Before I say a thing, I promise not to exaggerate anything. If ever, there is a conference to trace the journey of football in the Northern Region, I will attend and submit that Haruna Ganiyu, affectionately called Zenzen or Zanito is the best player my two eyes have ever seen, “feeli feeli, gaani gaani”. No one who followed the beautiful game in Tamale in the late 1990s and the turn of the millennium will fail to agree that Zenzen was touched with genius from above. He was as unreal as he was frightening.
So on Saturday September 3, 2016, I sat with him for a chat after we watched the Division One League match between Tamale Liberty Babies and Bofoakwa at the Aliu Mahama Sports Stadium. Afterwards, if I was able to restrain my eyes from tearing, I could not help but realize how little I knew about him, contrary to my initial stance. Ganiyu grew up at Zogbeli, a suburb that boasts of producing many great players. He honed his talent in the dusty fields in the area and wowed fans with an alien style of play.
It is one thing mastering freestyle and quite another being a good player, to start with. Zenzen was able to graft freestyle unto a match setting to devastating effect. Here was a player, smallish in frame but brimming in potential, who was made for the game. There was a league championship at the Zogbeli Field back in the day. He played for Abare FC and I played for Inchis Young Stars. Other clubs included Liberty Babies and Young Goldfields. There was no doubt whose name was on the lips of everyone. He was a monopoly of talent.
I asked him what his most enduring memory of that league was and he smiled and recounted an awe-inspiring incident. Once in a match in rain, fans sought shelter in the school blocks flanking the field as they watched. With his side struggling, Zenzen dropped deep to his goal area and demanded the ball. The goalkeeper gave him a pass and what followed created an uproar whose echo is yet to wane, even till now. The boy wonder dribbled past everything before him and executed a ‘chirigimma’, the skill of kicking the ball to one side of the opponent and reuniting with it by taking the other direction, before calmly putting the ball in a yawning goal.
The fans, like a swarm of bees on procession, called the bluff of the rain and flocked the field to carry their barefooted star shoulder high in celebration. This, he will never forget.
There was little wonder then, when Holland based Feyenoord came scouting in 1999. Zenzen was the first to be picked and immediately became their darling boy. He again excelled at a second degree justifier in Kumasi before clocking first in a final national exercise in Sunyani, with about 600 players in attendance. Ghana then, had had its first glimpse of a wunderkid whose career was made in heaven and with which the Earth would be adorned. Suddenly, news started spreading across the country, of a precociously talented youngster who had the world at his feet if not under.
He went globetrotting with Feyenoord, raising eyebrows and gaping mouths in equal measure. His list of admirers was growing and so were medals and awards. Then, good old injury began to rear its ugly head. Zanito had to go under the surgeon’s knife a couple of times and indeed, once came home on holiday in P.O.P. The average fan, on seeing him, had a crack in his voice and a tear in his eyes, at the undesirable possibility of such a budding career being curtailed by the footballer’s number one enemy – injury.
The 13 years he spent with Feyenoord were laden with laurels and accolades. He was like a diamond with glaring allure, a spectacle that drew nosing suitors from left, right, and centre, nevermind attempts by Dutch football authorities to have him naturalize and play for them. Even mighty Europe acknowledged he was a special player and hence the mad rush for his signature. Sadly, yes sadly, by some twist of fate, Zanito would not hit the high heavens where his career looked destined for.
The love affair with Feyenoord would unfortunately stall although he played for the Academy in the Ghana Premier League. With goosebumps all over me, I remember a famous match against RTU in Tamale at the Kaladan Park. Zenzen turned the game into a circus and conjured skills that dazed opponents and created such a frenzied atmosphere. He also played for Kotoko, Hearts of Oak, Tema Youth, etc, in the GPL.
If greatness recognizes greatness, then I have seen it in his case. Every footballer you consider top notch has a word of praise for Zanito and pays homage to him. Till now, he is said to be the standard against whom any other rising player is measured. To beat him seems an unthinkable reach for anyone. Citations from celebrated coaches like Paa Kwesi Fabian, Herbert Addo, Ebo Mends, Johnson Smith and co lays credence to this.
So where is he now? He is in Tamale playing for Steadfast FC, a Division One League side. Watching him, you have the sense of him being a wasted or unfulfilled talent of the highest order. You still see flashes of brilliance premissed on superb vision, unbeatable technique and wonderful passing. He will be involved in this season’s championship. Steadfast have a very good team to go and amongst the players is a gem who has been to places and back.
The football world is awash with players who now belong to an exclusive school, the school of “what could have beens”. As far as my eyes go, Haruna Ganiyu must be a prefect in that school. He must not be a backbencher. There was a time he was the talk of town in Ghana, in Holland and other places. He is the best I have ever seen with my eyeballs, with the ball at his feet. He had amazing close control cum decisive first touch and could dribble like the devil. Remember, I am not exaggerating, like I promised above.
Yours in the beautiful game