Asamoah Gyan; Baby Jet’s Unforgotten Course [Long Read]

Asamoah Gyan 'Baby Jet' celebrating after scoring at Afcon

Though the adventure in South America was mired in allegations of corruption and a lack of motivation on the part of the players, Asamoah Gyan had, prior to the tournament, shown he had the will to continue the good job he was known for as a striker for the Black Stars

(An old piece I did on my old blog about Baby Jet)

At 17 years, it was like a chopper taking to the skies when Asamoah Gyan netted on his debut for the Black Stars. Three years later, he would serve an espresso at the biggest festival in world football by scoring past the Czech goal-tender after 68 seconds. Like the golden number etched in the side of his Mohawk, his stain on many a Ghanaian’s heart would be indelible, and Baby Jet’s flight would leave him among the tumultuous waves of heaven’s clouds; a great leap, it was, but also a deep fall into the crevices of shattered hope.

The Camel and the Straw

His career had started reluctantly during his high school days at Accra Academy, where his talent was spotted by his colleagues. Eventually, he would join Accra-based Liberty Professionals and score 11 goals in his first season. After his exploits at South Africa 2010, Baby Jet, as he affectionately calls himself, secured a £13 million move to Sunderland. Two years earlier, he had swapped the Friuli of Udinese for a four year contract at Stade Rennes where he went on to score 14 times in 53 appearances. Statistics have always been likened to revealing skirts, but his numbers were hardly enough to send pulses racing. But while he had moved to Italy as a 17 year old, and then shipped into a two-season apprenticeship with Serie B side, Modena, his move to the Black Cats was on the back of a cresting wave. He had scored three goals in 5 games at the World Cup in South Africa, two behind eventual goal king, Diego Forlán.

The move to England brought with it many expectations. The English Premier League had grown into a holy grail for many football careerists, with the stress of breathless weekends eased with week-end fat cheques. Since its re-branding, the league had and continues to draw a galaxy of stars noted for the extraordinary and spectacular, and the fans could never be bored with displays from the Bergkamps, Henrys, Drogbas, and the likes.

For the former Liberty Professionals player, moving to England was a chance to thread his name on the same page as greats such as former Ghana marksman, Tony ‘Yegoala’ Yeboah. In his second season, Yegoala became the first ever non-British player to be awarded the Best Player of the year at Elland Road. Yegoala scored 32 goals in 61 games, including three hat-ricks and his personal favourite in the victory over Liverpool when his dipping volley nicked the crossbar to beat David James.

The Baby Jet, though, would not be dazed by such lofty distractions. He scored and assisted 15 goals at the Stadium of Light in the 2010/11 season. Along the way, he netted in the 3-0 win over Chelsea and earned himself a little nemesis title over the Czech gloves man. With 11 goals in his first season, the omens were all set for his shuttle to the stars. If the Ivorians had what they had, and Nigeria had its army of eternal foes, Ghana had its own Jet Wings. Asamoah Gyan would do well the next season. He would soon rival the Eto’os and Drogbas in European football. But, between a footballer and his agent and a contract, the transfer is the only certainty. And as the certainty of the rumours was debunked and encouraged by ‘parasites’, the man who had declared his love for all that was the Ghanaian woman, showed up in his football dancing shoes, in the far away Springs of Abu Dhabi.

Steve Bruce, manager of the Black Cats, was, in his own words, baffled. “Football leaves a bad taste in your mouth sometimes,” he said at the time. “I can’t understand someone’s logic: Africa’s player of the year, a hero in his country, to leave the biggest stage in the world to go and play in the Emirates …” It was a song chorused by many.

For his fans, it was a mouth-gaping moment of frustration that none could explain. Their long-standing displeasure heightened, and many believed Ghana would suffer with the lack of competition in the UAE league. He had shunned the grace and fame of the English league for a shift at a desert post. Admirers became critics, fans back-pedalled, and for those that had been giving him stick, it was a $200 000 worth of excuses for his lack of direction in life just like he had been in front of goal. Players moved to the Gulf in the dim of their twilit careers not when they were 25 and in the spring of their lives.

The Jet was a part-time player that wasn’t suited for the rough weather of competitive football. And when, in 2012, Asamoah Gyan quit the Black Stars, it promised to bring the curtains down on the abuses and curses at the striker and his family. 59 games and 28 goals after his debut against Somalia, the jet had taken an emergency landing, just as he had once tried to. The Ghanaian is hospitable, but he doesn’t forget his football heroes, and villains.

Africa’s Hope

At Angola 2010, Baby Jet had led Ghana’s one-goal project that ended with a final defeat versus the Pharaohs of Egypt. He scored 3 of the team’s four goals while Andre Ayew grabbed the game’s only goal against Burkina Faso in the other group game. It was a worthy showing, one that gave hope to a nation going into the summer’s world cup.

Asamoah was in the thick of affairs when Africa hosted the world. His penalty defeated the Serbs in the first group game, while another penalty secured a draw against Harry Kewell’s Socceroos. In the final game, the Germans needed a second half Mesut Özil goal to edge out the Black Stars, but with other results going their way, Ghana qualified in second position as Africa’s only surviving cavalry in the knock-out stages. In the second round, it was a date with a familiar foe. The Americans had been dispatched in Ghana’s last group game of World Cup 2006.

