Ghana: The crucible of African soccer

It is befitting that the current ACN is hosted by Ghana to be followed by the World Cup in two years time in SA. In both countries, soccer played an invaluable part in organizing resistance to colonialism and apartheid, respectively. Under Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first prime minister and the first African leader in a post colonial era, soccer was not seen as just a sport but an organizing force towards a potent pan African nationalism.
In the 1950s, Ghana began institutionalizing soccer as part of a policy introduced by Nkrumah’s industrialization of Ghana. Nkrumah was a technocrat who believed that the path towards Ghana’s path towards leading Africa was to invest in hydro-electric plants and heavy industries that would change Ghana’s hitherto agrarian landscape and make them a force to reckon with in the world. Soccer was a part of that change which would allow Ghanian players to compete with their former colonial masters and best them in the sport that mattered most. This is pure conjecture but the embarrassment which England suffered at the hands of the Magyars in 1953 at Wembley must have emboldened Nkrumah to believe in their former overlord’s fallibility.
The Black Stars, Ghana’s national team was inspired by the clandestine shipping line started in 1919 by Marcus Garvey, the American civil rights activist who saw repatriation of African Americans back to their land of origin, as part of the fight against slavery and segregation. Such a percieved anti-national effort met with the opprobrium of the FBI honcho, Edgar Hoover, at the zenith of the second Red Scare, who then infiltrated the Black Star shipping line with his agents, and effectively shut down the shipping line.
Nkrumah was one of those responsible for starting the Confederation of African Football (CAF), the organization behind the ACN. This was his clarion call:
“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.”
To this effect he directed the rebuilding of Ghana’s soccer legacy to Ohene Djan, his new director of sports, and the impresario who orchestrated Ghana’s dominance in the early years of the ACN. Ghana’s domestic league was the yardstick in those early years. A rigorous scouting network which would single out talented players from village games, a league which paid its players handsomely, and a league team eked out of the best players from each club, in effect a surrogate for the national team , ensured that Ghana was the dominant African power. Djan was able to get a well known pharmaceutical company, R.R. Harding and Company, to sponsor the domestic league.
In 1960, the Black Stars held Real Madrid, the European champions, boasting stars like Alfredo Di Stefano, and Ferenc Puskas, to a 3-3 draw, and entered the consciousness of Europe indelibly. The 1960s were the golden years of Ghanian soccer as they won two ACN titles and went to four consecutive finals. In comparison, in oil rich Nigeria, the life of a soccer player was a life of penury. It was a sore point for Nigeria who looked on with envy at their neighbours and its players who rode expensive cars and wore the best clothes. The Super Eagles were the country cousins to the Black Stars.
In 1963 the Black Stars won the inaugural ACN six years after its independence. In 2007, Ghana celebrated 50 years of freedom and the 1963 victory was a big part of the celebrations. In an interview with BBC sports, Joseph Agyeman-Gyau who was a striker in the winning squad reminisces:
“That victory was very good for Ghana because it united the whole country,” the sexagenarian told BBC Sport.
“One of the purposes of (Ghana’s first president) Kwame Nkrumah was to tell the whole world that we can do things for ourselves and achieve positive results.
In a visionary move, Ohene Djan’s strong emphasis on developing talent paid of as Ghana’s youth teams won significant world titles and ensured Ghana’s perpetuity even as its senior teams failed to qualify or win any meaningful title in the late 80s and 90s. Those dry decades saw the rise of future stars like Michael Essien, Steven Appiah, Sulley Muntari, and John Pantsil who led the Ghana team to the 2006 World Cup and were instrumental in getting to a second round appearance. Essien leads the present Ghana team. He plays for Chelsea and like many others, he is as part of an ever growing armada of African players, plying their trade in the higher paying and high profile European leagues. It is now part and parcel of European leagues to have African players in their clubs and a measure of their indubitable success that this years ACN has become a flashpoint, depleting clubs wholesale of key players, volunteering for their national team, leaving their clubs adrift of their title aspirations. As an Arsenal fan, the loss of Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue has robbed the club of defensive dynamism, leading to the leaden performances against Birmingham and more recently, the shellacking at the hands of Spurs.
