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Robert Mensah: Ghanaians remember the death of the greatest goalie in the nation's history

On 2nd November 1971, Robert Mensah then 32-year became involved in a punch-up and was stabbed.

The goalkeeper was stabbed with a broken bottle after an altercation in an akpeteshie bar Credo, Tema (Community 7) and died days later in Tema General Hospital at 02:30am on 2 November 1971. Three men were arrested by the Ghanaian police authorities following the death. Isaac Melfah, a 31 year old Electrician was reported to have been the perpetrator.

A sports stadium in Cape Coast has been named in his honour. The stadium is the home venue of the Mysterious Dwarfs, the team which Mensah began his football career with. He is also the subject of a folk song, in 1972 a song was released called "Robert Mensah" condemning drinking.

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The Ghanaian goalkeeper always wore a black jersey and a funky, oversized cap, which prompted fist-fights on occasions due to opponents believing it was cursing them.

He would carry a newspaper on to the pitch and, outrageously, read it during matches. He would urge adversaries to shoot while looking the other way.

He would deride those brave enough to take penalties against him verbally and with mocking dance sketches (he had an excellent record at not conceding spot-kicks).

Mensah was equally offbeat off the field.

He loved acting the clown while his coach was attempting to deliver prep talks, and when he should have been attending training sessions, he was often in bed or drinking in bars.

His singular, dramatic tale was tragically concluded in one.

On 1 November 1971, the 32-year-old became involved in a punch-up and was stabbed.

A day later, 40 years ago to this day, Mensah was pronounced dead.

His funeral was a grandiose, Garrincha-esque procession attended by the masses.

Mensah’s memory has of course lived on, though to the vast majority outside Ghana, he is remembered for his newspaper-reading eccentricity.

What’s unbeknown to many is what a formidable footballer the Tema native was.

Tall and athletically built, Mensah boasted superlative reflexes and was unfailingly brave.

He excelled for Ghana, whom he helped into the 1968 Africa Cup of Nations’ final, which they lost 1-0 to Congo DR, and played for Mysterious Dwarves, Sekondi Independence Club, Tema Textiles Printing and, most prominently, Asante Kotoko.

Mensah inspired the Kumasi heavyweights into the final of the African Champions’ Cup-a precursor to the CAF Champions League – in 1967, but after back-to-back draws with TP Mazembe, the Ghanaians, for disputed reasons, didn’t partake in an additionally scheduled deciding match and the Congolese were therefore awarded the title.

Mensah and Asante got revenge in January 1971, though, beating the same side in the same fixture to become the kings of the continent.

After the first leg finished 1-1, Mazembe enhanced their favouritism from significant to overwhelming by taking the lead in Lubumbashi.

However, a series of stunning saves from Mensah helped the visitors establish a 2-1 lead, before he employed his patented antics to intimidate Kakoko, who had never missed a penalty, into blazing a last-minute spot-kick high and wide.

Tales of him intimidating penalty takers and flicking through the papers during matches are infinitely etched in footballing folklore.

And though this level of eccentricity often overshadows excellence, it should be remembered that Robert Mensah ended 1971 not just as the victim of a fatal stabbing, but also as the CAF African Footballer of the Year runner-up.

Good old days with Kotoko

Their already dire predicament was further compounded when they conceded first –Kotoko now required two unanswered goals if they were to be in with any chance of returning with the prize this time, a task rendered nearly impossible as the officials were only just starting with their ill-behaviour. Still, somehow, Kotoko did find those goals –through Abukari Gariba and Malik Jabir- and were well on their way towards an inevitable win, improbable as it had seemed earlier. The hitherto vociferous Englebert fans were beginning to depart as it became increasingly obvious that their players were proving clueless at finding a way past Kotoko, who now dominated with a swagger in all respects; up in the director´s box, the head-of-state was fuming.

Then, suddenly, out of nothing, the referee –not yet willing to let his proposed booty slip away- contrived to award a penalty, much to the surprise of all but himself. For the Kotoko officials, this was the last straw; they´d had it. For much of the game, they´d endured petty, inexplicable calls, even as they gave some sense to the heavy pre-match suspicions of planned deceit, and now this -now that that the scent of triumph seemed ever so strong? Surely, this was one obviously biased decision they couldn´t just ignore, and what ensued in the following minutes proved so dramatic it could make any proper Hollywood script. Coach Aggrey Fynn and his staff quickly ordered their players off the pitch, with the apparent objective of prompting an abandonment of the game.

As his team-mates heeded those instructions and began leaving the field, however, Mensah’s inferred the unfolding walk-off as a slight of his powers, a casual disregard of his renowned penalty-saving ability. Hurriedly, he raced, in a fit of silent rage combined with a sense of responsibility, to his colleagues and coaches who´d all but completed their mission, and after giving them a stern reminder of his afore-mentioned forte and the bravery and determination inspired by the club´s stirring ´kum apem a, apem beba´motto, summoned them to resume the match, come what may. All eyes were now on this bullish warrior of a man (for he stood at all of six feet!), even as he strode majestically back into his area, placed the ball right on the penalty spot and laconically returned to his post. Cue, Kagogo, spot-kicker extraordinaire, and the specialist on the Congolese team: according to those who witnessed it, the poor guy was visibly shaken and intimidated, yet not just by the demeanour and actions of the man he had to face. Even worse, as his countrymen realized, there was a far more threatening cause for Kagogo fright- the object so loftily and ominously perched on Mensah´s head! And so they tried to make him take it off; they couldn´t have made a more grievous error.

For, even the usually composed Mensah, admirably unflappable throughout the whole unnerving episode that had just passed, apparently had his own limits and thus resisted their mindless demand with such ferocity that it he nearly sparked a one-man mutiny by himself; now, though, it was his turn to be reminded by his own, that Asante Kotoko (and its players by extension) weren´t ever known for shying away from a challenge. Buoyed by this hardly disputable truth, Mensah animatedly hurled his cap away (and at that point, the gleeful Zairean military men deployed that day pounced on the object, eagerly ripping it with their bayonets in a futile quest for the perceived charm that rendered it so ´potent´), and jumped right back in goal with a mien even more troubling than before. Shorn of his ‘talisman’, Robert Mensah was now supposed to be his most vulnerable, yet even that realization seemed to do precious little to boost Kagogo depleted confidence. Tensed, he wobbled up to the ball and blazed it high over the bar, ‘miles into space’.

Mobutu almost choked on his cigar; possibly, someone had to remind him that he couldn’t leave just yet, for it was his duty to present the trophy to the winner, who were now certainly going to be Kotoko. And so it happened, the club´s maiden achievement of continental glory, and Robert Mensah arguably had significantly more to do with it than anyone else. Call it his Grobbelaar-spaghetti-legs-moment, and you wouldn´t be too wide off the mark, for none could begrudge Mensah the acclaim and adulation that brought him. It is, without doubt, the one story about mensch that encapsulated everything he ever boasted of: bravado, charisma, influence, all pinched with a dose of heroism. Sadly, though, Mensah wouldn’t get to enjoy the increased prominence for long. On the night of October 29 that very year, Mensah met with what would ultimately prove his demise, and when it came, it occurred as a somewhat direct consequence of his lamentable lack of discipline, the one unsavoury facet of his otherwise lovable persona. On that fateful evening, Mensah had visited a bar in Tema (Community 7), his suburb of residence, to indulge in his other passion, drinking.

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