Kevin Prince Boateng’s early goal was cancelled out by a second half Donovan penalty as the game dragged on to extra time. Receiving a hopeful punt from defence, Gyan controlled the ball into space under pressure from two opposition players. From an acute angle, he managed to wrap his left foot around Mafusa and unleash a blazing effort. Beyond the flailing arms of a hapless Tim Howard, the net rippled, and Asamoah Gyan sashayed in dance and jubilation to bask in the glory of a continent’s praise. The ear-jamming vuvuzelas burst into decibels of roaring throats. It was a deafening release of a collective breath that threatened to quench the flames of Hell burning in the Ultraslan end of Türk Telekom Arena.

Baby Jet’s strike was a goal that shook the entire continent into the vibrancy of hope and dream. After the lost lives in Angola, and the farce of reportage surrounding the Rainbow Nation’s world cup credentials, Mother Africa was not to be left behind in the party she was hosting. It was Africa’s last hope, and it was a ray bursting with the fierceness of a combined star. Ghana, self-acclaimed star of Africa, was leading the charge with Gyan in control. And when it happened that in that fate-less game against a buck-toothed Uruguayan, Asamoah Gyan was granted the chance to send Africa into the semi-final for the first time ever, all attended with bated breaths in a hush of hope. Just one goal would change the course of the narrative, like it did two years before.

Host and Win

For a country still heralded for its historical glories, the exploits of Germany 2006 raised the bar of expectation a notch further when it hosted CAN 2008. With a squad brimming with the likes of Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, Stephen Appiah, John Mensah, and a younger Asamoah Gyan, there was a moniker of singular relevance that accompanied preparations; Host and Win. The national team, perhaps, had not realised what was expected of them, and so it took post-mortem of the game against the Namibians for the fans to put things into proper focus for them, with the striker coming in for some verbal abuses. Had Gyan been paid for each word of abuse, he would have more gold coins than Mansa Munsa. The single penalty he’d converted in the first game versus the Guineans did not do much to cover his wastefulness, and the hostile airs that surrounded him and his family led to his first threats.

While the veracity of the threats from the Black Stars camp was maintained, it took no less a nobler figure than the country’s president to talk him out of his decision. The striker did not score in the final group game, or for the rest of the tourney, but his efforts were not lost on the fans, even if it compared feebly to new boy, Junior Agogo. Rather than praise him for his showing, it became, in some quarters, the single evidence of their successful abuse campaign. A player like Asamoah Gyan needed harsh words, they alluded, for him to give his best. He misses ten and scores one… Asamoah scored once, the team lost the semi-final by a single goal, the fans were not happy.

Paying the Penalty

Football, being the world game that it is, is the central piece around which the lives and hearts of many revolve. While it is a team sport, there are single moments of individual mastery or horrific blunders which decide an athlete’s fate in the Cop’s jury or the Ultra’s mantra of doom. Nobody bothers about Paolo Rossi’s role in the Totonero scandal because he made “Brazil Cry” in 1982. Alessandro Del Piero’s flick-volley versus Fiorentina earned him praise world-wide, but his misses in EURO 2000 scarred his record before been erased by the goal at Signal Iduna at Germany 2006. Zidane has a Champions League goal of the century contender to his name when he scored the one that clinched it in 2002, but so too will he be remembered for handicapping Les Blues in the 2006 final when he got himself sent off for a head-butt. Columbia’s Andrés Escobar, though, was the least fortunate of the lot, as his own goal in the 1994 World Cup game against USA led to his murder. Roberto Baggio was blamed for his miss in the 1994 final shoot-outs against Brazil, Pierre Womé of Cameroon feared for his life after missing the decisive penalty in the qualifiers for Germany 2006, Nigeria’s Sani Kaita received 1000 death threats after his red card wreaked doom on the chances of second round qualification for the Super Eagles… Asamoah was not going to be different.

Nobody forgets his goal against USA, nor the fact that he played through pain in Equatorial Guinea. His strike at Wembley at the hearts of Three Lions faithfuls, when he weaved away from Cahil and Lescott, and then caressed the ball wide and clean past Joe Hart, is still etched in the football fan’s memory. The sacrifice, and dedications, and determination to see his name in the records books are not lost on the fan glued to the transmitter, or huddled with strangers on a cold, rainy night. No, but like the solved parable of the good news and the media, it is the pain and near-moments that find football fans in their misery selves, gives them company, and fills their lustful wells of self-pity with emotions on which to ruminate for as long as the memory is there. It is as easy to dream of these as it is to taste the ridge of one’s mouth.

As such, that cursed night as had befallen the football continent of Africa, after a few days of dreaming, and singing, and hope and apprehension, and while the world had held its breath for Asamoah Gyan to ink his name across the barren pages of footballing history, that miss became the last breath out of a continent’s life. While Suarez’s goal-line handling offence was punished deservedly, it was Gyan who would carry the exorcist’s mark years afterwards. His repeat ‘crime’ in another penalty miss against Zambia in the 2012 AFCON semi-final led to him declaring his intention to follow the counsel of his late mother. “I have to respect her decision for me not taking penalties for the team,” he said in 2013. Two years on, it would prove a most-dreaded piece of advice in some corners as the shoot-outs beckoned at Estadio de Bata.

