The untold story of Chris Briandt, an out of the world Ghanaian football talent who walked away from the game at the peak of his powers after he lost his wife to a sports minister
This is the first installment of a two-part series.
At the Accra Airport, Chris Briandt waited for his flight to Germany. He was seated by his wife, Wilhelmina, and his daughter. Ahead of him was an opportunity of a lifetime, yet the captain of Ghana’s national football team didn’t seem excited about it. He looked pensive. He was unhappy.
The Ghana government had offered him a scholarship to study football coaching at the Cologne Sports Academy. It was a package that meant travelling abroad and becoming a ‘been-to’, a priced aspiration of most Ghanaians of that era, yet Briandt didn’t want it.
Perhaps it was because it ultimately meant leaving his family behind.
“Briandt never wanted to go,” says his friend, N.A Adjin Tetteh, 58 years on.
“Perhaps it dawned on him,” Tetteh speculates, gravely.
What was it?
Briandt himself didn’t even know what it was. All that he was sure of – and it weighed heavily and worryingly on him - was that it was an ominous inkling.
Something just didn’t feel right.
But he could not act on it. National duty called, and he could not say no, because he knew what the consequences would be: horrid hostility, from the government and from the public – haunting, daunting, definitely not something anyone would want.
Ghana in the 1950s was a state immersed in a culture of deep patriotism, largely fuelled by the passionate struggle for independence, and so the mood was sensitive to civil disobedience. Declining to serve the country was sure to give people enough reason to charge him with treason. The 29-year-old knew he would be vilified and crucified, never to be forgiven.
After a meeting with Henry Plange Nyemetei, Briandt decided to swallow his reservations, to wallow in his discomfort. H.P Nyemetei was the President of Hearts of Oak, the club Briandt had spent his whole senior career since joining as a teenager in 1949.
“It was HP who managed to convince Briandt to go,” Tetteh says. “He told him, ‘Look, you must go. You must serve your country.’”.
Indeed, despite his status as a public figure always threatening his privacy, Briandt, who seemed allergic to the tension of attention, somehow managed to remain perpetually insular. He was a private man, a lover of the quiet life. “He disliked being on radio and in the newspapers,” recounts Dogo Moro, Ghana’s dominant international defender from the late 50s to the early 60s who came a generation after Briandt.
Briandt wanted to keep his life simple, sane and plain. He was barely visible off the pitch, always tucked away in reticence, choosing anonymity over vanity. Moro recalls that the only times anyone would see Briandt was during training or a match. Aside from that, he was either at his office at Kingsway Stores – where he occupied a top management position - or at home with his family. “Briandt was someone who didn’t like to involve himself with many things,” says his friend and national teammate, James Adjaye. “He always loved to be in his own small and quiet corner.”
This reserved nature made him a man very much in touch with his family, and this made saying goodbye to them difficult.
He wished he wasn’t leaving them. He wished he had a say. That he could have his way. That he could stay.
But he had made a commitment. There was no turning back
When Hearts of Oak held a well-attended farewell party for him, the tributes were touching. Their coach, the Englishman Ken Harrison, called Briandt “Ghana’s greatest ever captain.”
Harrison wasn’t being hyperbolic. That Briandt was a class act as a leader was an assertion that was unanimously embraced as a fact during the 1950s. He had been Ghana’s captain for eight solid years – a spell that remains the lengthiest of any captain to date. On the pitch, he was the face of grace, a sportsman of substance, fearless and peerless. In 1956, he was named Sportsman of the Year, a rare feat for a defender. In 1959, Sir Stanley Matthews, the English football legend and winner of the first Ballon d’Or, wrote that Briandt was the “Greatest footballer and finest sportsman” he met on his West African tour of 1957.
“Briandt was highly respected,” Tetteh says, taking his time to stress on ‘highly’.
According to Tetteh, the 1950s saw three footballers reign supreme in the country, the primus inter pares among a sizeable line-up of national talent: James Adjaye, Charles Gyamfi and Chris Briandt.
Kofi Badu, widely regarded as Ghana’s finest ever sportswriter, agreed with this assertion in an October 1955 column for the Daily Graphic. “I never saw anyone to equal the wizardry of James Adjaye, nobody with the ball killing of Charles Gyamfi, and no full back with the flair and enchanting qualities of our skipper, Chris Briandt.”
That Briandt - a defender – was on this venerable list was telling.
