hadji Diouf, who had led wonderfully Senegal to the World Cup. However, while his continent’s football association wasn’t giving him the credit he deserved, Europe was constantly on the move to acquire his services, which led to a personal blow for the player after he spoke to representatives from Barcelona over a potential transfer without permission from his club, thus receiving a hefty fine.

In 2006, Ghana participated in its first World Cup in Germany and for Kuffour, this was a shot at reaffirming his status amongst his people. In the twilight of his career, he aimed at setting the record straight. The Black Stars did well in the tournament, qualifying for the second round from a difficult group that included eventual winners Italy, the United States and Czech Republic, before being knocked out by defending champions, Brazil, in the second round.

For Kuffour, however, things did not go so well. In the opening game against the Azzurri, he seemed out of sorts, making several errors, the most costly of which led to Italy’s second goal, scored by Vincenzo Iaquinta. This was his first and only World Cup appearance as he was replaced by Illiasu Shilla for the rest of the competition. Unsurprisingly, he would call it a day from national duty after an roller coaster 13-year career.

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It may have been an ignominious end for a player of his caliber. But the World Cup and uneventful spells at AS Roma, Livrono and Ajax could not take the shine off his career. 296 appearances and 16 trophies for Germany’s biggest club unquestionably makes him Africa’s biggest export to the Bundesliga as well as one of the continent’s greatest defenders of all time.

BY ATO COULON