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'The voodoo magic of Robert Mensah' by Michelle Bonsu

By Michelle Bonsu
Robert Mensah remains one of Ghana's greatest goalkeeper
Robert Mensah remains one of Ghana's greatest goalkeeper
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Strikers get all the plaudits, but without those men between the sticks you simply can’t have a good team.

Like firemen, they do the opposite of what many would do; they charge into a burning building when everyone’s running out, rather than attempting to get out of the way with a ball kicked with devastating force they place their body in front of it.

Even as a child, I attempted to see what it was like from the goalkeeper’s perspective. Although I played as a striker, I was curious to see what it was like for the person on the opposite side of the wall – and I can admit that an hour later, it was, if not the absolute, then perhaps among one of the most unpleasant experiences of my time playing football. Certainly, my respect for goalies grew even more after that, and this was at nine-years-old.

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In fact, the shot-stoppers are so integral to any team that it’s hard to imagine anyone winning the World Cup without a world-class player between the posts.

Upon a recent conversation with my father about football, and whether he believed that following Ghana’s surprise run to the quarter-finals – the third African nation to do so – if it would be feasible for an African nation to ever win the world’s highest football trophy. He replied steadfast: “Not without an excellent goalkeeper, and right now, Ghana, or any African country, doesn’t have one.”

Naturally, when good keepers come to mind, you primarily think of those based in Europe, with the likes of past legends Peter Schmeichel, Oliver Kahn, Dino Zoff, and Lev Yashin, and today’s leaders such as Gianluigi Buffon or Manuel Neuer coming to mind. And, perhaps in terms of African keepers, one might think of Cameroon’s Thomas N’Kono, whose heroics at the 1990 edition of the World Cup in Italy inspired the Les Lions Indomptables in their run to the quarter-finals, making history as the first African nation to do so.

In fact, N’Kono’s performance inspired more than just mere casual fans – one, the goalkeeper we all know as Azzurri great Buffon was apparently so awe-struck by the Cameroonian that he switched from being a midfielder and reportedly named his eldest son Thomas in the African’s honour.

But before N’Kono, there was another who was taking Africa by storm. And, like many great players, he often towed the divide between brilliance and sheer madness with controversy following him everywhere he went; it certainly added to his growing legend and appeal all across Ghana and the continent at large.

‘The Day Ghana Stood Still’ – so read the headlines throughout the West African nation.

It was October 27, 1971, and Ghana, for the first time in their history, had failed to qualify for the African Cup of Nations following a 1-0 defeat to Togo.

It would also be the last time that Robert Mensah would turn out for the Black Stars, for less than a week later, the headline that described their shocking defeat would soon take on a new meaning.

On November 2, 1971, many Ghanaians awoke to even more shocking news – Robert Mensah had died in hospital in the small hours of the morning after being the victim of a vicious stabbing in an Akpeteshie bar in Tema.

While tragic, his sudden death following a fight in a bar wasn’t surprising to those that knew him well, with his national teammate Ibrahim Sunday being quoted as saying: “Although Robert was a great goalkeeper, he wasn’t disciplined and was a bit of a troublemaker, and it was this lack of discipline that caused his death.”

In short, like many noteworthy figures in the world of sports and entertainment, he lived fast, pushed limits, and like the proverbial tale of Icarus, flew too close to the sun – only to find out that on a long enough timeline, playing with fire eventually will get one burnt. In his case, it cost him his life.

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So, who exactly was Robert Mensah? Born in 1939, the lanky goalkeeper’s eccentricities soon became the stuff of legend, with a jet-black jersey and checkered cap that was rumoured to be a gift from his grandfather, a priest of sorts from Cape Coast.

This cap was often a source of consternation for opposing teams, who accused him of using it as an instrument to practice Juju (a form of black magic that’s similar to voodoo in Haiti).

Some would even go so far as to physically remove it during matches. If you thought some of the antics of today’s players were bizarre, Mensah took it to a whole new level, using all means to taunt the opposition including, incredibly, reading a newspaper during matches to indicate his level of boredom and lack of respect for the opposing team’s attackers.

Of course, without the benefit of highlight reels and YouTube clips like we have today, some of may have been blown out of proportion, even more so after his death, but his achievements with both Asante Kotoko and the Black Stars, where he won numerous trophies, notably the African Clubs Cup, now known as the CAF Champions League, in 1970 and a runners-up medal in the 1968 African Cup of Nations, were certainly no exaggeration.

Mensah and the Porcupines had the opportunity to win the African Clubs Cup two years prior but were denied the opportunity due to a controversial decision following their 3-3 draw with Congolese (then Zaire) side TP Engelbert (now Mazembe).

Allegedly, the Ghanaian Football Association failed to notify the club of the required third tie-breaking match and hence their opponents won their first continental title by default.

However, the team known as one of Ghana’s best were able to exact revenge on their opponents two years later in what would be one of the most entertaining games of that calendar season.

For his achievements, he was nominated as the ninth best player in Africa by the French-based football periodical France Football and a year later, posthumously received the runners-up place, behind club and national team-mate Ibrahim Sunday.

Given that shot-stoppers tend to peak later than other players, it’s certain he would have won a slew of more accolades had his life not been snuffed out prematurely.

It is 50 years this month, November since one of Africa’s finest goalkeepers lost his life in a senseless tragedy.

However, it’s this tragedy which has largely added to his legendary status in Ghanaian footballing folklore, such as an incident in one of his last games played as a footballer.

Asante Kotoko had faced off against bitter rivals Engelbert in a repeat of that fateful final two years prior and a penalty had been awarded to the Congolese side.

To ensure that the Ghanaians didn’t use any kind of unfair tricks, or indeed juju, to gain an advantage, the home nation’s security demanded that Mensah remove his trademark cap, which they believed was an omen of black magic.

Initially, the eccentric goaltender refused, which was putting his team at risk for another forfeit that would then hand the title – again – to their opponents as had happened in 1968.

According to legend, a Kotoko elder approached him and recited a phrase that the player himself had stated to him previously, which translates as: ‘Asante Kotoko, we don’t run away, we only know how to fight’.

Inspired by this battle cry, he finally removed his hat, to which the Congolese soldier shredded it with his weapon in an attempt to snuff out any possible hex that the cap represented.

With the game back in order, the home team stepped up, with their best penalty taker, a player known as Kagogo, lining up to attempt to earn his team another cup trophy.

However, one glance from Mensah was enough to put the player off, who blasted the ball into orbit, effectively giving the title to Kotoko and earning Bob, as he was known by many fans, a place in Ghanaian football history.

Nowadays you can’t go anywhere in Ghana, from the smallest villages to the largest cities, without finding someone who remembers the great, yet cruelly limited days of the greatest goalkeeper ever to represent the Black Stars and one of the nation’s most successful clubs.

It is often said that there is a fine line between genius and insanity. In his short footballing career, Robert “Bob” Mensah often flitted back and forth across that delicate boundary to such effect that no one in Ghana had seen anyone like him before, and no one has seen anyone like him since.