Emmanuel Christian Briandt first made an appearance in the world on the sixth of July 1929. He was born in Accra, the capital of the Gold Coast, as pre-independent Ghana was then known. He was the third of the seven children produced by Stephen Julius Briandt and Felicia Ayorkor Briandt, a typical Ga couple.
Briandt had his education at the Government Junior Boys’ School from 1936 to 1940, and the Kinbu Government Senior Boys’ School from then till 1945. While a student, he discovered an ardent interest in football, and proved to have the talent to boot. He shone as a young star, playing and excelling in many interschool competitions. Academically, he was on top of his game too. “He was brilliant,” Tetteh says. “In fact, many believed one of the factors that led to him getting the Gold Coast XI captaincy was because he was well-schooled and clever than most,” Moro reveals.
After his education, Briandt, like every footballer of that era, worked while he played football, because the sport, up until 1992, was organized under strict amateur rules. He taught at the Osu Christiansburg Progress School while he played for Osu Diegos and, later, Accra Rolands – the nursery team of Hearts of Oak.
Young and curious, he discovered an interest in Horse Racing during these years, becoming a jockey at the Accra Turf Club. His devotion saw him subsequently master the sport so much that he started to give accurate predictions of races. This ability earned him popularity and favour among punters, most of whom were British, members of Accra’s affluent class who worked at wealthy companies such as the United African Company (UAC), a vast, British-owned commercial conglomerate. In January 1949, one of the punters offered Briandt a job at the UAC, starting out as a salesman with its flagship unit Kingsway Stores. He would rise through the ranks to become a manager at Kingsway, the same stores where he met his wife Wilhelmina.
That same year (1949), Hearts of Oak snapped him up, signalling the beginning of what would turn out to be a storied career.
As a footballer, there is a reason why he commanded such reverence. On the pitch, he was unconventional in his ways, disconnected from the predominant norms for his kind. While defenders sought validation by being bestial, Briandt seemed to be special. He preferred his aggression average and not savage, his game based on brain rather than brawn. He was the type to disarm you rather than harm you, the type to steal the ball rather than to make you fall, the type who had temper control while on defensive patrol, the type who chose intelligence over belligerence. This was a rare sentry who epitomized gentry. In his book “The Glory Days – The Soccer Legends of Ghana’s Gold Coast”, author Alex Ayim Ohene wrote that Briandt was “easily one of the most cultured central defenders to have graced the football field.”
In the sports pages of the 1950s, Kofi Badu made it a habit of using the expression “icy cool” to describe Briandt’s disposition towards the opposition. “He was absolutely calm,” Tetteh agrees. “He could make tackles in the box against very tricky players that were timed with utmost precision,” wrote Ayim Ohene.
Briandt himself once explained that his composed nature was born out of a desire to keep a clean disciplinary record. “I tried as much as possible not to violate the rules,” he said.
Indeed, this attribute gave him a unique edge over his coevals. Of the gallant defensive barricades that the Gold Coast produced in the 50s decade – among them Sam Ashison, Kwame Appiah, Addo Darko and Ben Koufie – Briandt was the giant that stood out, the Burj Khalifa of this skyline of talent.
“You could hardly beat him at the back,” Tetteh says. “He was a marvellous header of the ball too, and would score many goals with his head.”
“He used his height advantage a lot and was unbeatable in the air,” Adjaye adds.
“His defending was such a sight to behold,” narrates Moro, who says he idolized the captain. “It was beautiful. Everyone respected him. He was the standard we all referred to. He wasn’t rowdy at all, always cool on the ball. As a young defender, it was one of my biggest wishes to play alongside Chris Briandt, though I was unlucky because I came in when he’d left for Germany. I used to think, ‘Man, if I could play like this man, that’d be it for me!’ He was a proper defender.”
And he was a proper human too. Briandt was loved as much for his light style on the pitch as he was for his bright smile off it. Light skinned and well-trimmed, he was a fine-looking man who “even a man would admit was very handsome”, Moro says.
He also had a pleasant personality, his radiance almost approaching a fault. “He was always smiling,” Tetteh says. “Those who knew him well will never forget the warmth of his nature,” Ohene wrote.
Soft spoken, well-mannered, well-dressed, well-to-do: Briandt was a gentleman, through and through. His nickname? No prizes for guessing: Gentleman Player.
“Oh, what a gentleman!” Moro says, the admiration palpable. “If you ever saw Chris Briandt in his neat suit and tie in his office at Kingsway Stores, you’d know what gentlemanliness meant.”
“Some of us young players would go to his office just to catch a glimpse of him, and he’d give us gifts. We often wondered why he bothered himself to play football, with all of its physicality, politics and dirt.”
