Por: Inside The World Cup
Ghana have some big names, but nobody really talks about the Black Stars’ midfield enforcer Rabiu, which is just how he likes it
This article is part of the Guardian’s World Cup 2014 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between 32 of the best media organisations from the countries who have qualified for the finals in Brazil. theguardian.com is running previews from four countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 12 June.
Many people walk by Mohammed Rabiu every day in Accra without realising who he is. That is quite an achievement in Ghana when you are member of the national football team, the Black Stars.
Rabui has turned being invisible into an art form even on the pitch. He is the player journalists barely waste ink on, the one coaches never plan for, often targeting Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari or any other of the “superstars” of the team. The thing is this. Rabiu is the star of the team.
The son of a local watch repairer who also doubled as the goalkeeper of the town team Konongo Golddiggers, young Rabiu and his twin Salisu lost their father at a very young age leaving their mother, a local food seller to raise five children. She wanted nothing to do with football and was insistent that young Rabiu stay in school to have an education so he could have a chance of a better life.
The game was in his blood even though he stayed away from playing organised school football because he was so shy. His talent, however, could not be ignored and a local teacher, Anthony Kofi Boakye, decided to give him a push that would lead to great things.
“Our school team was preparing for a match against the next town and I had heard of a talented 12-year-old boy in the sixth grade. I managed to convince him to join our team which comprised 15-year-olds with the plan of blooding him for the next year. After a few training sessions it was obvious he was as good as any of the first-team players we had even though he was very timid. In the game against Mampong we brought him on as a substitute and he scored the winning goal.”
Rabiu never looked back after that. He joined a local colts team, AA Missiles, and played football through his secondary school days at Konongo Odumase school. After school Rabiu made up his mind football was going to be his life and was signed by Liberty Professionals in 2007, the same team that discovered Essien, Muntari and Asamoah Gyan.
Again his shy nature meant chances were at a premium in a star-laden team but he had his moments and none more spectacular than in a cup match against the giants Accra Hearts of Oak. With no substitutions left, Liberty’s goalkeeper was sent off and Rabiu volunteered to take his place.
“I did not know why I did it but I felt I could save the penalty so I went in there.” He saved the penalty and his team would go on to win the match. However, it would be the last time he would make positive headlines as he bounced from club to club in Europe looking to make a name for himself. He passed through Gimnasia and Xerez in Spain, Sampdoria and Udinese in Italy and Evian Thonon Gaillard in France all in two and a half years. He had become a journeyman because coaches found it hard to place him. He was willing but not assertive. Others could take the glory, all he wanted was to play football.
In 2009 he was called up to join Ghana’s under-20 team for the World Cup in Egypt and enjoyed a stellar tournament as Ghana went on to beat Brazil in the final. He did it his own way, though, quietly and without fuss. Not many remember tha he played with that squad. While some of his team-mates signed lucrative contracts with big clubs he returned to obscurity in France.
It would take another three years for him to make a return to the national picture after earning a call-up to the Black Stars squad for the African Cup of Nations in 2013. For Rabiu this was where he wanted to be. The spot where finally he could emerge and show his true worth on a truly notable platform. Drafted into the team after some poor performances from the veteran midfielder Derek Boateng, Rabiu took control as the midfield protector and never looked back. He still owns the position.
“I wanted to show coach Kwesi Appiah what I could do and he gave me the opportunity. I took my chance,” says Rabiu, for whom club recognition was also on the horizon. In the summer of 2013 with a deal to Olympiakos in Greece all but sealed, a phone call to a mentor changed his path. He was advised to choose a more lucrative deal to join the less prestigious Kuban Krasnodar in the Russian league for the sake of his family.
His friend, himself a former football star whose career went awry, asked him to think of his family first. They had worked hard enough and needed looking after. Kuban provided that kind of security. He listened and joined the Krasnodar-based team, where he is quietly going about his job.
Rabiu has matured incredibly since. He exudes presence when with his friends but do not expect to find him in a noisy conversation or out for a jaunt with the boys. All he cares about now is the World Cup. “I am very happy about my call-up to the Black Stars team. I want to be a part of this team for a long time. If you have a good mentality, trust yourself, do your best and pray to God, you can do your best.”
In Brazil he will still be an unknown element for most, but that is how he likes it. An element of surprise that opponents will not see coming.