Some players might have found bearing the same surname as the greatest footballer of all time a burden. Not so Abedi Ayew Pele. Throughout the 1990s, the Ghanaian was a genuine star in his own right, as his three consecutive African Player of the Year titles (1991, 1992 and 1993) attest. A veritable pioneer, he was among the first players from the continent to make a real impression in Europe. Be it in Germany or with Olympic Marseille at a time when the French club ruled Europe, Abedi was a class act.
Capped sixty-seven times by Ghana and a UEFA Champions League winner in 1993 with Marseille, Abedi Pele called time on his playing career at the end of the 1990s. But his involvement with the game did not end there. Far from it in fact, as he has set up a training academy in his native land and works with the Ghanaian Football Federation and FIFA, where he is a member of the Football Commission and was recently appointed anti-racism ambassador. We caught up with this exceptional player and eminently charming individual as he waited between flights.
FIFA.com: Abedi, what have you been doing since you hung up your boots?
Abedi Pele: My main activity consists of running a team called FC Niania. It's really a football school attended by around forty players aged between 14 and 20 years of age. The senior side has now made it into the Ghanaian "First Division", which is actually the country's second division. We regularly take part in European tournaments. We were in Switzerland a while back, then in Germany most recently, where we were only beaten on penalties in the final by Kaiserslautern. I'm a man of many faces for the team, acting as chairman, coach, and confidante (laughs)! I spend a great deal of time with them and I absolutely love it. For me, the most important thing is to pass on my 20 years of European experience. I feel it's my duty to share it.
Aren't you also involved with FIFA?
Yes, I'm a member of the Football Commission, and FIFA also recently asked me to become their ambassador against racism, which makes me very proud. My role will be to travel all over the world spreading the message that we're all the same and that football is a remarkable vehicle for togetherness that transcends all barriers. I am really impatient to get started as it will be a real pleasure.
And you also work with the Ghanaian Federation…
Yes, I see myself as a sort of go-between between the Ghanaian federation and FIFA, as it's important for relations to be good between us. That's why I'm in Zurich today. For example, reviewing the federation's statutes to bring them up to date is essential for the game's future in our country, not to say in Africa as a whole.
What do you think of Ghana's progress in the qualifying competition for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™?
I'm quite satisfied with the Black Stars' results. We've got two games left and we're not far from qualification. The next match against Uganda is very important: if we win it and South Africa lose in Burkina Faso - where it's always hard to get a result -, we will be mathematically through. And let me tell you that if we do manage to reach our first ever FIFA World Cup, the streets of Accra will erupt (smiles)! And it's a dream that's close to becoming a reality…
Do you think that the current generation is as good as the one you led a decade or so ago, which was indisputably the most successful in your country's history?
We have a very good national team at the moment, but the picture can change overnight in football. Let's just say that this generation has yet to confirm its talent, although it's right on the cusp of doing so. They've got great potential, but I don't want to add to the pressure they're under. I remember the France team in 1993 which, at the end of normal time in the last qualifier against Bulgaria, thought they were through to the 1994 World Cup, but by the time the final whistle blew, they were out of it… You should never count your chickens before they're hatched.
What's your view on the current standard of African football?
The level has greatly improved over the last few years, without a doubt. Nevertheless, I'm still unhappy with many of the training practices on the continent. It's a significant shortcoming, which is why I set up my team. The same goes for the general infrastructures, which are cruelly lacking. If these two factors could be sorted out, I truly believe that an African team could win a FIFA World Cup. For the moment though, it infuriates me to see the many African talents who fail to fulfil their potential because of these problems.
You son is currently at the start of his career in the game, at your former club Marseille to boot. How does that make you feel?
He's only 15 and already at Marseille, the club where my career took off, so of course I'm proud, but also a little anxious. He's already in their U-18 side and I'm proud to see him playing with such talent and passion, especially as, like me, he wears the No. 10 and is left-footed! But my role is also to make sure he keeps his feet on the ground and doesn't get big-headed. But he has kept up his studies and is doing very well, which is a good way of keeping in touch with reality.
Michael Essien has been in the headlines a great deal recently. How do you rate this player?
I'm thrilled for him. He is much in demand and that's normal in view of the fantastic season he had with Lyon. I can't believe the figures being bandied around by the big European clubs. That kind of money's very rare for a defensive midfielder. I feel that if the right offer comes along, he should go (editor's note: this interview took place before Essien's transfer to Chelsea). Chances like that don't come along twice and no one knows what might happen in the coming months.
In your opinion, does he have what it takes to lead the Ghanaian side, as you yourself did?
From what I've seen, he's not the natural leader of the Ghana side, but he could be with time. To tell you the truth, he won't really have much choice. If he becomes a star at a top club, the responsibility with the Black Stars will come automatically, as everyone's expectations will go up. And as I did in my day, he will have to handle it.