Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Abedi Ayew: 'African Pele' who conquered Europe

From Vladimir Duthiers, CNN
June 6, 2013 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
Ghanaian legend Abedi "Pele" Ayew is one of Africa's football pioneers, renowned for his dazzling footwork and nimble athleticism. Ghanaian legend Abedi "Pele" Ayew is one of Africa's football pioneers, renowned for his dazzling footwork and nimble athleticism.
HIDE CAPTION
Abedi 'Pele' Ayew
Abedi 'Pele' Ayew
Abedi 'Pele' Ayew
Abedi 'Pele' Ayew
Abedi 'Pele' Ayew
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Abedi "Pele" Ayew is a Ghanaian football legend
  • His skills on the field garnered him the nickname of arguably the game's greatest player
  • He helped lead Olympique de Marseilles to its first ever European championship in 1993
  • The attacking midfielder was also captain of Ghana's national team for six years

African Voices is a weekly show that highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. Follow the team on Twitter.

(CNN) -- He was just a young boy -- long before he became one of Africa's all-time football greats and racked up trophies in Europe's top competitions -- when Abedi Ayew first heard people comparing him with arguably the game's best player -- Brazil's Edson Arantes do Nascimento, also known as Pele.

Yet, there was just one problem for the young Abedi, who grew up in a poor Ghanaian village and shared a home with his 18 siblings. He didn't know who Pele was.

"You imagine that we don't have access to televisions, we don't have lights in our villages; we were closed in the very small village so we didn't have access to all these things," he explains.

"So for me, playing behind our modest windows and any small places we would get, we tried to play football. And then you see people who are a little bit older than you saying, 'oh Pele, he plays like Pele.'"

That nickname followed the attacking midfielder all the way from the red dirt fields in Ghana to some of the world's biggest football stages, including the 1993 Champions League final where he helped lead the French club Olympique de Marseille to its first ever European championship.

How Abedi Pele became a football pioneer
Why Abedi Pele chose fans over money
Grooming Ghana's next football stars

Read this: Cameroon's outspoken football star

Like his namesake, the Ghanaian "Pele" displayed a nimble athleticism on the pitch, dazzling defenders with his spectacular technique and blistering pace. He signed his first contract in 1978 with Ghana's Real Tamale United but it wasn't long before he attracted the attention of foreign scouts, becoming a pioneer for African football at a time when few players from his continent enjoyed major international careers.

He spent several years honing his talent abroad -- including spells in teams in Qatar and Benin -- before heading to France to play in the country's second division.

In 1987, he made his move to France's top league after being signed by Marseille.

But his first spell at the club in the south of France proved to be a short one as Ayew grew frustrated with the racial abuse he suffered from his teammates.

"I started playing with them and three weeks later I called my manager and told my manager 'look, I would like to change club because I wasn't accepted by the players," he reveals. "Any time they see me passing, they spit on the ground... [and say things like] 'go back to where you come from, go back to the bush.'"

Read this: Tiny town breeding champions

I felt proud because every footballer's dream is to win a Champions League.
Abedi "Pele" Ayew, Ghanaian footballer

The Ghanaian star left Marseille after just one year and began playing for rivals Lille. But his excellent performances in his new team made Marseille's club president realize what he had lost and try to sign him back again.

Ayew was initially reluctant to play again for his former club but was eventually convinced by his wife who urged him to "go and prove to them that you are the best." So in 1990 he rejoined Marseille, where he enjoyed three golden years, culminating in the 1993 Champions League triumph over mighty Italian giants AC Milan.

"I felt proud because every footballer's dream is to win a Champions League," says Ayew. "Having the opportunity to be one of the first African players to win is huge and I think I was just happy."

A champion in Europe, Ayew was also the heart and soul of Ghana's national team, which he captained for six years, starting in 1990. During his 16-year career with the Black Stars, he scored 33 goals in 67 appearances and played in a record five Africa Cup of Nations.