The pioneer as with most of African soccer was a Ghanian player, Charles Kumi Gyamfi aka CK who left Hearts of Oak for Fortuna Dusseldorf in 1960. He was the first African player to do so.
“When he played for the national team against the visiting Fortuna Dusseldorf team from Germany, the German team offered C K the opportunity to play professional football in Germany. In his debut, he scored a goal for the German team and the fans soon nicknamed him “Tunda Vita” which means Thunder Weather due to his shooting power.”
In a measure of the hold of the heady pan nationalism that Ghanian soccer engendered in those years, CK decided to spurn the limelight and lucrativeness of European soccer as he was called onto coach the Black Stars. He was supported in this endeavour by Ohene Djan. CK became the most successful national coach as he led the Black Stars to three ACN titles. A feat as yet unsurpassed. Charles Kumi’s exploits led the European leagues to open the doors to the first duo of African superstars, Tony Yeboah and Abedi Pele in the 1980s.
As any Leeds United fan in their club’s chequered history would tell you, Tony Yeboah is as good as they get. He scored one of the most stunning goals in league history and it is safe to say that English soccer had not seen the sort of athleticism, ball skill, and lethal power, that Yeboah brought to the game. Leeds fans are known for their cockiness and much has to do with the fact that Yeboah epitomized the glory days at Elland Road before the decline into bankruptcy and ignominy. Before the Leeds United transfer, Yeboah was a standout with Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga where many Ghanian players received their start.
His compatriot in the Black Stars, Abedi Pele aka Abedi Ayew, per the cognoscenti is Africa’s best striker to have never played the World Cup as Ghana failed to qualify in those years of his prowess. Strangely enough, Abedi Pele was spurned by the Ghanian clubs but was accepted by French Ligue club, Chamois Niort FC before moving to Lille and Marseille. He proved to be a journeyman and ended his career at Saudi Arabia’s Al Ain. In between he was voted as the best foreign player when he played at Torino. He top scored for the Black Stars with 33 goals. His performance in the 1992 ACN saw Ghana enter the finals and the quality of his goals earned him the sobriquet of the African Maradona. In 2004, Pele inducted him into his list of the top 125 players of all times.
The fierce clash between Yeboah and Abedi Pele was a harbinger of the rank divisions that play out between the entrenched and internecine rivalries between tribal ethnicities which surfaced and undermined Ghanian soccer in the post Nkrumah days. The Black Stars suffered as these two big egos squabbled over the captaincy of the national team. For a generation, Ghanaian soccer went into a vacuum after the retirement of these two superstars, as the Black Stars failed to do anything notable.
In addition, the advent of these two superstars and the big salaries they enjoyed made a generation of younger players spurn national ambitions in lieu of the big money of the European leagues The same dispiriting signs were in place in the qualifiers to the 2006 World Cup as Sammy Kuffour, a standout at Roma made known that he would not consider a starting position. Luckily, the Ghanaian Football Federation threw its weight behind newly appointed coach Ratomir Dujkovic in his decision to suspend Kuffour. The tough love tactics worked and in a unprecedented build up to the World Cup, Ghana finally won its place to the World Cup for the first time.
Ghana began its ACN campaign against Guinea fittingly in the shining new Ohene Djan stadium at Accra, dedicated to the visionary who shaped Ghanaian soccer. As with every decision, renaming the Ohene Djan stadium was also mired in controversy. In recent times, Ghana has been overshadowed by the exploits of Roger Milla and Cameroun; Senegal and its band of merry men; Egypt, Al Ahly and Aboutreika, but Ghana’s soccer occupies a unique place in African history, rooted in the precepts of nationalism and a strong and united Africa and as an incubator of past and contemporary talent.

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