Ghana, As Always, Sheds Tears For Its Dead National Footballers

Feature Article Ghana, As Always, Sheds Tears For Its Dead National Footballers
MAR 18, 2023 LISTEN

WHEN Ghanaians, in their thousands, flocked to the funeral of Christian Atsu, on the grounds of the State House, in Accra, on 17 March 2023, they were carrying on a tradition which was first noticed at the funeral of their great goalkeeper, Robert Mensah, who died on 2 November 1971,

Atsu was found dead under the rubble of a building that was brought down in Antakya, Turkey, after a huge earthquake hit Turkey and Syria in early February 2023. Over 50,000 other people are estimated to have been killed by the earthquake and the secondary tremors that followed it.

Atsu had played for Newcastle and other top Premier League teams in the UK before joining the Turkish team – Hatayspor – for which he was playing just before his death.

Aged 31, Atsu left a wife and three children. He was the second footballer in the history of the game in Ghana whose unexpected, gruesome, death had brought tears to thousands of Ghanaians.

Our first “superstar” footballer to die at the height of his fame was Robert Mensah, goalkeeper of the Black Stars.

Mensah was such a good goalkeeper that 37 years after his death, the London Guardian published a beautiful tribute to him, written by , Jonathan Wilson, on 31 Oct 2008:

This (he wrote) is a tribute to a hero on the anniversary of his death, but it began, I confess, with a moment of idle, almost facetious, curiosity, for who could not be fascinated by a team called ‘Mysterious Dwarfs’?

A little further along the coast [from Cape Coast] we watched barefoot boys kicking a ball across a dust pitch at the school at which Mr. Briton, an Anglo-Jamaican teacher, popularised the game by forming the Excelsior club.

We headed into town, to the Robert Mensah Stadium,,,, We met pleasant, engaging [people] although they seemed baffled by our fascination with the name of the club (since you ask, they adopted the name in 1937, having surprisingly beaten a club called Dwarves from Winneba; nobody knew who they were, and so they took on the title “Mysterious”).

Again and again, the pair would date events as “a year after Bob died” or “three seasons before Bob died”.

Bob, we discovered, was Robert Mensah, but they were unforthcoming as to just why his death had been so significant, ….Curious, when I got back to Accra a couple of days later, I Googled him. I found a single reference of note, but it was an intriguing one, suggesting he had been murdered in 1971.

So, having a free day, I went to the Daily Graphic, and asked to see their archive. ….. Slowly, the picture emerged of Mensah as a goalkeeper who, although highly respected, seemed incapable of avoiding controversy.

In April [1971] he had been stoned by the home crowd [in Monrovia] as Ghana won 3-1 in Liberia. In June, he was sacked by his club, Tema Textiles Printing, for a no-show while away on international duty. Three days later, he made three good saves but could not prevent Ghana losing 1-0 to Togo and so failing, for the first time, to qualify for the African Cup of Nations.

It was, the headline insisted, “THE DAY GHANA STOOD STILL”. It would stand even stiller in Mensah’s honour before the year was out.

It was on October 28 that Mensah played his last game – not, of course, that the newspapers reported it as such at the time …. The following night, according to the newspaper for Monday, November 1, he was stabbed with a bottle in a bar in Tema.

More details emerged the next day. An Inspector of the local police said that a quarrel had arisen between Agya Awere and Joseph Ackersou, two local men who were drinking in the bar. A third man, a 31-year-old electrician called Isaac Melfah, [had followed] Mensah from the bar after the fight and attacked him. As for Mensah, he had been operated on, and the prognosis seemed positive. By the time the public read that, though, it was already out of date: aged 32, Mensah died in hospital, at 2.30am on Tuesday, November 2, 1971.

“He was,” a columnist asserted “a Big man with Big hands and Big heart and no doubt, Ghana’s foremost goalkeeper. Robert stood more than 6ft tall and he handled a football with the same contemptuous ease that Joe Louis treated the gloves … There will be many good goalkeepers but there will never be another ‘Yashin’ Mensah. Who will be remembered in his black jersey and magic cap.”

His body was taken from Tema to Kumasi, home of Kotoko. It was for them he had played his greatest games, most notably in their epic victory over the Mobutu-backed TP Englebert of Kinshasa in the African Clubs Cup final of 1968.

There were, the Graphic reported, “thousands of mourners, young and old … Schoolchildren refused to attend classes and rushed to the airport and the sports stadium to pay their last respects … there was wailing and weeping at the nooks and corners of the city. Traffic stood still as taxi-cabs, private cars and commercial vehicles wrapped in the red traditional colour of Kumasi lined up in the streets tooting their horn signifying their last post to Robert Mensah. A tro-tro driver today died at the Okomfe Anokye Hospital, after drinking his head off following the death of Robert Mensah.”

…The best tribute is a song released in Mensah’s memory by the Ghanaian guitar band the Negro Kings, imagining a conversation between Mensah’s Kotoko team-mates, Ibrahim Sunday and Osei Kofi:

“Sunday: What is the matter Kofi?
Kofi: What is it?
Sunday: Someone has robbed us.
Kofi: Ah! Truly it is the known who dies prematurely. Robert, if it is destined that you should die so untimely, then rest in peace. If it is just that your life is cut short, descend into someone, so your name is immortalised.