The next Pele, or the next Nii Lamptey?
Finally the moment of truth. Last night, in Washington DC's Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium, and live on televisions all over America, a 14-year-old boy came out to play. Was the kid as good as they all say? Can he really be the saviour of American soccer? Is he genuinely an heir to Pele? These questions have been central to the hype machine that has cranked into overdrive in the build-up to Freddy Adu's hotly anticipated Major League Soccer (MLS) debut - the youngest in any American professional sport since 1887. Vanity Fair, Sports Illustrated, David Letterman, in fact just about every institution in American publishing and broadcasting, has featured the hottest 'phenom' around. He even appeared on 60 minutes, CBS's flagship news programme, in what was the first soccer item the show had ever aired, while last night's DC United match is, for one 5ft 8in reason, the only soccer fixture of the season ABC plan to beam out live. As one marketing expert said: 'He's in a position to positively affect a sports league more than any other player since Babe Ruth.' Talent? Try as they might, people struggle to rein in their enthusiasm for a boy who has been smacking gobs from the moment he was first taken on to a US football pitch by a friend at the age of eight (Fredua Koranteng Adu and family left Ghana after winning a Green Card lottery in 1997). Dave Sarachan, the coach who first asked him to try out for DC United, first clapped eyes on him when Adu was 10. 'We had 30 kids there, and he split through them like a knife through butter for an hour and-a-half. I'm going, "Holy shit, who is this kid?"' Ray Hudson, another former DC coach, sums up the awe he inspires. 'A blind man on a galloping horse can see his talent - he's a little Fabergé egg, a God-given talent.' Bruce Arena, boss of the US national team, said: 'This may be our first superstar. Maybe this is the guy.' Let's get one thing straight. Adu is a millionaire teenager before kicking a ball in earnest. He is already the top earner in the MLS, collecting an annual salary of $500,000. That's on top of his $1 million contract with Nike and a selection of other blue-riband endorsements. He recently filmed a commercial for Pepsi with Pele, who offered advice to the prodigy expected to fill his 24-carat boots. Adu, a smart and polite boy with a winning smile, later said: 'Pele told me just to keep my head and play because a lot of people are going to demand a lot out of my time and want a piece of me.' As yet he is not fazed. He still lives with his strong-willed mother, Emilia, and brother Fro (who plays for the US under-14 team) in suburban Maryland. Adu told Sports Illustrated about how Emilia wanted them to go to America for the schooling. 'The soccer part just happened to work out really great. Sometimes I just wonder, where would I be right now if hadn't come to the USA? Where would I be living? What would I be doing?' When his US citizenship came through last year, he pledged his international future to them instead of his country of birth. 'You have a better opportunity to do things here than in Ghana, where they've never qualified for a World Cup,' he explained. 'Players just disappear there. They would be so good and win all these youth tournaments, and then just disappear.' In that perceptive last sentence Adu encapsulated the cautionary tale of Nii Lamptey. Remember him? He was the Ghanaian wonderkid whose profile shot up when Pele called Lamptey his 'natural successor'. It was easy to see why. He was voted player of the tournament in the 1991 World Youth Cup. Although the competition included Argentina's Juan Sebastian Verón and Marcelo Gallardo, Brazil's Adriano and Italy's Alessandro del Piero, Lamptey's star shone more brilliantly than them all. He was smuggled away to Europe in a three-week journey in the backs of trucks. 'He told me he was virtually kidnapped!' one-time manager Ron Atkinson recalled - to Anderlecht. The Belgian FA changed their age regulations so he could play in the first team at 15 and a year later he scored on his European Cup debut. When he moved on to PSV Eindhoven, he was top scorer in his first year in Holland. Atkinson was only too keen to take him to Aston Villa and Coventry City, but Lamptey's upward spiral would soon plateau. 'Circumstances worked against him,' says Atkinson, who recalls how the restrictions on foreign players, coupled with the amount of time he spent away on international duty with Ghana's Black Stars, made it almost impossible for him to get a run of games. Lamptey's career began to freefall as he drifted from club to club - failing to revive his career despite trying seven different countries in three continents. Now he is back in Ghana, training at a park in Accra while his agent tries to fix him up with a new deal. Where did it all go wrong? Pressure was a big factor. 'When Pele said I could go on to become like him, it was a great honour for me,' Lamptey now says. 'To get such high praise from him was wonderful, but it had its negative side - everywhere I went I was supposed to live up to very high standards. Once I couldn't meet people's expectations, I was considered a failure.' Coincidentally, Lamptey and Adu hail from the same town, Tema, a few miles along the coast to the east of the capital. Last winter, when Lamptey found himself in Dubai after leaving a contract in China during the Sars outbreak, he first saw Adu, who was playing in a junior tournament there. Any guidance for the kid? 'It's easy to be a star, but it's difficult to maintain being a star; that's why I wish him all the best,' Lamptey says a little wistfully. 'I think he made the right decision to stay in America, where his mum is. When I went to Belgium I was alone at a very young age without anybody and it was so difficult. 'Freddy will have a lot of pressure on him, but he has to have patience. He mustn't rush, he shouldn't try to impress people too much by trying to score three goals. He should give it three or four years in America and then maybe go to Europe. I just hope people give him time.' Lamptey also hopes that there is a little tract of time left for himself. He wants to play for another couple of years and is pursuing two countries in particular with the hope of another club, another chance. He may go back to China, but he would prefer to go to America. In that case he would end up playing against Adu.
'Hmm,' he chuckles softly, 'That would be nice.'
Nii Lamptey's Clubs: Anderlecht PSV Eindhoven Aston Villa Coventry City Palermo Venezia Union Santa Fe (Argentina) Ankaragucu (Turkey) Uniao Leiria (Portugal) Mechelen (Belgium) Greuther Furth (Germany) Shan Dong Lu Neng Tai Shan (China) Al-Nasr (Dubai)