Read this: Teens shoot for U.S. glory

Ayew, who's seen three of his sons following his footsteps by playing professional football, ended his career with Al Ain the United Arab Emirates in 2000.

But his passion for football remains unquenched. These days, Ghana's football legend spends his time and money coaching and mentoring young players. Beyond the fundamentals of sport, he also tries to prepare them to face some of the challenges he overcame.

"We just try to ... ensure that they have a better career but it's not easy," he says. "It's not everybody who is going to be a very good footballer or to have a professional career.

"So what we try to do is we teach them how to be in a society and that is very important -- even if you don't succeed in the football pitches, outside you can live within the society and I think that needs a whole lot of respect and discipline."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
African Voices
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 1140 GMT (1940 HKT)
The veiled female rapper tackling Egyptian taboos head on
Meet Mayam Mahmoud, the 18-year-old Egyptian singer tackling gender stereotypes through hip-hop.
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1050 GMT (1850 HKT)
As the head of Kenya Red Cross, Abbas Gullet was one of the first emergency responders at the Westgate shopping mall.
March 19, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Gikonyo performs a medical check-up for one of her patients at Karen Hospital in Kenya.
Leading pediatric surgeon Betty Gikonyo reveals how her life changed at 30,000 feet and her mission to save the lives of countless disadvantaged children in Kenya.
March 4, 2014 -- Updated 1346 GMT (2146 HKT)
Biyi Bandele
As a child, Biyi Bandele immersed himself in a world of literature. Today he's taken that passion and turned it into a career as a celebrated writer, playwright and now director.
February 26, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Sanaa Hamri in Los Angeles, 2011.
Music video and film director Sanaa Hamri shares her story of how she made it from the streets of Tangier to the big film studios in the United States.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 0934 GMT (1734 HKT)
African Voices meets James Ebo Whyte a passionate storyteller with a series of successful plays to his credit.
February 17, 2014 -- Updated 1016 GMT (1816 HKT)
Actress Lupita Nyong'o attends the 86th Academy Awards nominees luncheon at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 10, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o has become a new critics' darling after her breakout role in last year's hit movie "12 Years A Slave."
March 27, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Celebrated designer Adama Paris reveals how she was tired of seeing "skinny blonde models" on all the runways, so she did something about it.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1548 GMT (2348 HKT)
Packaging can change how people see things. And when it comes to sex, it could maybe help save lives too.
March 21, 2014 -- Updated 1106 GMT (1906 HKT)
Global perceptions of the tiny country in east-central Africa are often still stuck in 1994 but local photographers are hoping to change that.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1234 GMT (2034 HKT)
A Silverback male mountain Gorilla sits in the dense jungle canopy on the edge of Uganda's Bwindi National Park in this 29, January 2007 photo. Bwindi, or the 'Impenetrable Forest' as it is known to many tourists is home to the majority of Uganda's rare and endangered mountain gorilla population where plans are underway to habituate two more gorilla family groups to counter growing demand from a flourishing gorilla trek tourism business, a major source of income for the Uganda tourism Authority. AFP PHOTO / STUART PRICE. (Photo credit should read STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images)
Meet Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, the woman from Uganda trying to save critically endangered mountain gorillas before its too late.
April 4, 2014 -- Updated 0939 GMT (1739 HKT)
Lightenings strike over Johannesburg during a storm on December 14, 2013.
Ending energy poverty is central to a resurgent Africa, writes entrepreneur Tony O. Elumelu.
February 7, 2014 -- Updated 1045 GMT (1845 HKT)
A group of young students have taken stereotypes about the continent -- and destroyed them one by one.
April 1, 2014 -- Updated 1014 GMT (1814 HKT)
Grace Amey-Obeng has built a multi-million dollar cosmetics empire that's helping change the perception of beauty for many.
Each week African Voices brings you inspiring and compelling profiles of Africans across the continent and around the world.
ADVERTISEMENT