(This is part 1 of a two part Ghana summary – an extension of the report printed in the Cheltenham Town programme of 9th February. The second part, which will appear on 16th February will also be extended onto this site. Any programme editor that wishes to take items from this site is free to do so, so long as I am creditied and sent a copy of the programme – feel free to edit as you wish, or ask me for the shortened copy as used by Cheltenham).
Why does one travel? In my case it may be an attempt to broaden the mind, and hopefully not to broaden the stomach anymore? As you know, I always use the football as an excuse to define my travels across the world, but it is only an excuse – if there was no football, then I would just find some other basis for my travels.
Before this year’s African Cup of Nations, I had picked on four sides, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Senegal to top the groups and reach the semi-finals. As someone who does not see much about Africa between tournaments, I rely on the form at previous tournaments, plus the old adage – which says that the Arabic Africans of the North, and the Black Africans from south of the Sahara do not tend to fare well in each others lands. And so, despite the fact that both the last two winners, Tunisia (2004) and Egypt (2006) were from the North, I downplayed what was, after all home successes, and instead selected the home side, and some of its regional neighbours. By the time I had seen all the teams play once, including Egypt’s demolition of Cameroon in their first game, I made only one change to the last four prediction, replacing the extremely disappointing Senegal with Egypt. A week after leaving the country, my revised semi-final list was proved right. With the deadline for this article being before the semi-finals, I am expecting Ghana to play the Ivory Coast in the final, but whoever it is, it should be a good match. (Live on BBC2 tomorrow afternoon).
And so to Ghana, and the African Cup of Nations. This is my first footballing trip to sub-Saharan Africa, as the last two tournaments were held in Tunisia and Egypt. I travelled out and back with Ghana International Airways – a single plane operation (and that single plane has Icelandair insignia on the tail and winglets, and a warning that smoking in the lavatories is against Icelandic law), operating a daily flight between Accra and London Gatwick. It is a little different to other airlines (other than they have run out of earphones, and play the movie soundtrack in the PA), and saves £100 over BA, or changing in Amsterdam.
The flight actually arrived in Accra while the opening match was in progress. The inside of the airport buildings were quiet, except for a cheer that went up when the hosts scored the tournament’s first goal. Outside, there was no shortage of hassle though, two locals immediately took it upon themselves to guide as we moved from the international terminal to the domestic terminal (to enquire, not successfully about an internal flight) and back, looking for the car that the hotel had sent to pick us up. In the end, they asked for a tip of about £10, having failed to do the only thing we had actually asked (call the hotel to check the car was there). I was glad to find out that this was a one-off, and we were not generally asked for a tip every time we requested directions. In fact, most of the locals were extremely friendly and helpful, and one of the advantages of visiting a country where the culture of tourism is not so developed is that you are not seen as a walking cashpoint machine by the locals.
I did here a lot of stories of the visiting fans being targeted by criminals, although the crime was always of a ‘sneak’ nature, and I did not hear of one threatening incident. Certainly you had to be careful of your wallets and passports, (passports in particular being a favourite steal), and I made sure to always leave mine back at the hotel. Sadly, I did become a victim at one stage. I cannot be certain, but this was almost certainly more down to carelessness on my part – as it was my computer that went missing. It seems most likely I put it down in the stadium’s media centre and only thought I had placed it in my suitcase, as to remove the machine from the suitcase (nothing else was stolen) would have been difficult. Unfortunately, this problem was compounded by the failure of the locals organisation to communicate across its various branches, so while I was trying to get someone to head directly back to see if my computer was still in Kumasi, (I had travelled the 8 hours to Tamale before spotting its absence), it actually took 24 hours to get this message through.
Despite this setback, I never felt unsafe on the streets of Ghana. I never got the impression that there is much violent crime there. A couple of times when I said I was from England, there was a comment about ‘our colonial masters’, but it was always said without malice. I have rarely found, even in former British colonies, and resentment against the Brits, and it seems this is true even in what was once the heart of the slave trade.
There was an ancient kingdom of Ghana, which reached the height of its powers in the tenth century and practically disappearing 300 years later. Modern Ghana, though has no common territory with the ancient Kingdom, and was a name chosen more as symbolic when under Nkrumah, it became the first African colony to gain independence from European rule in 1957. The name of the area under European rule was the Gold coast, and the original colonists were Portuguese traders, who build a series of forts along the coast, and then traded for gold from inland, without ever taking control of the land. Over the years, there were many clashes between the Portuguese, the Dutch and even the Danes – the British arrived a lot later – at the end of the 17th century, and they were the first to exploit the area for slaves. (This was not because the Dutch or the Portuguese were innocent in terms of the slave trade, but they preferred to trade their slaves from Angola or Nigeria, concentrating in this area in trading gold). When the British arrived, they could not wrest the gold trade from Dutch control, so instead traded for slaves. For the next century, slaves were the main commodity of this area of Africa, and around one million people were transported through the ports of Ghana in this period. The European presence was still confined to the coastline for years to come, while the interior of the state was the preserve of African kingdoms, mainly the Fante and Ashanti who fought for power, with the support (as and when was convenient) of either the Brits or the Dutch. The Gold coast was made a British crown colony in 1874, although it then only extended inland for about 50 km. The rest of Ghana became British ‘possessions’ over the following 20 odd years, mainly to prevent them from becoming the territory of other European powers.
So when Ghana became an independent state, it was a combination of many different tribal lands bought together for the convenience of British rule, and not for that of its successors. This has been the way of the world not only for Africa, but for much of the world that was once colonised by the Europeans. Keeping a stable government in such conditions is not easy. Either the various groupings have to reach an (often uneasy) truce, or one group will take power by force. History has proved that with politicians only too willing to mark a slight by one group against another (in Ghana, even the names of the stadiums is a cause for debate), there are not so many things that act to bind a country together.
