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Black History Month: Africa’s Pele

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Abedi Ayew was one of Africa’s greatest soccer talents, and he ran the continent using a familiar nickname.

Soccer - Ghana v Morocco Photo by Tony Marshall/EMPICS via Getty Images

One of the greatest players in African soccer history had a name that, to many fans around the world, symbolized greatness. Well, Abedi Ayew brought that greatness to African soccer, which is why he went by the name Abedi Pele.

Abedi Pele was born in Kibi, Ghana and grew up on the outskirts of Accra, the national capital. He began his playing career in Ghana with Real Tamale United in 1980. He was there a couple seasons before he earned call-ups to the Black Stars. He was on Ghana roster for the 1982 Africa Cup of Nations, which the Black Stars won. Soon after, he left his home country to play at Al Sadd in Qatar. He bounced around Qatar, Switzerland, Benin, and Ghana before moving to France to play for Chamois Niort. He also played at Montpellier and Lille before he joined Marseille in 1987. There, he helped Marseille emerge as a perennial Champions League contender in the early 1990s, winning 2 Ligue 1 titles and the Champions League in 1993 (where he was man of the match). He played for several more teams, including Lyon, Torino, and 1860 Munich before heading to the United Arab Emirates to finish his club career.

Abedi Pele was one of the first African players to make a major impact on the European club level. He was one of the first Africans to earn votes in the FIFA World Player of the Year award, doing so in 1991 and 1992. He’s won France Football’s African Player of the Year 3 times, and was the first winner of the BBC African Sports Star of the Year in 1992.

For Ghana, he was a bonafide star. In addition to being on the winning 1982 Africa Cup of Nations team, he was also on the 1992 Black Stars team that were runners up in the 1992 Africa Cup of Nations. There, he dazzled the entire world with his performance throughout the tournament. His goal against Congo, which looked similar to Diego Maradona’s goal against England in the 1986 World Cup, earned Abedi the nickname “The African Maradona.” His performance, which is regarded as one of the best individual performances by any player in a tournament, was rewarded with the Golden Ball.

Abedi Pele is considered the greatest soccer player that Ghana has ever produced. He had 33 goals for the Black Stars, a mark that held until Asamoah Gyan broke it in 2013. From 1982 to 1993, no one on the continent was better. He appeared in 9 Africa Cup of Nations and dominated at almost every single one. In his final one in 1996, he carried Ghana to the semifinals of the tournament with 3 key goals.

Abedi Pele is as beloved a player you will find in the world. He has appeared in numerous charity matches for FIFA and has become one of the game’s great ambassadors. He’s one of the best players ever to never appear in a World Cup, but continues to dedicate himself to advancing the game in his country. For his efforts, Ghana made him the first athlete to be awarded with the country’s highest honor, the Order of the Volta.

In March 2004, he received one of soccer’s highest honors from the man that he would borrow his name. Pelé named Abedi on the FIFA 100 list, cementing his status as one of the greatest players of all time.

Abedi Pele did find himself involved in a bribery scandal in 2007, but after initially being suspended and fined for his role, those punishments were reversed by the Ghanaian FA on appeal. His wife, however, received a lifetime banishment from Ghanaian soccer. That scandal has done nothing to diminish Abedi Ayew Pele’s legacy as arguably the greatest African soccer player ever.

These days, Abedi’s legacy lives on through his children. Three of his children - Ibrahim Ayew, Andre Ayew, and Jordan Ayew - have played in World Cups for Ghana, while Andre and Jordan had successful careers in Europe. Whether you call him Ayew or Pele, Abedi was a thrill to watch on the field and continues to be an incredible ambassador for Ghana and the entire continent of Africa. And it is through that work that his legacy will endure.

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For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing a story each day this month to highlight some of the biggest moments in black American and world soccer history.