Mohammed Gargo still has a photo of himself in a Ghana kit as his WhatsApp display photo showing how memorable those times were for him.
It is one of those action shots players these days like to post on their Twitter feed – a shot of him running back into position after making a tackle.
Whenever Gargo’s name is mentioned in football conversations, a chunk of the talk goes back to the U-17 World Cup in Italy in 1991.
FIFA has an article on it’s website about that tournament where the featured image has Nii Odartey Lamptey hoisting the trophy in one hand with his other raised as well. By his side, talismanic German coach, Otto Pfister and goalkeeper, Ali Jarrah look on in ecstasy.
The article talks up some of Ghana’s biggest moments at the tournament with a section where some of the best players from the Ghana side are given some reverence and Gargo’s name is there printed in italics.
Every player needs a launchpad to greater things and for Gargo, it was that tournament in 1991. In the most crucial of games against Brazil in the quarter-final stage, he popped up with the winner. “That goal meant a lot to me. It was the goal that probably gave me a good standing in the team and confidence to move on in the competition…” He said with a broad smile.
The Starlets of 1991 are to a very large extent the golden generation of youth football in Ghana. They laid the foundation for the teams that went on to win Bronze at the Olympics in 1992 and Silver at the 1993 U20 World Cup. Many of the players in that ’91 squad, albeit not living up to the desired potential, also went on to form the core of the Black Stars in subsequent years. “’91 was a good year. We had a fantastic upbringing as far as football is concerned. We were able to be successful in that year and it brings a lot of good memories.
That squad had an abundance of talents. Alex Opoku, Dan Addo, Emmanuel Duah, Osei Kuffour, Odartey Lamptey, Yaw Preko and others. It was a different generation altogether. I will classify my time as the best National U-17 team that Ghana has every produced…”
Mohammed Gargo, Ghana (Photo by Matthew Ashton/EMPICS via Getty Images)
If Gargo was good at international football, on the club scene he was better. He was much more than the archetypal Ghanaian player. He benefitted from the merits of youth football and in 1992, right from Real Tamale United, he flew to Italy. Gargo was one of the first few players from Ghana to travel to play in the Italian league in the early 90s when racism was at an unbelievable height.
His arrival in Italy demystified the perceptions many had about African footballers. “The world couldn’t understand and even the Italians couldn’t understand. Immediately when we got to Torino, there was a very big TV interview that was organized by the FA and the journalists as well. Roger Milla was invited, Paolo Rossi was there just to discuss us. Torino brought in three young Africans to play in the Serie A, how possible?” he said with a sense of tamed hubris he has honed all through the years of being a star.
Gargo comes from a long lineage of footballers. Originally from Bawku, he was born at the Burma Camp in Accra to a father who albeit a good footballer, settled to act as one of the army’s physical trainers. The Busanga tribe from which Gargo’s kindred hails broke away from the Mande ethnic group in Burkina Faso to settle in northern Ghana. Their rich history and years of conquering states to their modern home is well documented in history. Their men are generally able-bodied, masculine figures with an imposing sense of presence. Gargo is one of his kind. In his playing days, he was always one of the tall guys.
Mohammed Gargo, Ghana (Photo by Matthew Ashton/EMPICS via Getty Images)
Towering above everyone on the field, thus giving him an extra urge over his opponents. It is therefore not a surprise that his name, Gargo means giant in the Busanga dialect. The football came to him naturally. His uncle, Alhaji Imoro Gargo played for the great Kumasi Asante Kotoko sides in the 1970s alongside the legendary Baba Yara and former Ghana and Borussia Dortmund man, Ibrahim Tanko his cousin.
The former defender’s family moved from Accra to Tamale while he was still a toddler. He grew up in Tamale’s hardcore Kamina Barracks and started his career as a colts’ player at Great Eagles Colts Club in the city. Living in the barracks toughened the man up. His father was the ultimate authoritarian and it gave him an extra value to be disciplined and headstrong.
