Dr Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president and Rev. Martin Luther King
No story on football in Africa can be complete without the mention of Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of independent Ghana, and the first African country to achieve its independence from Britain in 1957. Dr Nkrumah was Africa’s first Pan- Africanist, a close associate of Marcus Garvey, and a firm believer in sports as a source of self-empowerment and identity of a unified country of Africa. He was one of the founders of the CAF (The Confederation of African Football), the organization responsible for holding the Africa Cup of Nations.
When Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of independent Ghana donated 250 guineas, to the Osagyefo Cup to launch the African Clubs Championship in 1964, he charged the Confederation Africaine de Football (CAF) thus: “Africa can ill-afford to lag behind in any sphere of life. I therefore charge you to organize Africa’s version of the European Cup for club championship with this trophy.
“With efficient organization, I am certain this competition will add to the soccer maturity of Africa and help propel our dear continent into the lime-light….I hope that this competition will help bring African soccer into maturity and earn for our dear continent a greater respectability and recognition at the universal level.”
Responding, General Mustapha, then President of CAF said: “I have every hope that the new mustard seed will blossom into a powerful instrument of soccer maturity with which our continent will seek and gain better recognition at FIFA level. The African Football Confederation shall not fail him and the continent.”
The Black Stars are named after the black lodestar in the Ghanian flag, which incorporates the pan-African colors of the Ethiopian flag, the red, gold, and the green stripes. The Black Star is an acknowledgement to the Black Star Shipping line that was started by Marcus Garvey in 1919, at first to encourage trade between the USA and the African continent, and then to finally return African Americans to their homeland. However, corruption and infiltration by J Edgar Hoover’s spies in the Bureau of Investigation forced it to close down.
In 1958, Dr Nkrumah appointed Ohene Djan, Ghana’s football impresario, and now widely considered as one Africa’s most influential sports administrator and responsible for singlehandedly putting African football on the map. Ohene Djan enjoyed Dr Nkrumah’s total confidence. His first priority was building a strong national team, the Black Stars, that would not just impress with its level of play but would correct Europeans prejudices and contribute to the emancipation of Africa.
Ohene Djan launched the national league in Kumasi in 1958 and his first act to improve the national team was to take the best two players from each league team and form a team called the Real Republikans (a name inspired by Alfredo Di Stefano’s Real Madrid, the best football team in those days). The Real Republikans played against the other teams like the Accra Heart of Oaks and Asante Kotoko in league matches on a non-scoring basis. Of course, the other teams were none too pleased with this arrangement but the theme of African nationalism was a pervasive one and they accepted it. The Black Stars had almost all Real Republikan players. In fact, 10 of them were from the Republikan club and the rest of them were from other clubs. This powerful team beat Ethiopia in the first African Cup, 3-0 in 1963 and it was to repeat its success in 1965 beating Tunisia 1-0. After Dr Nkrumah’s was ousted in a coup the Black Stars went into decline till the late 1970’s. They again won the Africa Cup in 1978 and then 1982.
In the 1990’s thanks to the quick thinking and perceptive Ohene Djan who was a strong believer that commensurate with having a formidable national team, was to develop youth talent in football. With Ohene Djan’s impetus the youth squads were able to keep up the impressive pace of development in Ghanian football. Ghana’s Black Satellites entered the finals of the FIFA Youth championships in 1993 in which they impressed everone with their lightning quick changes of pace and the semi-finals in 1997 and again made the 2001 finals. This team formed the nucleus of the World Cup squad with players of the caliber of Michael Essien, Derek Boateng, Sulley Muntari, John Pantsil, Emmanuel Pappoe, who played wonderful soccer to reach the second round of this year’s World Cup.
However unlike the youth squads the Black Stars themselves underachieved throughout the 1990s and the early 2000’s even though they had such talents like Abedi Pele (ex-Olympics Marseille) and Tony Yeboah (ex- Leeds United). Many observers of Ghanian soccer believe it was the personal animosity, infighting, and lack of cohesion between these two men that led to the Black Stars lack of success in the international scene. Both Tony Yeboah and Abedi Pele, were brilliant players but came from two different tribes, Yeboah from the Ashanti and Abedi Pele from the Dagaaba, and in the complex and internecine tribal politics present in Ghana, they felt that they were the true representative of the national team. The failure of this team was antithetical to Dr Nkrumah’s vision of a unified Africa but they also reflect the reasons why African teams chronically underperform. The Black Stars failed to qualify fo the 1994, 1998, and 2002 World Cup even as Abedi Pele was named as one of Pele’s 125 greatest living players.
Tribal affiliations are so deeply entrenched that even the distinguished Ohene Djan could not escape it. There were some who vehemently opposed renaming the stadium in Accra as the Ohene Djan Stadium because of a prior conviction in the early 50’s and because the Ga tribe that controlled the Accra lands were not consulted by the Ghana government before they decided to honor Ohene Djan. In turn they proposed the names of indigneous Ga-Dangme sporting heroes.
The problems of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup again became very evident when Samuel Kuffour, the most capped player of the Ghanian team, and a Serie defender for AS Roma, decided that his needs were more important than that of national side. Once again Ghanians were plunged into a familiar sense of despair and self doubt One of the most important steps that Ratomir Dujkovic, the new coach carried out with the backing of the Ghana Football Association was to give an ultimatum to Kuffour, that if he continued his self serving behavior he could stay in Rome. The strong armed tactic worked but Dujkovic was confident that if the Black Stars would qualify, if they trained, played, and thought as a team. On October 8, 2005, in their last World Cup qualifying match, Ghana beat the Cape Verde Islands, 4-0, finishing at the top of their group and booking a passage to their first ever World Cup.
Ghana amongst all other West African nations has one of the finest grasroots infrastructure and commitment to the game. They were the first African country to professionalize their leagues and football players earned a good living through the sport. The Ghana FA in its early years had put into place a rigorous scouting system during football season that spotted talent in league matches and called them up for camps to make their final selection for the national team. These developments took place at the personal behest of Dr Nkrumah and ensured Ghana’s pre-eminent stature in African football. With the 2010 World Cup, Dr Nkrumah’s vision of a unified Africa is a step closer to being realized.