Ten years from now, someone will mention Asamoah Gyan’s name to you and you’ll remember one of the stranger episodes of the last decade.
This week, the Ghanian forward completed a move to Chinese side Shanghai SIPG, ending a four-year stay with Al Ain. Gyan’s time in the UAE was prolific and, with 113 goals in 114 games, he has understandably earned a reputation as a flat-track bully.
England’s exposure to the now twenty-nine year-old was brief but fun. A gifted goal-scorer, Gyan played with an unorthodox flair and over thirteen months at Sunderland he showed he absolutely belonged in an elite European competition. He left mysteriously and, one suspects, there will never be a full disclosure of the sequence of events which saw him depart the North-East. It was protracted, it was only vaguely explained and, ultimately, it was regrettable.
Superficially at least, Gyan appears to be a three-dimensional, colourful character. Whether playing under the black star of his homeland or for a club side, he seems to genuinely enjoy every minute he spends on a football pitch and, in this age of ultra-professionalism, that’s a welcome change of pace.
He’s a showman; maybe his fondness for the spotlight can occasionally be trying, but his enthusiasm is generally more infectious than irritating.
There’s a complication, though, clearly. Gyan’s career, whenever it ends, will be asterisked by what it might have totaled had he remained in a competitive environment. Because of his decision to leave European football well-before his theoretical prime – and because of the financial reward he received for doing so – he will always be viewed in a certain way. He is a player who is perceived to have prioritised wealth over ambition and, even in this monied era, that remains a sporting taboo. We grudgingly accept that the top talent will always migrate towards the biggest salaries at the most well-resourced clubs, but when a player removes himself so totally from the main stage and so clearly sacrifices his prime years to the almighty dollar, he will inevitably be tagged with a certain reputation.
But what sums of money they were. At Al Ain, he earned a reported £160,000/week and, in China, he will take home a basic salary of £227,000/week – and that’s really what makes this an ambiguous situation. Gyan does not come from poverty; born in Accra to an accountant and a teacher, his childhood was comfortable and his education stable. That opportunity within his upbringing evidently bred an entrepreneurial spirit and, as a consequence, in adult life football is less an occupation and more a vehicle for his other interests.
We’re used to athletes having financial pursuits beyond the game, but there’s something admirable about the breadth and legitimacy of Gyan’s interests. Babyjet promotions, which does conform to the athlete stereotype, is the most well-publicised of those, but it’s a minor subsidiary of multi-armed holding company. Gyan Investment Ghana Limited – which Gyan and his brother are directors of – is, according to the player’s personal website, an organisation involved in but not limited to Importation, Real Estate Development and the leasing of mining equipment. In other words, it is not a run of the mill, frivolous venture.
It’s not too much of a leap then, to say that Gyan’s playing career – celebrated and internationally successful as it has been – satiates just a single part of his ambition and that his earning power fuels more than just the accumulation of wealth.
From that perspective, maybe his reputation does him a disservice. Maybe, beyond our slightly pious concerns about ambition, he provides an example of modern, progressive thinking rather than just a footballer’s avarice?
He is a talented player, but not in the class typically associated with such exorbitant contracts. Playing in the UAE and, now, in China have obviously not exposed him to the fiercest level of competition, but they’ve afforded him access to a wage bracket that would have been unobtainable in Europe and, perhaps, provided the basis for a more commercially diverse life beyond his retirement.
Maybe that’s the truer symptom of ambition. Expecting athletes to conform to our narrow definitions in 2015 might just be very naive and the demand that footballers should see the game as both the height of their aspiration and the limits of their world is actually wholly unreasonable.