A World Cup winner with the world at his feet and a contract with Bayern Munich finds his path to greatness blighted
There was no doubt in the mind of late Accra Hearts of Oak player and assistant coach Ofei-Ansah as he watched a colts game at the Mamprobi INDAFA Park in 1993 that the center back for Ken Harrison Babies was a generational talent.
Here was a player with potential to jump directly from colts football to premier league football.
Size, pace, power, timing and above all a goal threat. He was in love and a lifelong bond would be born that day. The boy he was watching that day was Christian Saba.
Its been eons since that day and Saba has gone through the meat grinder called professional football. He has never publicly spoken about his career until now.
“I like my privacy. My preference is to focus on my current role and let the past be the past” Saba says in a phone interview from his Munich base.
The city of Munich and the legendary team that occupy it have been the home of Saba since 1995. If things had gone according to plan, his name would be mentioned among the pantheon of Bayern Munich legends, including his own countryman Samuel Osei Kuffour.
Instead, he has to make do with being recognised as the longest serving foreign player at the club never to feature for the first team in the Bundesliga.
It is the kind of record, nobody wants ,but Saba is far from disappointed with the turn of his career. The road to it has been far from smooth, even though the start promised so much.
“After Ofei-Ansah spotted me, he recruited me to the SSNIT team he was playing for in the workers league. The team was too strong for me to break through so he moved me to Cocoa Marketing Board’s team. The coach there also didn’t give me an opportunity so Ofei- Ansah asked me to return to SSNIT and devised a tactic to give me playing time”.
The plan was simple. He would start games and would feign injury midway through games so the young prodigy, he had so much faith in could show what he was capable of. That is how he became a mainstay of the SSNIT team after just two games. He would be named the best defender in the INDAFA league that season.
Saba’s talent had caught the attention of Ghana’s U-17 national team coach, Sam Arday who was on the verge of picking a squad for the 1995 African tournament and world cup.
“I went to watch a game in town and run into coach Arday. He told me I was the first player he had selected for the squad. Justifiers were to be held at Legon that week. He asked me to show up, but I would not play in the justifiers. That is how I ended up with the national team squad that would later become world champions”.
It was not just at national team level that things were looking up for young Saba.
A tug of war that would pull at his very heart was being waged. A decision had to be made on which premier league team he would sign for. His elder brother Robert was a mainstay for Accra Hearts. His mentor, Ofei-Ansah was one of the greatest players ever to wear the rainbow jersey. The other side of the rope had his national team trainer, Arday, who also served as head coach for rivals Okwahu United.
“I discussed it with Ofei-Ansah and he told me I had to choose Hearts. So in a friendly game between Okwahu United and my SSNIT team, Arday was informed and he gave his blessings. That is how I became a Hearts of Oak player. Quite a few people in our neighbourhood at the time told my brother, Robert that we had made the wrong decision. Hearts at the time had Sam Johnson, Armah, Dowuona and Nettey. He shut those talks down though”.
With his club career decided, Saba could focus on the national team he had become an integral member of.
The Starlets team of 1995 holds pride of place in the hearts of many Ghanaian football fans. It is considered the most talented and complete junior national team ever put out by Ghana. Saba shares the same opinion and holds his memories from that team even dearer. It is where Bayern Munich discovered and signed him.
The Africa tournament was organized in Mali and Ghana’s opening game was against the host nation. They won by a goal to nil in a hard fought game. Saba was as usual quietly excellent. A particular scout had taken notice.
“I was at the hotel after the win against Mali when I was informed that a man was looking for Ghana’s number 15. I met the man who introduced himself as a representative from Bayern Munich and he expressed an interest in me. I asked him to talk to Arday. I was trembling with excitement. After he left the coach’s room we were caught in two minds. Could he really be from Bayern?”
It wasn’t just Bayern though, who were in the hunt for a player who was proving to be the find of the African tournament. Scouts from Belgium and Holland also approached Arday over Saba’s availability. They were tempting and also a bit more realistic than a potential transfer to Bavaria. Saba could envisage himself in those environments. Bayern Munich’s scout however, pulled a master stroke to confirm the interest of the German powerhouse and finally convince Saba and Arday.
“ The scout came back and asked to see Arday in his room. I was summoned as well and he a call was made to Germany. The phone was handed to Arday and at the end of the line was a World Cup winner and legendary Bayern personality Franz Beckebauer. He told Arday they really wanted me and that he should take good care of me during the tournament. I was sold from the point.”
Ghana would conquer Africa, but Saba almost did not make it to Ecuador for the World Cup.
Known for his robust playing style, Saba was a card magnet. He also was not helped by his inconsistent stays in camp. Head coach Arday was summoned by Ghana football’s power brokers Nana Sam Brew Butler, E.T Mensah and Alhaji Jawula. The order was simple. Drop Saba from the World Cup squad.
