- I heard the news that Ghana’s leading goalkeeper, Robert Mensah, was dead, before my two boys woke up that morning of 2 November 1971.
The previous 24 hours had been absolute hell: the kids had asked me, every minute or so, with pitiful, anxious faces, whether I had heard anything new about Robert Mensah’s condition. (He’d been stabbed with a broken bottle by an electrician called Melfah, in a brawl at an akpeteshie joint, “Credo”, at Community 7, Tema.) The rumour was that the pub brawl was over a woman (what else!) But details were sketchy. Questions were being asked all over the place, and no-one was providing any concrete answers. It was reported that the quarrel was with three chaps, and that Melfah had followed Robert when Robert left the pub, and stabbed him outside. Was this true?
A crucial African Champions match was coming up between Robert Mensah’s team, Asante Kotoko, and Great Olympics. It was a unique occasion in the history of football in Ghana, for it very unusual for 2 clubs from the same country to play against each other in that African continental competition.
As it happened, Kotoko were the defending champions while Olympics had become the new Ghana league champions. So they had to play against each other.
So, was Mensah’s stabbing an Olympics-inspired assassination, as some people suspected? That made no sense because, as every football fan knew, Olympics shared with Kotoko, a mortal enemy against whom they harboured a “Phobia”! That team was Accra Hearts of Oak and it was against it that all the rules of rivalry were deployed by both Oly and Kotoko. The two clubs were united in their enmity of Hearts, and therefore, competing against each other had never taken on as bitter a form as that between both of them and Hearts of Oak. Anyway, since when had assassination become a part of Ghanaian football?
No-one had an answer to that, so the notion was dismissed. And yet… I mean, Robert’s death it was so strange it could have been brought about by mysterious circumstances no-one knew about …
In my house, a funereal silence imposed itself. My son, the football-mad Kofi Amoako Duodu, was then only aged nine, but he appreciated and loved Robert Mensah to bits. Photos of Robert were plastered on the wall all over his bed. I felt guilty whenever Kotoko played an important match and I didn’t take him to watch it. Television came to my aid in this regard. Naturally, he’d infected his younger brother, Akwasi, who was only six, with the same Kotoko/Robert Mensah bug.
This loyalty to a particular club was almost embarrassing to me, for I myself, in order to be able to write about football without bias, loftily refused to support any club and reserved my loyalty for the national team, the Black Stars. But your heart can never be too far away from where your kids’ hearts are, and I once drove them all the way to Lome to watch Kotoko play.
Not only that — almost every stylish player of the sort whose artistry I enjoyed had passed through Kotoko at one time or the other — among them, James Agyei, C K Gyamfi, Osei Kofi, Baba Yara, Kwame Adarkwa, Mohammed Salisu, Osei Kofi and Wilberforce Mfum. I was too young to see Kwaku Duah play, but he was the talk of the football-loving men of Akyem Asiakwa, my home-town, when I was growing up.
Now, we knew that Robert Mensah had been taken to hospital and had undergone an emergency operation. But details were non-existent about how well he was doing. Whereas in some places, the condition of a star like that would have been reported in bulletins issued periodically by the hospital, here, there was nothing. Just a vague hope based on potential wish-fulfilment, that he was “recovering”.
Robert Mensah in fact died at 2.30 a.m. on 2 November 1971. As soon as I heard about it, I knew that I, like “Houston”, had “a problem.” How was I to convey the news to my poor kids?
For it was unbelievable that Robert Mensah had died. His whole reputation had been built around the fact that he was indestructible, exuding vitality and a lack of fear as he did. The best illustration of this quality in him was that if his team-mates disputed with the referee over an infringement — such as a penalty — awarded against them, Robert Mensah would go and disperse the players, take the ball, place it on the spot, and walk laconically back to stand between the posts.
“Let them take it!” he would say, with a shrug.
Invariably, by being so impervious to fear, he unnerved the opposition and they either shot wide, or kicked the ball feebly enough for him to be able to catch it. Or, as in the following instance, they kicked the ball “over the bar”:
It was during an African Club Championship final match with Englebert of Leopoldville, in the Congo Democratic Republic (then Zaire) in 1970. A biased referee awarded a penalty against Kotoko, when Kotoko was leading by 2 goals to 1. Fed up with the referee’s partiality, officials of Kotoko and some of the players were minded to boycott the match.
Their resentment had been fuelled by the fact that the Zairian authorities had – so the story goes — housed the Kotoko team in a school classroom full of mosquitoes, instead of at a proper hotel.Annoyed that the Kotoko officials wanted to “run away” from a penalty when he, stalwart, invincible Robert Mensah, was the one in the goal, Robert went and talked harshly to them. Then he took the ball and calmly placed it on the spot. As usual.Next, he went and stood in the middle of the goal. Waiting.
There is a story, which I haven’t been able to verify, that Robert, at this point, took off his famous checked black-and-white cap, which he always wore, and tapped the crossbar as well as the two posts with it.
The story goes that the Zairians at the stadium went ballistic when they saw this. Believers in supernatural forces themselves, they suspected that Robert had put juju in the cap and that once he had the cap on his head, they would not be able to score with the penalty they’d been awarded. So they yelled a prolonged demand that Robert should take off the cap.
