Derek Boateng's story is the story of a talent that has missed its mark, a sportsman who was once marked, together with his Ghana teammate Michael Essien, as someone who would scale the peaks of world soccer. But wrong choices, injuries and a lack of international appearances sent him to Beitar Jerusalem, where the midfielder is blossoming, and from where he hopes he will still make it to the top leagues in Europe.
"God must have wanted me to come here, so I'm not sorry," says Boateng. "Things are good for me at Beitar, and I feel that I have reached a club where I always dreamed of being."
Boateng began his career 13 years ago with Liberty Professionals of Accra. Among his teammates was Chelsea star Michael Essien. Both players were perceived as the future leaders of the Ghana national team, but it was Boateng, who started out as a striker, who was considered the senior of the two.
"Everyone said that both players would go far and would be key players at big teams in Europe," says Kofi Aifung, a journalist with the Accra Mail. "Boateng, though, was considered the more mature player, certainly physically. The fact is that he was the first of the two to be bought by a European team."
Boateng joined Kalamata of Greece at the age of 16, but the club stopped him from joining Ghana at the 1999 Under-17 World Cup in New Zealand, denying him the chance to gain exposure, as Ghana finished third at the championship. Then again, the tournament's top scorer was Ismail Adu, who later joined Maccabi Netanya and faded away.
Two years later, Boateng joined another Greek club, Panathinaikos. Before that, together with Essien and future "Israelis" John Pantsil, Ibrahim Abdul Razak and Emmanuel Pappoe, he impressed at the 2001 World Youth Championship in Argentina. Ghana reached the final, where it was stopped by the host, and Boateng was named as one of FIFA's rising stars. Among the other players on FIFA's list were Javier Saviola, Kaka, Djibril Cisse and DaMarcus Beasley.
At Panathinaikos, Boateng was used as a playmaker, and he helped the team to reach the quarterfinals of the 2001-2 Champions League. There it was stopped by Barcelona, but not before winning the first leg and leading 1-0 in the second.
One person who noted down Boateng's name in his notebook was Alex Ferguson's assistant at Manchester United, now England coach Steve McClaren.
When McClaren was appointed manager of Middlesbrough, he demanded that his chairman bring the 19-year-old to the Riverside Stadium. The sides agreed on terms, but then it transpired that Boateng, who two months earlier had made his full Ghana debut, did not meet the quota of international matches required for a United Kingdom work permit. Boateng remained in Greece.
Boateng's luck continued heading south. Panathinaikos fired coach Sergio Markarian and replaced him with Fernando Santos, who loaned Boateng out to OFI Crete.
"He really suffered there," recalls Greek sportswriter Dimitris Leftaris. "He didn't suit the team. He suffered a quite serious injury, and altogether, he had bad luck there. If it hadn't been for the injury, he would have returned to Panathinaikos, but instead he spent the season on the bench."
That summer, Israeli coach Itzhak Shum took over at Panathinaikos, and decided against bringing Boateng back from loan. "Shum is an excellent coach and I respect his decision," Boateng says today.
Nonetheless, when he realized that he had no future at Panathinaikos, Boateng accepted an offer from AIK of Sweden. He became a key player with AIK, but the Stockholm team was relegated. The following season, Boateng led AIK back to the first division. Then came the World Cup in Germany, and Arcadi Gaydamak's big-money offer from Beitar.
"After the World Cup, I though I would receive offers from Europe, but it never happened," recalls Boateng. "Then came the offer from Beitar, and I felt that I had to go. The Swedish fans made it tough on me and I was scared about what I had heard and seen about Israel, but I decided I was leaving, so I left."
Now that he is at Beitar, Boateng is willing to accept nothing less than the championship.
"We can win the championship," says the Ghanaian. "We have the best players, but we must continue working hard."
The change of coaches at Beitar hasn't changed his opinion. Both Osvaldo Ardiles and his replacement, Yossi Mizrahi, gave him a lot of freedom.
"There isn't much of a difference between the coaches," Boateng says. "Both of them are good coaches. The difference is that Mizrahi understands the Israeli players, while Ardiles didn't understand them. I know what my role is, and both of them asked me to take responsibility. Because of that, I don't go forward often, and try to play short and sure passes. But I am confident I will score. I am known as a player who scores important goals."
Will Boateng scale the heights that he was once expected to reach? He's still a believer. "I am in the first season of a three-year contract. Beitar has invested a lot of money in me, and I want to do everything I can for the club. But after that I believe I will succeed in reaching the Spanish or English league."
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