A Captain’s Return

It was not the first time a member of the Black Stars had taken time off the team in a personal want for recuperation. No matter the excuses given, such hiatuses have always brought with them further resentment from the faithful. Essien did no escape criticisms despite citing injury concerns, and Kevin Prince Boateng has been ascribed names less palatable than an ingrate. Later, even the Ayew brothers, sons of the legendary Abedi Ayew Pele, would earn stern reproaches for deciding against being part of the national team after they were dropped from the 2013 Nations Cup squad. However, Gyan’s case has always been a curious matter. His return after six months might not have been a surprise, but the decision to offer him the captaincy certainly sent a few feathers a-ruffling.

While the player revolt at Brazil 2014 brought harsh criticisms over the nation’s handling of matters following the air-lifting of $3 million dollars to Brazil, Gyan was accused of being inadequate in his role as captain. He was the unworthy leader of a team of greedy mercenaries. In a tournament that had been largely described as failure for a nation in only its third World Cup appearance, Asamoah Gyan still had his moments of two-steps.

The Black Stars’ defeat to the Americans in the first game meant that nothing other than a result against the German machine would do. The Germans, hot favourites for the tournament and fresh from sending four past Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, boasted an array of players that had gelled into a powerful Mannschaft. It was an uphill task when the draws were made, but such was the feeling when Ghana learnt of her opponents two World Cups ago. Whatever slice of hope had melted was revived when Andre Ayew replied to a second half Mario Götze goal. Minutes past the hour mark, Sulley Muntari picked the pocket of the Germans in their own half and threaded the ball through to Ghana’s number three. Gyan received it in his stride as the ball evaded a sliding tackle, took two touches, and drilled across a stretching Manuel Neuer. It was a moment few dreamt but never truly expected. Ghana was en route a famous victory and quite deservedly and expectedly, Baby Jet led his colleagues in another of his buttocks-bouncing dance. The next minutes birthed butterflies in many a fan’s belly as Gyan and Jordan came close to doubling the lead. Eventually, those feelings disappeared and the status quo was maintained with a Miroslav Klose equaliser. Gyan, though, scored again in the defeat to the Portuguese in the next game and the team was sent packing. Ghana’s end to the tournament was premature, and amid the troubles of unpaid wages and economic difficulties plaguing the country, the Black Stars antics in getting paid did not escape the frothing fans. It was the country’s third World Cup appearance, but it was the first time they had been kicked out of the group stages with not a slice of pride in their honour. And, as a super magnet to criticism, all these troubles in camp; the player revolt and half-decent performances, poor management by the Ghana Football Association, alleged incompetence of the manager; all happened under Gyan’s watch.

Black Box

While the after-events and the allegations of corruption culminated in a presidential enquiry in the activities of the Ghana Football Association, Asamoah was hit with more sad news. His close friend and singing partner, Castro, had disappeared after a Jet Ski accident in Ghana and was yet to be found. What’s more, Baby Jet had to vehemently deny reports of his involvement in his friend’s disappearance, and his brother and former Black Stars attacker, Baffour Gyan, reacted violently to a journalist’s questions on the whereabouts of the popular musician. A legal suit ensued, but the said journalist eventually withdrew his case amidst concerns over his mother’s ill-health. Baby Jet halted his music career out of grief, just as he’d refused to take any more penalties for the national team.

Six months later, the tournament started in Equatorial Guinea with an open day defeat to Senegal that added disdain to the nation-wide non-interest from fans back home. However, Gyan, still suffering from illness and grief, came to the rescue by securing a last-minute winner in a dour game against Algeria in the second match. The internet did not crash but the blue bird social medium tweeted with incessant praise. The team raced to the final with further wins against South Africa, Guinea, and hosts, Equatorial Guinea, before losing against Ivory Coast in an echo of events at Senegal 1992.

Perhaps, the defining moment of the tournament was not his goal against the Desert Foxes that put him further into the annals of history as joint-record holder with Osei Kofi of seven African Cup goals, but the flashing of the number three on the fourth official’s board in the dying minutes of the game. Having taken a two-score advantage, Ghana would go on to miss three more as Razak Brimah failed to stop his opposite number in goal, Boubacar Barry’s effort. It became a game of ifs at the end, and Ghana’s 33 year thirst for African glory remained unsated.

With 45 goals in 86 appearances for the national side though, Baby Jet has reached the heights no other Black Stars player has. Yet, for his eternal critics, fans whose spite he earned for swapping the Wearside for the sky-scraping towers of the Gulf, it will remain a plod down the pot-holed tarmac of mediocrity. They will still say, in the comforting company of their grief and regrets, that he was a coward for not taking the kick. “In the land of the blind,” they will say, “the one-eyed is king,” and one would wonder who the blinds are. For the Baby Jet, though, “… no retreat no surrender,” goes the mime to his debut track.

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