Arday refused. If they wanted Saba dropped they would have to tell him themselves and justify it to the public.
A meeting was set up between the trio and Sabah where it was explained to him the reasons for considering his omission from the squad. His response was simple.
“I told them I was an all or nothing type of player and going to a World Cup, that was what was needed. They were not convinced and told me the upcoming cup match between Olympics and Accra Hearts of Oak would be a measuring mark. Excel, and I was on the plane, flop, and I would be cut from the team. It was a deal I considered myself favourite.”
He excelled in the game and made the squad which coincidentally would camp in Germany before the Ecuador adventure. It is also when he officially became a Bayern Munich player.
“During the Starlets camp in Germany we played against a Swiss team. Bayern officials were present and after the game an official contract offer was laid. They wanted to complete the deal before the World Cup. Ernest Thompson was sent from Accra to negotiate the terms and that is how I joined this team that has been my home for the past 25 years.”
The expected glory days, however never came.
Saba was assigned to Bayern’s youth team upon arrival and he thrived. He was a regular fixture on score sheets and the expectation was that first team action would not be far away. It also helped that he was a regular Ghanaian international. He made the squad for the Olympic Games in Atalanta in 1996 and had been promised first team action at Bayern upon his return.
One warm up game would change all that.
“When I returned from the Olympics, Trappatoni was departing Bayern and he wanted me on loan at Cagliari where he was headed. At the time, however, I did not have a manager to handle these matters. I stayed and Uli Hoeness took care of me. A week into my return I was promoted to the Bayern reserve side. This was like a warm up to my first team career. A few minutes into my first game for that squad I injured my ankle.”
That ankle injury would keep Saba out for a year and six months. It was further aggravated when a doctor rushed him back too soon. Things just went downhill from there.
When he recovered he was sent on loan to Hertha Berlin. Game time was hard to come by there as coach Jurgen Rober had no need for him. Frustrated and dejected, Saba headed to Bayern and another loan. This time to Armenia Bielefeld. This loan though would change his life.
“The manager at Bielefeld was Herman Gerland who is now assistant coach of Bayern. He was the same coach whose assessment led Bayern to sign me four years previously. At Bielefeld however, we clashed and he did not give me much of an opportunity. I quit six months into the loan period and headed back to Bayern. I had just one year left on my contract at Bayern and had been told that I could depart at the end of the contract.”
Coincidentally, Gerland took up an appointment with Bayern as second team coach around the same period. Saba faced a dilemma. In the final year of his contract he was now faced with working with a coach who a few months previously had found no use for him. He was in for a surprise.
“Gerland actually gave me a lot of game time when he took over and six months after he did the unthinkable. He suggested to Bayern to give me a new five year contract. I had given serious thought to rekindling my career in the second tier, but he made a persuasive argument. My salary was better than what I would find in the second tier and I was still young enough to give my Bayern dream another push.”
With a new contract in hand and consistent health for the first time in four years, Saba was hopeful he had his Bayern dream back on track.
Fate had other plans for him.
Six months into his new deal, he picked up a serious knee injury and he would be out for even longer. Two years. His fragile confidence was broken.
“The timing of the second injury really broke me and sounded the death knell in my career. One doctor even suggested I quit immediately. Hoeness however, asked me to see Bayern’s first team doctor Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt and he saved my leg and what was left of my career.”
His recovery was long and painful and had taken away the best attributes he had. Pace and power. He still had his guile and physicality, but his shot at a top tier career was gone.
When asked about stories from a few years back attributed to Beckenbauer in which he was described as lazy, Saba’s calm tone disappears.
“I don’t know where those stories came from but which European team at Bayern’s level keeps a player for a decade if he is lazy? Even if it is a hundred euros they pay it is still money and they don’t operate like that. How does a lazy player get assigned the task of coaching sixteen year olds? Will he not coach them lazily? It’s nonsense.”
Saba’s role as a coach now is also owed to his mentor Gerland.
“When I recovered, he would normally instruct the team through me and sometimes I would organise the team. It was a natural transition. I have always been good with that side of the game and I am very happy to be in the situation I am in now.”
That situation was highlighted when Kumasi Asante Kotoko’s midfield prodigy Matthew Anim Cudjoe went to Bayern for a two week stint earlier this year. Saba was on hand to supervise and assess. Just as had been done to him 25 years ago. He liked what he saw.
“Ghanaians should protect that kid. I did not know much about him until the Kotoko and Hearts game. Once he touched the ball I knew he was a good talent. I did not even know he was heading to Bayern until members of the technical team called to ask if I knew about him. Talent like his comes once in while. We are watching.”
Saba’s journey is far from over.
culled from email@example.com