“He was a perfect gentleman,” Tetteh says, his tone sober, as he stares at the ground, shaking his head in a trance.
“Perfect,” he adds.
Adjaye can’t agree more. “Chris was a gentleman,” he says. “He was such a calm fellow. You’d never see him fight anyone.”
After Ghana attained independence in 1957, Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah began to send his trusted associates – or his “boys”, as Tetteh calls them - around the world to seek some milk to feed the growth of new born baby Ghana. Kojo Botsio, who had become friends with Nkrumah as students during the 1940s in the United Kingdom, was one of them. As Minister of Foreign Affairs, and he was deployed to West Germany to solicit some support in relation to the development of Ghana sports.
Botsio managed to return to Ghana with four scholarships from the West German government, intended to facilitate the training of exceptional personalities within two of Ghana’s biggest sports, football and athletics.
Four men were chosen: Emmanuel Christian Briandt and James Kenneth Adjaye from football, Nii Ayikai Adjin Tetteh and John Asare Antwi for athletics.
Tetteh and Antwi had been moguls in the business of speed in their hey days: the former had been a national record holder in 60, 100 and 220 yards, while the latter had been a national half mile champion.
As far as football was concerned, Briandt was in good company.
James Adjaye was Ghana’s first big football showman – what people of his era called a ‘crowd puller’, an entertainer, a master of skill and flair. Before there was Abedi Pele, before there was Mohammed Polo and Opoku Nti, before there was Abdul Razak and Osei Kofi, and before there was Edward Aggrey-Fynn and Baba Yara, there was James Adjaye, the Generalissimo of these Field Marshals of playmaking, the High Priest of the dribbling faith. “James Adjaye could play football better than everybody!” Dogo Moro says, almost aggressively, with emphasis on everybody. “No footballer will ever approach such supremacy,” wrote Ayim Ohene, who saw Adjaye in his prime.
“He was awesome,” former Ghana President John Kufuor, who rates Adjaye as the best Ghanaian footballer he’s ever seen, told me in an interview in 2013. Kufuor had grown up in Kumasi, where James Adjaye, born and bred there, was practically deified while he served Asante Kotoko, the Ashanti Region’s idol club, all through his career. “The way he could juggle the ball at his feet – he’s so ingrained in my mind.”
Sometime in the late 1940s, James Adjaye made his debut for Asante Kotoko at the Kumasi Jackson’s Park – the ancestral home of football in Kumasi which preceded the Baba Yara Stadium. It was a derby game against Cornerstones, Kotoko’s local rivals. Adjaye was then still a young boy attending the Ordogonno School in Accra, yet he helmed the Porcupine Warriors so majestically, drawing praise and prophesies. The Asantehene then, Otumfuor Nana Sir Agyemang Prempeh II, who would later marry one of Adjaye’s sisters, is reported to have said of the Number Ten that the men feared: “Someday, this young man will make great noise in the game.”
During the Gold Coast XI’s 1951 tour of the United Kingdom a few years later, Adjaye’s exploits drew these words from a British commentator: “The star of their (Gold Coast XI) side was once more James Adjaye, the inside left who with all things being equal could hold his own among the best of inside forwards in England.”
“His greatest misfortune was to be born at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Ayim Ohene wrote. “In today’s crazy world of football, his value would be difficult to assess: £100 million? The simple answer: priceless.”
At his peak, James Adjaye could make a ball do anything with both feet, creating freak feats. He was ‘King James’ to the Kumasi fanatics, but his nicknames stretched beyond: ‘Wizard Dribbler,’ ‘Master’, ‘Maestro’ ‘Professor’’ ‘Manager’.
He is smiling as I read out the appellations I’ve gathered from my research. “I would say it was a gift,” he says, gracefully. “Even my older and younger sisters could play football.”
He told Ayim Ohene: “I was born to play football. I was hearing the shouts of spectators from Jackson’s Park right from my mother’s womb. This went on week after week for nine months, then I said, ‘Let me out. I want to play’”.
Even in Germany, at a time when he was in his twilight, his light was still bright. Tetteh remembers: “When we were in Germany, James joined a German Oldies club and they were all marvelled by his dribbling gift. There was no way you could stop him: he would dribble everyone and score. Anytime he had the ball, they would all just fall back and line up in goal, waiting for him.”
Adjaye reckons that both he and Briandt, like many of the footballers of their era, were ‘naturals’, blessed with what Kofi Badu described in 1955 as “a sort of innate ability”. “Our standard of play was way above that of today, honestly,” Adjaye claims.