As with just about every other former colony in Africa, home rule for Ghana has not been an easy ride, with various coups, counter coups and dictators. Jerry Rawlings was dictator from 1982 to 1991, and then elected president for a decade; but then stepped down in line with the constitution he had proposed, which limited the president’s term in off – and allowing a peaceful change of leadership. John Kuffour’s tenure will end soon, and hopefully another peaceful change.
In lands with so many disparate forces pulling in different directions, anything that brings the people together has to be a good thing, and sport is one such thing. Everywhere we went, football was the first subject of conversation. This was not just because we were tourists and obviously there for the sport – the matches filled the front, back and centre pages of all the newspapers. European, and especially English football is popular, (although I am think live English football may be limited to satellite TV). At least two of the local football clubs (Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko) have their own daily papers, as well as web sites to spread their message.
As is the standard for this type of competition, we started with four groups of four teams, each allocated to one city. Accra had the hosts, who beat Guinea in the opening match, along with Morocco who overpowered Namibia the following day. Soufienne Alloudi, who plays for Al-Ain in UAE scored a hat-trick within 28 minutes, but as Namibia started to suffer in the second half, they committed a series of fouls earning five yellow cards – Alloudi was the first to be substituted with an injury, and did not play again in the tournament. When I got back to Accra, the matches were a double header, with the first of the two games being the most interesting and vital. The star of this show, Guinea v Morocco was Pascal Feindouno of St. Etienne. Feindouno is also the captain of Guinea, and gave his side an early lead which stood through to half time. There was then a ten minute flurry of events early in the second half – firstly Feindouno got fouled, allowing Ismael Bangoura to increase the lead from the penalty spot. This did not last long, as Hicham Aboucherouane hit back almost immediately. It was Feindouno himself that restored the two goal cushion two minutes later, and it was a cushion that Guinea needed, as Feindouno then contrived to get himself sent off. With the man advantage, Morocco pushed, but only got on the scoresheet once more, in the final minute. The loss of Feindouno was felt by Guinea beyond this game, as he was suspended for two games, a lame draw with Namibia, and a tame defeat when the knock out games started. The match was followed by a nervy match for the hosts against Namibia, in which a single goal from Junior Agogo provided them with all points. My third visit gave me one more match – as Guinea and Namibia had decamped to Sekondi to play a simultaneous kick off. I saw Ghana needing just one point to be group winners finally live up to their potential in beating Morocco by 2-0. The power of the host side comes from the midfield, and the two goals in this match were by Essien, set up by Muntari, and then Muntari, set up by Essien. The forward line of Asamoah Gyan and Agogo looks to be the weak link, but Agogo has the knack of getting crucial goals.
My second series of matches was in Kumasi, a stadium which I visited twice picking up four games in all. None of these was better than the group opener, which saw the holders, Egypt playing Cameroon. It is generally thought that the holders would struggle in this game – the opposite was the case, as they took the game to Cameroon, scoring two quick goals, and despite two second half strikes by Samuel Eto’o, who is now the leading goal scorer in Africa Cups, Egypt ended up victors by 4-2. the second match was a straight forward affair, in which Zambia comfortably dealt with Sudan, winning 3-0 and raised the possibility that they would cause problems for Cameroon in the next game. This too was not to be, I returned to Kumasi to find that Cameroon had recovered their composure, while the Zambian defence was in a charitable mood, gifting the Cameroonians three goals of the five they scored. Sudan then reprised their role as easy to beat, losing 3-0 to Egypt. They also lost 3-0 in the final game to Cameroon, while Egypt, taking things a little easier, picked up the point to win the group with a draw against Zambia.
Group D in Tamale was the last to get going. The opening games in this group being my only visit – which is a pity as the drama here was in the second round of fixtures. I saw an entertaining game in which Tunisia took the lead against Senegal, but then got into trouble with an equaliser on the stroke of half time, seriously against the run of play, and a second goal putting Senegal ahead. Tunisia levelled the match with 8 minutes to go. South Africa against Angola was also a draw, 1-1 – but it was a point the South Africans did not deserve. The Angolan goal was down to some great play by Flavio, an Angolan striker who plays for Al-Ahli in Egypt, who brought the ball down and then made the short cross for the head of Mateus Alberto, aka Manuchno – the Manchester United bound striker who came across as one of the stars of the tournament. I saw the second round game on TV from Accra, in a small bar run by a coach on the staff of the Heart of Lions club. (Although Heart of Lions is from Kpando, about a three hour dive away, they train in Accra). Senegal scored first, but they were then eclipsed by the Angolans, with two goals from Manuchno, one from Flavio as they won by 3-1. Tunisia beat South Africa, by the same scoreline, which meant that when Tunisia played Angola, a draw would see both through – the teams did not look to collude from the start, but by midway through the second half, you could see no desire to disturb the status quo and the match finished 0-0. As South Africa and Senegal also drew, even this did not really matter.
That leaves Group B in Sekondi, where I missed the opening games, played on the day that Morocco beat Namibia – these were two hard fought 1-0 wins, with Nigeria losing to the Ivory Coast, while Mali beat Benin. In the second series, the Ivory Coast were just to powerful for Benin, winning by 4-1 while Nigeria against Mali which was the only truly dull game I saw on the tour ended scoreless. This left Ivory Coast needing only a point from the final game to be group winners, and Mali needing a point to end up as runners-up, but even the prospect of two French speakers ganging up on the Anglophonic Nigerians did not create collusion – The Ivorians beat Mali by 3-0, allowing Nigeria to sneak through with a 2-0 win over Bali.