On Ghana's roster one last name appears two times: Ayew. Two players on the West African nation's team, André and Jordan, are brothers, better known for their illustrious heritage than for their skills on the field. They are the sons of African soccer legend Abedi Ayew. The name carries great meaning for Ghanaian fans who revere Abedi. But his adopted nickname is one that reverberates around the world: Pelé. What that means is that there will be long shadows all over the field this evening when André and Jordan make their World Cup debuts against the U.S.
Abedi Ayew was baptized Abedi Pelé when he was just a kid, a tribute to his mastery of Ghana's red clay fields. (Years later he would earn an epithet alluding to another South American hero: "the Maradona of Africa.") At the time, Abedi didn't even know who Pelé was. He'd grown up with 18 brothers and sisters in the tiny town of Oko on the northern outskirts of Accra. "You imagine that we don't have access to televisions, we don't have lights in our villages," he said last year. "We were closed in the very small village so we didn't have access to all these things."
The nickname stuck, even if there's something sort of poignant and yearning about going by the name of someone you'll never be. Spectators chanted "Pelé, Pelé" as he danced past defenders, and soon enough, the kid with clay feet had become an African idol, winning the African Golden Ball three times (1992, 1993, and 1994) and a European Cup with the Olympique de Marseille in 1993 against AC Milan. It was his corner kick that found the head of Basile Boli, whose goal gave Marseille a 1-0 victory in Munich.
This was a time of glory for the rebel team that burst onto the stage of international football in the early 1990s. Led by Abedi Pelé, the European sports press began to call Olympique de Marseille "the second French revolution."
It was beautiful while it lasted. But after winning a Champions League title in the 1992-93 season, the team went down in flames. Olympique was demoted to second division after its owner Bernard Tapie was implicated in a match-fixing scheme that involved bribing rival players to intentionally lose matches.
Abedi Pelé survived the disaster, taking refuge in a first-division team in Lyon, though he did not emerge from the experience completely clean. In 2006, Olympique's former center back Jean-Jacques Eydeli told the prestigious French sports paper L'Equipe that all the team's players, except the German Rudi Völler, were doping before playing the famous match against Milan.
The revelations sparked an investigation by the UEFA league. The probe ended after just one week, when the director general's office confirmed all the drug tests at the time had come up negative.
A year later, in 2007, Abedi Pelé—now turned team owner—found himself at the center of another storm.
His second-division team, FC Nania, was fighting for a chance to be elevated to Ghana's Premier League, but had tied on points with their rivals the Great Mariners. The championship would come down to which team finished the season with the most goals. The two decisive games kicked off at the same time—FC Nania vs. Okwawu United and Great Mariners vs. Tudu Mighty Jets—and both got very strange in the second half, according to Declan Hill in his book The Fix. Nania finished with an astonishing 31-0 victory; the Mariners clocked in at 28 goals to nil.
In the second match-fixing scandal of his career, the Ghanaian federation demoted the clubs involved in the playoff match and suspended Abedi for one year from all soccer-related activities in the country.
Abedi responded to the allegations by saying, "The only possible accusation is that my team scored more goals."
Okwawu's coach, when asked why his team had played so poorly, answered that the players were recovering from food poisoning.
For Ghana, though, Abedi Pelé will always be beloved for the 16 years he played on the national team, scoring 33 goals in 67 games. He still holds the record as the only player to make it to five African Cup of Nations tournaments.
Ghana, the first independent nation in sub-Sahara Africa, broke barriers by making it to the quarterfinals in South Africa's 2010 World Cup. Despite being the best player in Ghana's history, Abedi Pelé never got to play in a World Cup.
Now the honor is bestowed on his two sons, who are the country's new hope. The elder brother, André, is a certain starter in Brazil, and Jordan has probably earned his way into the starting lineup, too. Manning both wings, the Ayew brothers will torment defenses with tremendous speed and elusive dribbling—a couple of traits they've inherited from their father, along with a name.
Raul Vilchis Olalde, a Mexican journalist based in New York, has covered two World Cups, two Olympic games and a couple Americas Cup tournaments. He previously was a correspondent in Mexico for the Chinese news agency Xinhua and as a radio and television commentator. You can follow him on Twitter at @elvilchisolalde.
Photo Credit: AP