Moro says same. “During our time, I can swear footballers here were better gifted,” he says. “I won’t lie to you.”
“Understanding, intelligence, ball control, dribbling, you name it –it was all there,” Adjaye says.
“If it were possible to line up teams of yesteryear against some of the current generations, you’d be shocked!” Tetteh boasts.
This abundance of congenital brilliance, Adjaye says, meant being taught football coaching in Cologne was a smooth, easy process for him and Briandt.
“We already knew the thing, but we were taught on top!” he laughs.
Briandt and Adjaye were to be the recipients of a quality-laden education, under the supervision of the legendary German coach Hennes Weisweiler, that would eventually see them become Ghana’s pioneering batch of professionally trained coaches.
The plan was for it to have a domino effect: for them to come back and train others who would in turn train many others, until Ghana could boast of a sizeable population of professional coaches.
This arrangement was important because it was part of Nkrumah’s grand scheme of spreading the country’s independence to take in many other sectors outside politics: sectors like sports. The Ghana Amateur Football Association (GAFA), headed by the young, radical firebrand Ohene Djan, had employed Englishman George Edward Ainsley as Ghana’s first ever professional coach in March 1958. Prior to that appointment, Ghana had never had a professionally trained coach working in the country. Teams improvised: coaches were either physical trainers, military men, footballers, businessmen with an interest in football – like Ken Harrison, Briandt’s coach at Hearts - or anyone experienced enough to train a group of footballers.
But things were bound to change once Djan and his men came into power preaching reforms. Djan had ridden on a wave of disaffection with his predecessor, Richard Akwei, accused of longevity and stagnant progress, to essentially lead a revolt that overthrew his regime in 1957. Akwei, a stern and stubborn former School Headmaster nicknamed ‘Lion Heart’, had been the most powerful football politician in the Gold Coast since the early 1930s.
Djan accused Akwei of presiding over a lack of modernity. One of his exhibits was the fact that national team, formed properly in the early 50s as the Gold Coast XI, had always lacked the touch of a professional coach. This had especially been a major worry as it meant Ghana lagged behind Nigeria, their main football rivals who they played in the annual Jalco Cup Competition in the 1950s. The Nigerians had started hiring professional coaches from 1956, with the appointment of English coach Les Courtier. Ghana was late.
And so the Ainsley advent, masterminded by Djan and his people, represented a major political statement for his fledgling administration, hero’ing his persona while zero’ing that of his predecessor. Later, this and many other subsequent achievements would earn his tenure the tag ‘Reformation era’. His profile soared, among fans and among sportswriters, earning him respect and endearment.
He was a powerful man, Ohene Djan. His wasn’t only sporting power, but political power too. He was a favourite disciple of Nkrumah, and there was an alleged reason why.
Nkrumah – upon his ascension to the post of ‘Leader of Government Business’ in 1951, a post that made him Ghana’s first indigenous leader - appointed Djan, then just 28, as his Ministerial Secretary for Finance, as well as the chairman of the country’s Tender Board.
In 1954, Djan was imprisoned after being found guilty of misconduct in a high profile bribery scandal that rocked Nkrumah’s cabinet. Long after that incident, there were suppressed murmurs in some quarters that Djan had not only covered up for his boss, but had sacrificed himself too, all in the name of loyalty. The conspiratorial insinuation was that Nkrumah had been the corrupt culprit who the Colonial Administration desperately wanted to crucify to justify their opposition to the local clamour for self-governance, but Djan had taken his place on the cross. “They couldn’t say it out loud,” says Tetteh, “but many people believed Djan had gone to prison for Nkrumah.”
Prior to his rise to power, Djan was not even a known name in the sporting household: his only claim to sporting knowledge had been his early 50s management of boxer Vincent ‘London Kid’ Okine, then the Welterweight champion of West Africa. In football, Djan was a man outside the establishment. A lay man. “He had no idea,” Adjaye simplifies. “He had to learn it all from scratch,” Moro adds.
After his turbulent spell as a politician, he had made his name as a tycoon who ran a wealthy family cocoa business in Nsawam.
But, dissatisfied with being on the side lines of political power, and seeking another pathway to it, Djan got to thinking, planning. Being the shrewd man that he was, and with that blood hound nose of his, he was always going to sniff opportunity: football.
“He was smart,” Moro says. “He foresaw the rise of Ghana football and attached himself to it.”
“You could say he was an opportunist,” Tetteh adds.
