Whenever a shortlist of African footballing legends is drawn up, the name Abedi Pele invariably makes even the most exclusive catalogue. His nimble skills, graceful athleticism and quiet confidence made him one of Africa’s most successful exports and one of its most popular sons.
Born into poverty on the outskirts of Accra as Abedi Ayew in the mid-1960s, such was his talent as a youngster that he was given the nickname ‘Pele’ while learning to play on the red dirt streets. Always precocious, he drew national plaudits before he was a teenager and signed his first professional contract with newly formed Real Tamale United in 1978. From there, his achievements never ceased until he retired over two decades later recognised as Ghana’s greatest-ever player and one of the best anywhere.
Taking on the world
Pele first came to the continent’s attention as a 17-year-old wonderkid who helped Ghana win the 1982 CAF Africa Cup of Nations in Libya. It was the fourth and last continental trophy for the Black Stars, but for Pele it set in motion a club career that would range far and wide, taking him to over half a dozen countries and almost twice as many teams. And although he is most closely associated with professional success in France, his performances across five Cups of Nations - he holds the record for appearances in the tournament - are particularly treasured by the talent-loving supporters of Africa.
The most famous of these was in 1992 when Pele won the Golden Boot and lit up the continent’s imagination as the beating heart of a strong Black Stars attack. His overall performance - and his goal at the end of a famous mazy run in the quarter-final against Congo - is often held up alongside Diego Maradona’s with Argentina at Mexico 86 as one of the best ever, and he seemed set to win his second AFCON trophy as Ghana breezed through the tournament undefeated into the final. But he was forced to miss out on the contest after picking up his second yellow card in a heroic performance in the semi-final win over Nigeria, and his team lost a penalty shootout heartbreaker 11-10 against Côte D’Ivoire.
It was in that period that Pele shined brightest, and he won a trio of African Player of the Year awards in succession between 1991 and 1993. He also became captain of the national team in 1990, a role he held with pride for six years. Overall in his 16 year career with the Black Stars, he tallied a record 33 goals from 67 appearances. He is considered one of the best players in history to have never graced a FIFA World Cup™ finals because the Black Stars did not reach one until 2006, but he did compete in four qualifying campaigns between 1986 to 1998.
To Marseille and back again
After holding his own as a 17-year-old at the 1982 AFCON, Pele set off to find his way as a young African player. In the next four years, he spent time with clubs in the Middle East, back in West Africa and in Switzerland before ending up in France with Chamois Niortais. It was in the French league that Pele really began to thrive at the club level, and it was where he became one of the most recognised and inspirational African players of his generation.
After his apprenticeship with Niort, then with Mulhouse and Lille, Pele settled into his golden period with Marseille in 1990 and over the next three years the club enjoyed its best period ever as well. Like with the Ghana team of that time, he became a stalwart in the attacking midfield or withdrawn striker position, creating goals and scoring more than a few for himself, and occasionally he captained the team as they won a succession of French league titles and reached the final of the European Cup twice.
In 1991’s tournament, he was instrumental in the impressive quarter-final defeat of holders Milan, and he then scored two in the semi-final triumph over Spartak Moscow before his side fell in the ultimate match on penalties to Red Star Belgrade. Two years later, L’OM became the first (and still only) French club to ever win the coveted trophy when they again bested Milan, this time in the final. It was Pele’s typically testing left-footed corner that set up the only goal by Basile Boli, and he was named man of the match.
With the French club’s subsequent legal issues, the Ghanaian great spent the rest of his career on the move, but he was impressive and popular at every stop. A season at Lyon gave way to two in Italy with Torino, where he was named Best Foreign Player, before a move to 1860 Munich in Germany and finally back to the Middle East. Perhaps it was this cosmopolitan career that made Pele such a natural statesman in the football world, and he has remained closely intertwined with the game since retiring at the turn of the century.
The only Ghanaian named to the other Pele’s ‘FIFA 100’ list of the greatest players in history, Ayew’s most important contribution could be as inspiration to the generations of African footballers that grew up watching him play against the best in the world. His legacy can be seen at the highest levels on Europe’s pitches today, laden as they are with talent from Africa.
Date of birth: 5 November, 1964
Place of Birth: Accra, Ghana
Position: Attacking midfield and forward
Clubs: Real Tamale United (1978-1982), Al Sadd (1983), FC Zurich (1983), Dragons Oueme (1984), Real Tamale United (1985), Chamois Niort (1986-1987), Mulhouse (1987), Marseille (1987-1988), Lille (1988-1990), Marseille (1990-1993), Lyon (1993-1994), Torino (1994-1996), Munich 1860 (1996-1998), Al Ain (1998-2000).
National team: 67 caps (33 goals)
Africa Cup of Nations winner (1982)
Africa Cup of Nations Best Player (1992)
African Player of the Year (1991, 1992, 1993)
European Champions League winner (1993)
French Ligue 1 champion (1989, 1990, 1991, 1992)
French Cup winner (1989)
Prince of Qatar Cup winner (1983)
UAE Cup winner (1999)
2004 - present: Nania FC