The difficulty for groundhoppers visiting tournaments such as the African Cup of Nations is that we cannot always stay for the full tournament. The Cup takes three weeks, but has only four venues, so all can be visited, and all the teams concerned can be seen by taking a trip in the first week. So by the time the knock-out matches start, I am limited to seeing them on the TV. Having seen all the teams, I did have the measure of the quarter-finals; Ghana beat Nigeria with goals from Michael Essien and Junior Agogo – Yakubu had put the Nigerians ahead, while Guinea, still without the suspended Pascal Feindounou were never a match for Ivory Coast – Guinea collapsed in the second half and went down 5-0. Another super-strike by Manchester United bound Manuchno was not enough to stop Egypt progressing 2-1, and Cameroon got the better of Tunisia in a lengthy tie, finishing 3-2 aet.
Over the course of the week, we travelled around the country by a variety of transport methods. The inter-city coach is the easiest, with a fixed timetable (which is not always adhered to), and fixed prices, and a degree of comfort. The tro-tro, mini-buses than can seat 22 people lose any degree of comfort, and work on a fill up and go basis. This can mean an indefinite period waiting before the transport leaves. The prices are fixed, and by paying for two seats in order to give oneself more space, means paying more than the bus fare. The longest overland step of our journey, from Kumasi to Tamale was done on an overnight tro-tro taking 8 hours. The five members of our party took 11 seats between, firstly for comfort, and then to get the bus on the road. We left soon after midnight, but one could imagine waiting until daylight before the bus filled up. Air travel also has its problems – we had tried to book our one internal flight by internet from the UK, and had apparently made a reservation – but not paid. Payment had to be in cash, and had to be done locally. Fortunately we sorted this the day before travelling, when we found our ‘reservations’ were not on their list (but there were still enough spaces for us), and that the flight was to depart four hours earlier than the schedule quoted on the internet! For us, local transport within towns was by taxi, which were the same as most taxis, slightly decrepit vehicles being driven at too fast a speed. Most would give a sensible local rate quickly with negotiation. One of two tried their luck to up the rates for white men, but would then give up when challenged. Basically, you can travel anywhere in the capital for not more than £2, while half that will do in the other cities. At the end of my trip, our taxi was travelling too fast down a dual carriageway when another pulled out in front of it. Fortunately, the speeds were not so great that the lack of seat belts came into play, and only the taxis were dented.
We visited four cities on the trip, and it is fair to say that none of them are likely to become tourist centres in the near future, although there are areas of the coastline that could be developed as such. Accra is the capital, and although it has the busy, bustling activities of any major city, it also has many quiet districts in between. The stadium is based centrally, next to independence square and only a few hundred yards from the coast. It lacks a true centre, or any buildings or monuments of distinction. The oldest buildings are forts that go back to colonial days, when the country was the Gold Coast, although trade was more in slaves than gold. It is the people, the markets and the colours that make the city though – especially the joyous explosion of noise that fills the popular areas after the home team has won a match. All the other cities seemed quite small by comparison. Kumasi was our second port of call, and the one city other than the capital that we went to twice. The features here are some idiosyncratic statues, such as a man standing on the back of a lion – which sits just outside a colonial era church, which appears freshly painted in brown and white. Tamale is the most northerly of our ports of call, featured the Gulpke Na Palace – which turned out to be a series of connected huts, where any serious looking around might have felt like intrusion on those families who now live there. In Tamale, we also noticed another change in that while the other communities had Christian churches, the biggest building here was a mosque. Tamale was the dusty city – one did not have to go far to reach roads that were just red dirt, and the dust from these seemed to pervade everywhere. Finally we went to Takoradi, which is the bigger of a pair of cities, (the football actually took place in its little brother, Sekondi, 12 km away). Here the centre was a large roundabout/market, although having a hotel that fronted onto this turned out not to be a problem, as it was closed down before the football started, and was slow to start up in the morning. During the day, it was a mass of confusing colours, noises and smells. From my hotel window, one floor up, I could see beyond some of the colonial frontages into the interior of the 100 yard diameter circle – and it appeared the whole area was full of shacks with tin roofs.
Between the cities, the towns we passed through were of a similar type. For the most part, small single storey buildings with walls of wood, brick, or often dried mud, (or dried mud used as a plaster to cover other materials?), with tin or wooden roofing. Commercial properties always congregate towards the main road in an attempt to catch the eye of passing trade. It seemed a feature that many towns seemed to concentrate on a single main commodity, so as we passed one, we would see many stalls selling honey, whereas the next may only sell fruits. The land, even close to the villages appeared mainly uncultivated, either for crops or for the grazing of animals. One clear difference between life here, and those countries in Asia which are far more familiar to me is that where clearly many people live poorly, and subsistence farming and trading, there is far less ostentatious wealth here. While this could mean that here in Africa, the difference between rich and poor is lower – there may be other reasons. Do the wealthy of this part of Africa not display their wealth here, but instead move it north to Europe or America?