It is however unsurprising that he got to Italy and captained Udinese for years and later took his leadership qualities to Genoa. Imagine being an African and captaining an Italian side in the early 90s? That was how difficult it was for Gargo. But the years of perseverance paid dividends for Ghana. “I will say it was me. I opened the door for many Ghanaian players. I made it comfortable to play there and my career there meant they could trust many more Ghanaians.”
21 Oct 2000: Benoit Cauet of Inter Milan challenges Mohammed Gargo of Udinese during the Serie A match between Udinese and Inter Milan at the Friuli Stadium in Udinese, Italy. Mandatory Credit: Grazia Neri/ALLSPORT
The making of a football star means a lot more than just having talent. It entails way more. Consistent training, the will to succeed, desire, passion and luck. Yes, luck.
Many times, the refrain is that you make your own luck; which is true to a point but in some cases, after all the hard work and preparation, you just need that little stroke of luck to just push you up the ladder. In former Ghana captain, Stephen Appiah’s case, Gargo was his splinter of luck.
In 1997, Appiah had just accepted to play on trial in Europe after flying out of Hearts of Oak. He had had trials in a few countries until he landed in Italy. Played in training and impressed but he was still being sidelined. As a captain who was looking out for his compatriot, Gargo put in a word for Appiah on most days but they fell on deaf ears. In 1998, in a Serie A game, Gargo feigned an injury, signalled the bench and implored them to bring on Stephen Appiah.
The coaching staff listened. Appiah came on and scored from a 25 metre shot with five minutes remaining. It was the start of good things to come for the young man from Chorkor. “Stephen had been through a lot. I didn’t know who he was when he first came. I just saw a boy who was desperate and wanted to make it. So I had to do something to help. It was the last day of his trial. It was crucial thing I did for him at the time” He said with pride, the kind a father shows after a child’s brilliant performance at school.
The fact that a player of Gargo’s quality played less than 30 times for the Black Stars is an oversight that can never be corrected. As a player he had everything. The strength to win the ball, the awareness to pass it and hard a ferocious strike ability hidden in his right leg that he occasionally whipped out in games. It became his trademark.
Brazilian soccer player Rodrigo of al-Gharrafa club (L) fights for the ball against al-Wakra player Mohammad Gargo of Ghana during their Qatar championship match at al-Gharrafa Stadium, in Doha 28 October 2005. AFP PHOTO/KARIM JAAFAR (Photo credit should read KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images)
Much of Gargo’s problems began after he left Udinese but even then, he still managed to paper over the cracks at Genoa to become captain. Moved on to play in the Middle East and settled back in Ghana where he joined the gold-rich Obuasi club, Ashanti Gold.
Gargo was a standard-bearer. A true representation of where he came from and he held on to his values with both hands. On the field, he was a swashbuckling no-nonsense, no holds barred defender who feared no one but, off the field he was a far cry from your typical footballer. His unique dress sense and his penchant for flashy vehicles saw him punching above his weights in the bitsy Ghanaian celebrity circle. He became everyone’s man in no time. But all that cost him on the football field as his attention gradually swayed from game.
Gargo, Udinese (Photo by Matthew Ashton/EMPICS via Getty Images)
Much of Gargo’s later life stress stemmed from a failure to realize that “less is more”. “One of the regrets is being too naughty and thinking I had so much time. In football, you have your primetime that takes you from ten to fifteen years. Sometimes you think you are young but time comes by fast”.
Now a coach at the Steadfast Football Club in Tamale after a brief unsuccessful spell in Namibia, Gargo is back to where it all began. One of his boys, Abdul Fatawu Issahaku has just been named the best player at the U-20 Africa Cup of Nations.
This will make him proud and will also remind him of his days as a youngster. Hopefully, he can keep Fatawu and the rest of the players at the fledgeling club on the straight and narrow.