West London, May 21, 2013. Holding up a Fulham shirt, the player smiled from ear to ear. He had just signed a one year contract with the English club.
To the bystander or photographer, that smile may not have been more than the routine ‘smile for the camera’ obligation.
Well, so it may have seemed, but for the player, the smile meant much more. English football was a dream come true, after a long ten year wait.
In 2003, he almost signed for Middlesbrough but an inability to secure a work permit scuppered that move. England was thus the perfect destination, especially after events of the last few months.
Earlier this year, he was released as a free agent, from a long standing contract dispute with former Ukrainian employers, Dnipro, by the European Court of Arbitration for Sports paving the way for this move.
More importantly however, he gets another chance to play on one of club football’s biggest stages. Albeit, at an advanced stage in his career, it is indeed a rare opportunity to perhaps, just perhaps, fulfill a long standing potential.
But can he? Will he? Those questions were probably the last on Derek Boateng’s mind as he smiled for the cameras; he had travelled long and hard; a very long way from the playing fields in Accra, Ghana, where it all began.
QUICK SPARK, QUICK DIM
Born May 2, 1983, Boateng, who started out as an attacker, honed his talent at Liberty Professionals, the same club that developed Asamoah Gyan, Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, Kwadwo Asamoah amongst others.
In 1999, aged 16, and while preparing with Ghana’s Black Starlets for the FIFA U-17 tournament in New Zealand, Greek club, Kalamata, couldn’t wait for him to even participate in the tourney. He was whisked away to Greece and he did not disappoint; scoring 9 goals in 27 games in the 2 seasons that he played there.
His stock rose quickly and Derek eventually participated in his first FIFA tournament, the 2001 World U-20 Championship in Argentina.
Though others like Sulley Muntari and Michael Essien were on that team, it was Boateng who inspired Ghana to a runners-up position and also drew comparisons with Argentine legend, Diego Maradona from local fans.
So, when Greek giants, Panathinaikos snapped him up in 2001, a natural progression was expected, especially when he also received his first senior call up to the Black Stars that year.
Alas! It was not to be. After a good start, Boateng’s appearances diminished and he was loaned to OFI Crete, also in Greece. Sadly, he failed to secure a permanent move. The pressures of adapting to a new environment at that young age had clearly taken a toll. To Sweden, and specifically AIK, he went in 2003 and with it, a life in oblivion.
RETURN FROM THE WILDERNESS
While Boateng’s contemporaries like Essien, were lightening up the English Premier League, he found himself in the Swedish second tier, where AIK where relegated in 2004.
Though many Ghanaian fans had already written their eulogies on his career, Boateng kept his head up.
He stayed and helped AIK back to the top tier and built himself a massive reputation amongst local fans. And while the rest of the world could be least bothered, then Ghana coach, Ratomir Dujkovic paid attention.
Boateng was invited for a trial game against French club, Nice, at the very last minute of Ghana’s preparations for her maiden World Cup appearance in 2006. That was all it took for Boateng to stage a remarkable comeback to the limelight.
He was selected and he played in the tournament in Germany. That uncommon stroke of luck or favour, will come in handy, just when Boateng needed it.
After the World cup, Boateng moved to Israeli club Beitar Jerusalem. He won back to back domestic Israeli championships from 2006 to 2008 and also participated in the UEFA Champions League preliminary rounds.
Back into the lime light he was, but Boateng was a different player from the one that made fans hold their breath; gone was the low cropped hair, replaced by locks; gone was the flamboyant style; gone was the silky flair; gone was the boy who just wanted to play.
In came the serious player who had dropped further down the pitch to defensive midfield and with a much more intense playing style. What he had lost in flamboyance and flair, he made up with good passing range and distribution.
However, with him being a natural creator rather than a destroyer of moves, his tackling ability hasn’t been clean. His good attributes were however attractive enough for Germany’s FC Koln, Spain’s Getafe and Ukraine’s Dnipro to sign him.
Many questioned his move from Getafe to Dnipro but it was suspected that the bumper deal offered was too good to reject. Relations with Dnipro however deteriorated culminating in this move to Fulham; a surprise move, considering that Boateng is at the wrong side of 30.
But can Boateng, who has experienced mixed career fortunes, seize this Fulham chance?
Fulham is a mid-table team with moderate ambitions and the closest the team came to any sort of honour was in 2010 when they lost to Atletico Madrid in the Europa Cup final.
Egyptian business man, Mohammed Al Fayed, who is the owner and chairman alongside Dutch Manager, Martin Jol, however seek continuous improvement.
Fulham at start of the season, lost 2 of their top midfielders, Moussa Dembele and Clint Dempsey, and though they have at various times, brought in Giorgos Karagounis, Eyon Enoh, Urby Emmanuelson, Ashkan Dejagah as well as Boateng’s compatriot Emmanuel Frimpong, the midfield has not quite been water tight.
It is the reason, an experienced player like Boateng (46 Caps for Ghana) has been brought in to shore up the defense and restore a measure of stability in midfield.
Boateng will thus be competing with loanees, Frimpong and Enoh (if they stay) and Mali’s Mahamadou Diarra for positions in defensive midfield.
Boateng’s experience should get him games and he should be able to consolidate his position but with the English game so physical and pacy, his age and stamina may hinder him.
If he works on his stamina, then he could possibly seize this Fulham chance, extend the contract and also position himself for a return to the Black Stars, should Ghana qualify for Brazil 2014. He has done it twice; 2006 and 2010, both in the dying minutes, when he wasn’t even on the cards. If that happens, then Boateng would definitely not have bitten more than he could chew; it will tell, in his smile.
By Nii Ayittey Tetteh