Robert Mensah, of course, refused. There was the second deadlock of the match.But then, a Kotoko elder came, and in his turn, replayed the words Robert Mensah had used back to the officials earlier: “Didn’t you say we shouldn’t run away?” he asked. Then he intoned: “Yeye Asante Kotoko – wokum apem a, apem beba! Yenim ko oo, yennim adwanier oo! Aeeee!”.(“We are Asante Kotoko — if you kill a thousand of us, another thousand will spring up to take their place! We only know how to fight, not how to run away!”)
Robert was moved by the invocation of the Kotoko war song. He took the cap off his head and threw it on the grass.
A Zairian soldier rushed up, picked the cap up and tore its lining open with the bayonet of his rifle. He looked in it for the juju he believed Robert had hidden inside it. He found nothing. He slunk off with a silly look on his face. He was sure the cap was hiding a talismn or other juju amulet. How could the juju just vanish?
But whatever the soldier’s suspicions, he could do nothing more. The ball was now placed on the spot. And the Zairian penalty specialist, the famous Kagogo, came and stood behind the ball.Robert Mensah looked Kagogo up and down. There was a scornful look on his face..
Kagogo kicked the ball.
The ball sailed over the bar!
Kotoko had won. Kotoko became African club champions. The team was mobbed when it returned safely home to Ghana.A late colleague of mine, the famous journalist Moses Danquah, who was not normally a football enthusiast, told me (I don’t know where he got this from but because of the power of TV, I didn’t dispute his story!) that after the ball sailed over the bar, the Zairian dictator, Mobutu Seseseko, was so furious he left the stadium, instead of waiting to present the Cup to Kotoko!What is indisputable is that Kotoko brought the Cup home to Ghana. And Robert Mensah’s fame grew even more gigantic.And now Robert was dead. I needed to make sure that my boys were not over-shocked by hearing it from anyone else but me. The method I adopted to lessen their distress was to prepare their minds for his death by being as clinical about his condition as possible. Although I knew he was already dead, I went into their room, and talking to them as if they were grown men,
I took on the role of a surgeon, and explained the type of operation that Robert had undergone.Melfah had stabbed Robert with a broken bottle, I said. Because a broken bottle would have had jagged ends, Robert’s injuries would most probably have consisted of multiple ruptures in the abdomen, which would be very difficult to stitch properly. Apart from the complicated sewing-up process, the success of the operation would also depend on other factors — especially, how much blood Robert had lost before he reached the hospital.
I was then asked bluntly: “So you’re saying, Daddy, that he might die?”I was happy that the awful truth had been brought up frontally.
“Yes,” I replied. “He might not make it. But we don’t know for sure. It is a matter of luck.” I then stroked their heads and left the room. I am sure there were tears in all our eyes and I left the room abruptly..I waited for an hour, as they prepared for school. Then, after they’d had their breakfast, I re-entered their room, shaking my head. I didn’t have to say anything. I stroked their heads again, and left the room.
They went to school. I don’t know how they fared there on that awful day, but I knew it would be tough for them, and when we picked them up at lunch-time, my wife and I tried our best to lift up their spirits by taking them to the Star Hotel, and treating them to a splendid lunch. Kofi has written about it and I shall now let him take over the story.
Kofi Amoako Duodu writes: “Those were our days of legendary glories, when my team, Kumasi Asante Kotoko, trod the ‘streets of Utopia’; when the soccer being played was at an unattainable level — scripts written for the ‘Kumasi Golden Books’ by the special grace of God Almighty Himself…. And yet in spite of all this, when my father would ask me: ”Kofi, what will you be when you grow up?”, I’d reply: “I will be a ‘gow-kipper’ and he’d say ‘goal-keeper not gow-kipper’! Yes, the aura of Robert Mensah was of divine proportions. People actually went to the stadium purposely to watch Bob. I finally got to watch Bob live myself in 1971 in a game with Great Olympics, who were league champs. So it was that it was right in front of me that Robert took Jones’s shot on his belly, as though it was nothing, and the whole stadium burst out laughing. Unfortunately for me, my man was not put to any real test. But I was there and experienced the real meaning of ‘red-red’. This was the only time I watched ‘Uncle Bob’ in living colour…
# It is my birthday, and my step mum,Madam Beryl Karikari, throws a party and little do we know the bombshell she has in store for us 60’s kids. How she got it I know not, but a carpet was spread on our garage floor and with the white wall making a perfect screen, a projector was switched on from a table behind us and what did we see? The whole 90- minute reel of Asante Kotoko vs. Englebert in Kinshasa! I mean, my step mum ‘murdered’ me for eternity…. Biofacts Robert Mensah:
Year of birth — 1939;
Date of death 2 November 1971 (aged 31–32)
Yaw Yeboah: This has brought me a sad memories, I was in class six at Breman Asikuma Catholic School when the news broke out that Robert Mensah, a goal keeper of my favourite Team Fabulous kumasi Asante Kotoko has died after being stabbed in a bar at Tema, oh May He Rest in Peace. There will NEVER be another Robert Mensah’