But this was a typical politician, a master of the opportunistic art.
He found the fine mine of football, with all of its power and potential, and this pit was the perfect fit for his ambitions. He wanted in, and so he dove in at the deep end with careful calculation, bravely dipping his toes in the water. He worked his way from the grassroots, organizing football competitions in and around Nsawam. He learned the ins and outs from experienced people - Tetteh recalls Djan inviting him to Nsawam to help organize a sporting tournament for the youth – building contacts and popularity. He wanted the sporting public to take note of him, to buy into his seeming enthusiasm for their passion, and he succeeded, warming himself into their minds and hearts.
He learned fast, rose fast. “He was brilliant,” Adjaye, who like Tetteh confesses he wasn’t really fond of Djan, admits. “He was very intelligent,” weighs in Moro, who was very close to him.
Djan wove his way around the politics, strategically positioning himself at the forefront of the agitation against Akwei. And, before long, he was on top of the chain: chairman of the Ghana Amateur Football Association at the age of 33.
He would go on to make a swift transition from tyro to doyen, achieving on an epic scale, exceeding expectations. He founded the Black Stars. He got Ghana affiliated to both CAF and FIFA. He set up a successful national league. He brought in respected European teams of that era – the Dynamo Moscow of Lev Yashin and the Real Madrid of Alfredo Di Stefano among others – for tours. He got the Black Stars to become the first African nation to tour Eastern Europe (1961) and the first Sub Saharan nation to qualify for the Olympic Games (Tokyo 1964). He got local footballers trained as coaches in Germany and the Czechoslovakia. He supervised the Black Stars most trophy-laden era: four Jalco Cup/Azikiwe Cups, three West Africa Football Championships, one Uhuru Cup, and two Africa Cups (Afcons).
And these were just football achievements. In July 1960, he was unsurprisingly appointed by Kwame Nkrumah as Ghana’s first Director of Sports, heading the newly created Central Organization for Sport (COS) and manning it till the February 1966 Coup. It was a period that saw him put Ghana on the sporting map of the world, supervising medal winning participations at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy and the 1962 Commonwealth Games on Perth, Australia.
At the height of his powers, Djan – who became a CAF Vice President and a FIFA Executive Committee member - was beastly, a bastion of influence. The veteran Ghanaian journalist Razak El Alawa writes that Djan was “probably the greatest sports administrator in Africa during that time.” In February 1961, a Nigerian journalist named Bonar Ekanem wrote that it would take West Africa “a lifetime” to produce “a more capable” administrator than Djan. Sir Stanley Rous, the former FIFA President and English FA Secretary, described Djan as a “valued” player at FIFA who was “a clear thinker and a lucid argumentator” and who had “a firm grip of problems associated with football promotion and development.”
Djan’s physique complemented his demeanour. He was young and handsome, thick and tall, manly and intimidating, charismatic and enigmatic. His communication was flawless - he wrote and spoke impeccable English, could speak sweet and talk tough.
He had it all, and so naturally, he was a hit with people. Men feared him, women loved him. He got people eating from his hands. He was untouchable.
And so there was a lot he could do and get away with.
George Edward Ainsley was a deeply knowledgeable coach – Sir Stanley Rous described him as “the most experienced coach in England” - and so his recruitment was seen by many as a big leap for Ghana’s football.
By the mid to late 1950s, Ghanaians football fans had become engrossed with a fixation on ‘scientific football’, which was a fancy colloquial term for modern football methods, something many believed Ghana desperately needed. This made Ainsley’s arrival timely. It was seen as the answer to this need: an end to the old ‘unscientific’ order, the dawn of a new ‘scientific’ era.
But beyond the excitement, GAFA knew a dependence on foreign technical expertise was never going to be sustainable in the long term. More importantly, they knew it was blatantly incongruous within the context of independence. Nkrumah had always preached the importance of self-governance, of self-management, of ‘Africanizing’ the system by putting Africans in charge of African institutions. “The black man is capable of managing his own affairs,” he had famously echoed his independence speech a year earlier.
And so Briandt and co were being sent to Cologne for that prime purpose: to be empowered by knowledge that would aid them manage Ghana’s sporting affairs on their return.
Between Briandt and Adjaye, the former was the one earmarked to succeed Ainsley after the completion of the one-year course. He was shoo-in to become Ghana’s first black national coach.
But it was a destiny never to be fulfilled.
PART II OF THIS ARTICLE CAN BE FOUND HERE: Where is Chris Briandt? The sad tale of a man who turned down greatness (Part II)