The other question one must ask, in Asia – any country with a large but cheap work force is exploited as a source of cheap labour by capitalist countries, (I won’t say Western, as the Japanese, Koreans and even the Chinese now run much of this). While some may question the morals behind these modern business methods, it does bring money into the countries concerned, fuelling the massive growth rates of the Asian tigers. As we travelled through Ghana, though – there was no sign of similar investment. Ghana is one of the most stable countries in the region, so where is the foreign investment? To the purist, this may present an idealised state, as not only do the industrialists fear to tread, but also there is no McDonald’s or KFC, (you can never escape Guinness or Coca-Cola though). Is it a fear of accusations of new forms of colonialism that keeps the international companies at bay? Does the instability of some African governments prevent investment in their neighbours? Or is it the fact that West African countries, including Ghana were at the centre of the slave trade that makes any type of exploitation an anathema in the current world?
We visited one stadium in each city, those in Kumasi and Accra having been upgraded for the tournament, while Sekondi and Tamale had brand new constructions. In a unique arrangement with the Shanghai Construction Company, the two new stadiums were practically identical, in what has been called the first “buy one, get one free” deal in stadium construction.
The National Stadium in Accra is known as the Ohene Djan stadium, after the first president of the Ghanaian Football Association, and first sports minister of the independent state. Over more than three-quarters of the circumference of the stadium, it is a two tier, basically concrete construction. The upper tier slightly overlaps the back of the lower tier, and this area is popular with the crowds, especially those whose seats are near the front of the stadium. Despite the lack of a running track, there is quite a distance from the front row of seats to the pitch, as with a ten foot clear plastic screen to contend with, viewing is poor near the front. Along the length of the fourth side is a two tier covered stand, which stands independently from the rest of the construction. This has a concrete cantilevered roof. Most of the VIP and press areas are in the lower level of this stand, and oddly, here too there is enough fencing and barriers to make many of the views disappointing. The uncluttered upper tier is better. The stadium of used by local clubs, including Hearts of Oak, which along with Asante Kotoko make up the ‘big two’ of Ghanaian football.
Asante Kotoko play their home games at the Baba Yaya stadium in Kumasi. This is actually a little bigger than the national stadium and is also used by the national team. Again, the main curve of seats surrounds most of the ground, with the main stand an almost separate entity. As at Accra, the seating comes right down to pitch level, and this time there is a running track as well, so those low level seats are again poor.
The other two stadiums, as I said are brand new and identical. A single tier of seats, but this time with the lowest seats raised about 10 feet higher than the pitch and its surrounding running track. The barrier that prevents people falling over the parapet though is positioned such that it interferes with the views for the lower three rows, and there are similar problems where the barriers are to keep the sections apart. Unlike the two older venues, the roof does cover the entirety of the seating areas, It is of the type made popular in Germany for the World Cup with a canvas like membrane stretched over a maze of scaffolding. It curves upwards towards the middle of stand on both sides, although this is just for effect, as the seats are no higher here than elsewhere. Anyway, the roofing if projected high above the seats, and yet comes forward no further than the seating, so protection against rain would be limited unless there was no wind at all, and everyone on the East side has the sun in their face at the 5p.m. starts for the games.
In all the grounds, there is a cacophony of noise. You do not get the chanting and singing of a European match, but instead a continuous beating of drums and blowing of horns. While this beat seems unchanging throughout each game, and regardless of the score, there is always a further collective cheer whenever the favoured team starts an attack, and a massive roar whenever Ghana score.
By the semi-finals, Ghana and Ivory Coast were clear favourites. Certainly Ghana should have had big advantages against Cameroon – the visitors had played their qualifier 28 hours later than their hosts, played extra time and then had to travel to Accra on the following day. Cameroon overcame all this, and the crowd to win when Alain Nkong scored the only goal. Nkong, coming on as substitute for Joseph Desire Job, currently plays in Mexico, but has also played in Spain, Portugal and the USA. The least explaining incident of the entire tournament was in injury time, when Reading’s Andre Bikey decided to push over an ambulance man attending one of his Cameroon team mates, when the time wasted was, of course, in his team’s favour. The red card earned meant he missed the final. In Kumasi, Egypt had a slight ‘home’ advantage, as the match against the Ivory Coast was the fifth successive one they played there – the Ivorians playing their earlier games in Sekondi and Accra. Egypt, who had beaten their rivals twice in the last tournament (3-1 in a group match, and on penalties after the final finished scoreless) maintained their record with a 4-1 win.
Ghana won the third place play-off, also putting four past the Ivory Coast (4-2). The final, naturally was a closer affair, with a near full stadium despite Ghana’s fall. Egypt won when Mohamed Zidan dispossessed Rigobert Song and teed up the chance for Abo Trika. This was Egypt’s sixth title, the competition record. Eto’o, with five goals (all in the group games) was top scorer, but Manucho scored four as did three Egyptians, Abo Trika, Hosny and Amr Zakr.
The next tournament is in Angola in 2010, provisionally Equatorial Guinea and Gabon have been chosen to co-host in 2012 and Libya in 2014. The CAF are insisting that even beyond 2014, the competition will still be played in January – a time when the climate across the continent allows play in any area. Sepp Blatter’s statements are that a January tournament will not be permitted ahead of a June/July World cup in the same year. The probably compromise is that the next tournament after 2014 will be 2017, and then the two year cycle will be in odd years.