Kevin-Prince Boateng, aggressive German-Ghanian attacking midfielder; former Inter midfielder Sulley Ali Muntari, also from Ghana; and lastly, Rodney Strasser, an up-and-comer born in Sierra Leone in 1990.

Gazing upon it with the eyes of a lifelong Milan fan, the gate at Milanello seems like the cabinet of Narnia. When I was a kid, as a friend of the tragically deceased Niccolò Galli – son of Giovanni, Milan’s goalkeeper at the time – I came to visit the team’s training center. I was nine, maybe ten.

I met Ruud Gullit, and in my distorted memory he seemed gigantic, “like Kenshiro, Fist of the North Star“. I never went back to Milanello after that, until a few weeks ago when I was assigned the task of interviewing some of the African players on my beloved Milan.

To be precise, in rigorously alphabetical order: Kevin-Prince Boateng, aggressive German-Ghanian attacking midfielder; former Inter midfielder Sulley Ali Muntari, also from Ghana; and lastly, Rodney Strasser, an up-and-comer born in Sierra Leone in 1990.

Without forgetting, of course, Clarence Seedorf, not African by birth but Dutch-Surinamese with African origins, the only player in history to have won Champions League with three different teams, perhaps my personal favorite player and the man for whom they probably invented the term ‘senator’.

Strasser, a kid who I might call shy, is the first to confide that he misses Africa, and quite a lot. “I miss the sun”, he says, casting a glance at the gray hills around Varese, and I sympathize. “But I’m happy here. It’s just that Africa is a special place, and it’s where I come from. I can’t explain it”. Sulley Muntari immediately picks up the topic.

“There are many magnificent things in Africa, you can’t imagine. But growing up in Africa is tough. Not because it’s a nasty place. Africa is a wonderful and unique continent. But I didn’t have all the things you have in Europe growing up. I was raised in a town in the Ashanti region, in a family without much money.

“No other footballers came out of my town, it wasn’t easy. My mother did what she could so that my brothers didn’t have to get jobs. She worked hard for us and there was always food on the table”.

Muntari’s story struck me. I no longer think about the ‘phantom goal’ that Muntari scored against the Juventus. I think about the African story he’s telling me.

A story that, fortunately, continues. “I started playing football when I was really young. It was my one true passion, I was obsessed. My father was a coach and brought me with him to practice, so I was playing against 26-27-year-old guys. And I was only 12. They knocked me around, but I’d always come back the next day and train with them. My dream was to be discovered by a European team”.

The dream of lots of African kids. “Yes. And I think the scouting system poses certain problems. The European clubs bring these kids to Europe without leaving anything in Africa. That is, for every talented player they find, there are a hundred better than him, I promise you. As a child I played with two or three friends who were incredible – much, much better than me – and yet they’re still there. They never became footballers. Perhaps they lacked encouragement from their families, which I had. Perhaps they had to start working as teens. There are no facilities, academies, schools”.

Kevin-Prince Boateng shares the sentiment. “I’m very proud to be half African. If I wasn’t I never would have chosen to play for Ghana instead of Germany. I’ve been to Africa – not often, but when I was there I really enjoyed it”, he says. “The problem in Africa is that the potential is there – the whole world saw the excellent organization of the South African World Cup, where everything ran smoothly. All that’s missing is European infrastructure and organization”.

On the other hand, Boateng is half German, so it’s only natural that he would focus on organization. Leaving aside the fixation of the Germanic peoples with order, I ask how Muntari was able to escape from a situation like the one he originally found himself in. He explains: “Well, like I said, I was crazy for football and my family supported me. During those years I went to school from Monday to Friday, and Saturday I had to go to Arabic school. But I didn’t go; I took the ball and called my friends and we went from village to village, challenging the teams of local kids. We created a pool and bet on our victory. We went on from morning to night, playing barefoot, never stopping to eat, and at the end of the day we’d divide our winnings. If we hadn’t lost, obviously. In which case, no dinner. Then, on Saturday I often had to go get water for the week –we didn’t have water in my house. I had to walk three kilometers to get the water, but I was too tired. When I came back without the water, I won’t tell you the wallopings I took from my mother. But the week after she’d let me go play, and I’d do it again. My life was football and home, football and home. That’s all I did“.

There’s something almost incredible about this story, but looking Sulley in the eyes, I know it’s true. Clarence Seedorf is a player who has used his position to communicate values that reach beyond those expressed on the field through his foundation Champions for Children, established in 2005. “I believe that reaching this level of notoriety carries a great responsibility to do good”, he says. “Those who have this kind of visibility, like us, must realize the responsibility that goes with it. And I think this responsibility could be a bigger part of football, even at the structural level. Football has an extraordinary visibility worldwide, so I, in my own small way, have tried to exploit that position in a constructive way”.

An approach that is best not left to individual choice, perhaps.“Absolutely. FIFA and UEFA and the various national federations should do more. They need to invest time and money at the social level in countries where they have interests. Football can and must be much more, and it needs to be structured from the top down. In my view, giving something back to people should be an obligation. Even just an hour dedicated to social wellbeing by every player would already be a lot. Perhaps giving interviews where they don’t just talk about whether it was or wasn’t a goal, but about other things, social concerns, development, useful values for living well”.

Seedorf is so convincing when he speaks that I’m already picturing him as an enlightened statesman. In fact, a few years ago Stanford University studied the concept of GNH, or Gross National Happiness (a play on GNP, or Gross National Product). Theoretically the country with the highest GNH is Bhutan, which should make us stop and think a moment about what ’development’ really means. I tell Seedorf about a similar statistic, a survey that showed that the country where people consider themselves happiest and most satisfied with their lives is Nigeria.

“Happiness is not measured by… money”, Seedorf concedes with a smile. “It’s important to understand that the so-called ’Third World’ can be found in Europe as well – it’s a question of values and mindset, not just economic power. I often wonder what wealth is. If there’s no food, that’s another story, but there are countries where there’s plenty of food yet people live poor lives, with little or no education. I’ve had the fortune of witnessing beautiful realities in Africa, of seeing their enormous potential. I’ve met people with incredible skills and learned a lot from them. We shouldn’t see Africa as only a problem to solve, but as a place that, yes, needs a bit of political and economic stability, but that can teach us a lot”.

At the end of the day, I realize that my view of football is a European, white and privileged view. I understand that each of us puts what we want into it. For Muntari, football isn’t a game, a topic of conversation, something to defend against the attacks of radically chic friends who find it silly that the score of a match could influence the mood of a grown man with two university degrees and who reads books. For a guy like Sulley Ali Muntari, football was first a dream, then a concrete way to escape from a truly difficult situation, and now an opportunity to do something important for the children who are living today the life he led as a boy. “Giving something back to Ghana is not an important thing for me. It is the most important thing for me”, he says. “I don’t want the kids who grow up there to have to face all the difficulties I faced to follow their dreams. They can become footballers, doctors, teachers, pilots, who knows, presidents. They can become important people. They can change the world”.

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