For older fans of English soccer, the story of Alex Nyarko’s day of misery at the club known as Everton lives on as one of the most curiously bizarre moments in the professional game. It does not matter that he had a nearly 15-year run as a professional soccer player – you mention Alex Nyarko and everyone remembers that game.
When Everton signed Nyarko from French club Lens for around $7 million at the time, he was not a star addition. But it was the expectation of the powers at Everton that Nyarko would be a man on whom Everton, a club in northern England, could depend on when going got tough. But he was not a starter and was limited to very few opportunities on the pitch.
The then 27-year-old who was born and raised in Accra, Ghana, had represented his national team and was thought to be a decently gifted player even if he was not Ghana’s best at the time. He went to England as a trailblazer for Ghanaian soccer players in that country that did not even see many Black soccer players until the mid and late 90s.
On April 21, 2001, Everton played Arsenal in London. On this occasion, Nyarko was in the starting lineup. Arsenal were one of the best teams in Europe at the time and many did not expect Everton to cause a sting Arsenal’s tale. The northern English club were beaten 4-1 after what was frankly, a listless team performance. However, during their drabbing, an Everton fan unimaginably invaded the pitch and went straight to Nyarko demanding that the Ghanaian take off his jersey.
The fan’s point was that Nyarko was the worst of Everton’s men and did not deserve the honor of wearing the team’s shirt. He, this fan, could play better than Nyarko, he said. The scene was cheered since the fans obviously loved the entertainment value of that confrontation. Nyarko’s own teammates did not come to his aid. It took a few Arsenal players and stadium security to tear the invader off Nyarko.
Nyarko was shaken after the incident and five minutes after it happened, Nyarko was substituted. After the game, reporters were expectedly eager to speak to the Ghanaian and what he made of the embarrassing moment. He told them he was quitting soccer, never to play again. But that did not happen because not only did he play a few more times for Everton, Nyarko would go on to play for four other clubs in six years. The fan was banned for life from attending any professional English soccer game.
Intriguingly, the discussions at the time never seemed to consider the possibility that the fan’s behavior could have been racist or xenophobic. Granted that Everton’s eleven men also included Kevin Campbell, a Black man, but Nyarko was the only African on the pitch and on the bench of either side. Admittedly, these days, you would find a lot more people who agree to the possibility that there may have been racist or xenophobic motivations at play.