By Sammie Frimpong
Goalkeepers are generally considered a very rare breed wherever they find themselves in the world; yes, rare, but in a manner only they can be.
The stereotypical goalkeeper exhibits a wackiness and arrogance that strikes you in equal measure; a combination that occasionally throws you off-balance, leaving you bewildered and disbelieving of whichever piece of action one just witnessed.
And all the great goalkeepers one can think of - the likes of Lev Yashin, Fabian Barthez, Bruce Grobbelaar, Rene ´El Loco´ Higuita, Jens Lehmann, Ricardo Zamora, Jose Chilavert, Jorge Campos, and Hugo Gatti - have had it in their own peculiar ways. As far as eccentric goalkeepers come, though, there exists a singular personality who stands out in the African setting, supreme and celebrated like no other in the continent’s goalkeeping history: Ghana's Robert Mensah.
Mensah represented the Black Stars a little over four decades ago, becoming a mainstay in the team back then. Even in an era when the country was spoilt for choice in goalkeeping talent, it was he who kept goal as the Stars (then parading other bona fide Ghanaian greats like Wilberforce Mfum and Osei Kofi) marched into the final of the 1968 Africa Cup of Nations - arguably the one real peak of Mensah's international career, albeit eventually ending 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, the premier club of Kumasi, Ghana's second city.
Kotoko only represented the crux of Mensah's career, however, as he'd already come a considerable way. He actually started out at hometown club 'Mysterious' Ebusua Dwarfs, then moved on to Sekondi Independence Club, and onward to Tema Textiles Printing (those were the times the nation's indigenous manufacturing industries really held sway) before Kotoko snapped him up.
What made him tick?
To start to appreciate his fabled uniqueness, one would do well to consider, first, Mensah's trademark, hardly forgettable apparel: 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, rumoured 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 come to mark 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 his wonderful cap, thereby re-assuring his own teammates and fans alike while simultaneously instilling fear and dread in the opposition; on not a few occasions, the latter objective 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 against Zairean giant TP Englebert (later re-christened TP Mazembe) in the now defunct African Champions Cup, the equivalent of the modern-day Caf Champions League. Englebert were no mean side on the continent at the time; this was a club that had the super-affluent and notoriously ruthless dictator Mobutu Sese Seko as its benefactor, and which, during a heightened peak of Zairean patriotism, represented one of the few icons which emboldened an oppressed people. To the Ghanaians, however, Englebert meant much more. Some four years prior, those two same sides had crossed swords at that very exact 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.
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 his steadily receding popularity 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 pitiful draw at home, Kotoko really had the stakes up against them heading into the reverse in Lubumbashi.
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 nearly impossible as the match officials were only just starting with their greed-induced ill-behaviour. Still, somehow, Kotoko did find those goals – through Abukari Gariba and Malik Jabir - and were well on their way towards an 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 Kotoko, who now dominated with a swagger in all respects; up in the Directors' Box, Zaire's head-of-state was fuming.
Then, out of nothing, the referee – not yet willing to let the proposed booty slip away - contrived to award the home side a penalty, 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 ignore, 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 inferred the unfolding walk-off as an indictment on his powers; a casual disregard of his renowned penalty-saving ability. Hurriedly, he raced, in a fit of silent rage combined with a sense of responsibility, to his colleagues and coaches who had all but completed their mission, and after giving them a stern reminder of his aforementioned forte and the bravery and determination inspired by the club´s stirring ´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 (he stood 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 guy was so visibly shaken and intimidated, yet not just by the demeanour 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! And so they tried to make him take it off, but they couldn't have committed a more grievous error, for even the usually composed Mensah - admirably unflappable throughout the whole unnerving episode that had just passed - 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 Asante 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, at that point, the gleeful Zairean military men deployed that day reportedly pounced on the object, eagerly ripping it with their bayonets in a futile quest for the perceived charm that rendered it so 'potent') and jumped right back in goal with a mien even more troubling than before.
Shorn of his 'talisman', Robert Mensah was now supposed to be at his most vulnerable, yet even that realization seemed to do precious little to boost Kagogo's well-depleted confidence. Tensed, he wobbled up to the ball and blazed it high over the bar, 'miles into space'. 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 achievement of continental glory, and Robert Mensah had significantly more to do with it than anyone else.
Call it his Grobbelaar-spaghetti-legs-moment, and you wouldn't be too wide of the mark, for none could begrudge Mensah the acclaim and adulation that feat brought him. It is, without 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 unsavoury 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 another party - 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 heart-breaking death.
It wouldn't be the last time a highly esteemed African goalkeeper would fall victim to some senseless act of savagery. Exactly a week prior to the latest anniversary of Mensah's murder, young Senzo Meyiwa - captain of Orlando Pirates and the South African national team - was gunned down by robbers to similar effect.
Mensah was only 32. By goalkeeping standards, his was a career truncated far too early, and the people - many of whom he remained a darling for - mourned him for days. Few could believe it, as with the kind of omnipotence and vitality the big man constantly exuded, it wasn't thought even remotely possible that anything - even the inevitability of death - could ever subdue him.
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 masses interrupted their businesses and thronged to the then Kumasi (now 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 folk legend 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 Ghanaian football's annals. Then there is one poem-song recited by playful Ghanaian children - usually in sombre mood - 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, 43 years to the day since he passed away.
On a brighter note, Robert Mensah attained significant recognition - in a country often chastised for denying many of its past sporting heroes their due - when, a few years back, he had the Cape Coast Stadium re-named after him.
Such was the man, and 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 his fawning fans, daring opponents to shoot at his goal with his backs turned to them or alternately urging them to strike their spot-kicks in a particular direction (and almost always getting the better of them) with bold taunts, among other patented antics - and getting away with them in most instances.
'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 thrives provide evidence hardly any less valid and vivid than anything a 3-D highlight reel could offer as to how truly unique and talented this one was. And, thus, if at the beginning of this tribute you were perhaps doubtful of how Robert Mensah, admittedly an unknown in the present-day game, could somehow lay claim to being Ghana’s - nay, Africa's - 'goalkeeper No.1', well now you know.
The next time you are on the streets of Accra, just keep your ears wide open: you'd hear them tell it all.