Pete Martin is a traveller, author, journalist and coach. This is the third in a series of articles adapted and extracted from his latest book “Fantafrica”. More details of his book can be found at www.petemartin.org/fantafrica
The plan today is to leave early to check out land further along the coast for the possibility of building a full football academy. Chris, the academy founder, ignores Coach’s pleas to use the main road and we drive along the coast. Pretty soon the concrete gives way to a bumpy sandy road, along which Coach navigates a zigzag course over the massively uneven surface and huge cavities. Soon we pass a number of signs saying that the road is closed. It looks like the road will be levelled and surfaced. However, it seems to have been in the present state of disrepair for a long time. We don’t see anybody working at all, so it could be the next millennium before it is finished.
A couple of hours into our journey and a few stops to check our poor map, we suddenly stumble upon paradise. Empty scrub land reaches out to the Atlantic Ocean. Palm trees sway in the breeze. There is plenty of space for football pitches, academy buildings and maybe even a school before a short drop to a golden beach. Strangely for Ghana there is no litter. The wind is heavenly as we stand atop the dunes and listen to the ocean waves in their endless flow. The place is deserted. None of us know if seawater can be used to irrigate grass pitches. Another academy has warned Chris and Coach that building pitches near a river is essential in this hot and dry environment. It gives Chris some food for thought anyway. It’s a tiny piece of paradise in this amazing country.
We continue to the nearby village. It’s a small idyllic fishing community. On the beach is a wooden board advertising yesterday’s Premier League football to be shown live on television. The final boat from the night’s fishing is being manhandled ashore, stuck halfway up the beach. Three burly men hold ropes around a tree to ensure it doesn’t slip back into the hungry ocean. Others use wooden planks to aid the boat’s journey inland with today’s catch. They wave at us as we watch the manual activity. There is a small drinks store plus a small school and then nothing else. It’s quiet beyond the fishermen and the ubiquitous goats.
In the car, Chris and Coach are excited about the possibility of a big football academy in this location. As they chat happily, a cautionary feeling washes over me. We cannot put an academy here and destroy this place. It’s so natural and beautiful, but then I hear Coach say there are plans to build a hotel here. Progress has no patience and the awful mess they are creating at the Dead Sea Resort in Jordan comes to mind. Maybe an academy that works with the local community and has a boys’ football team and eventually a girls’ team too that the village can be proud of would be the right thing to do here. Perhaps a new local school is needed as well.
We continue our laborious journey. Small black pigs interrupt our tedious progress on the sand roads until we come to the filthiest village I have ever seen. There is an inlet from the ocean that is brimming with litter. The town stinks of filth. A bunch of idle men sit on hammocks under a sign declaring it to be the “Virgin Ghetto”. Hip hop music blares out and dirty children play in the waste. Beyond this, there is more squalor. The half-built huts lean against each other like drunks. There are gaping holes in the straw roofs. Thankfully, the sand road turns to concrete and we can make our escape.
Soon back on the sand track, we are absolutely lost in the middle of nowhere. Nothing is marked on the map when we come across a bunch of young kids playing football out on a sandy patch in the middle of barren scrubland. One goal has its post skewed awkwardly as if it was deformed. The other goal is missing and so two old wooden boxes do the job. The boys look free, running cheerfully around the pitch. Coach has stopped the car to watch. I cannot help myself. I leave the car and wander over. There are a few shouts of “Obroni”. Their smiles are huge as they run toward me. I tell them to keep playing but they don’t understand. I point at the ball. They give it to me. It’s much too big for them. I point at one boy, then to the goal and kick the ball to him. The game resumes. The boys in their standard school uniform of yellow shirts and brown shorts swarm around the ball; all following the ball as kids do. There is no tactical awareness here. It’s wonderful to watch. One boy scores a goal. I cheer. They cheer too. They carry on playing. I feel like I am at the end of the earth and here I am watching kids play football. I am so moved.
Schoolgirls wander over and I retreat back to where others are watching too. The boys stop playing now and come over too. From their very basic English, we find out that it’s break time from school, which is on the other side of the sand road. I am almost in tears as we leave them. Somehow this has gotten to me. Children are the same the world over. Yet here there was no sullenness. It just seems the less they have, the more they make of what they do have. A bent goal, a couple of boxes and a knackered old football is all it takes.
The following day I leave with Coach for some errands this morning. Getting out of the academy it seems is good for me; also I get to see what really happens here. We head for the capital, Accra. Coach needs to go to the bank, as I do, then there are also final preparations for a trial tournament tomorrow. We chat in the car. I am surprised to learn that he has a ten-year-old daughter. Between the academy and his girlfriend, he is struggling to find time to see her.
It’s also fascinating to learn that he has never been on a train, never had a hot shower or seen any snow. For his room in the gatehouse, Chris bought him a bed and a mattress, yet he prefers to sleep on the hard floor. Of course, his passion for football comes across. He is completely shocked at the ticket prices for the English Premier League. He tells me Ghanaians often won’t pay more than a couple of cedis (£0.50) to watch games here. He asks many questions about Europe and is quite often baffled by my responses, particularly about the weather, dishwashers and the fact that our animals do not wander the streets.
Once the chores are done, Coach picks up a colleague who directs us to the pitch that will host tomorrow’s tournament. The back streets of the slums have old cars left abandoned, now coated with sand from their inactivity. Wooden shacks and small ship containers have been turned into shops and stalls. Coach’s mate directs us into the entrance of a rubbish tip. Huge mounds of junk tower over the men rummaging through them. The sand road continues past them, past some wooden huts to an open expanse of dirty hard sand. A lone horse wanders in the opposite direction. As we drive across the field, junkies run away thinking we could be the police. When we get out of the car, the smell of pot is strong. My colleagues tell me the men more likely had harder drugs hence their escape. We chat to three or four men, who promise to line out a pitch in the sand, add goalposts and erect a canopy for shade, all by ten o’clock tomorrow morning. One of the men constantly asks me for money whilst the conversation goes on. Once negotiations are complete, Coach gives another man an advance payment. It seems so many people need a cut in order to organise a kids’ tournament.
Later back at the academy, I lead the younger team (the eight to ten year olds) to the local sand pitch. The older ones (the ten to twelve year olds) are already training with Baba, another local coach. It’s the first time this has happened since I’ve been here. I notice Chris is playing too, so I ask Baba if I can join in. It’s very different on the sand. The ball bobbles so much and it’s hard to turn without sliding. It’s so much fun but it seems I am the only one smiling. With my first good pass, I draw strange looks from a few of the boys. Another good pass and I get a high five from one of them. At one of the coach’s breaks to explain a point, the ball bounces toward me. I hit a half-volley from distance straight into the top corner. A few who are ignoring the coach give me a thumbs-up. Jonah, in goal, looks at me uncomprehendingly. I think maybe I can cut the mustard with these young kids.
After the young team has finished their training, I let the older ones show the younger ones what the routine is with chores and showering. We have three more players too; three of the four from the tournament earlier in the week. It’s so difficult to get the new names right. I talk to the young ones inside the house. In two groups, I explain about the academy and emphasise the importance of schoolwork. I give each of them a Liverpool FC pen as a welcome. David wants one but I refuse as he has already had so much being part of the older team. He sulks but he needs to learn. In general, the boys are fantastic and well behaved. They have such pride in being chosen to be here. Only Ishmael keeps disappearing to watch what the older boys are doing. Some have travelled over five hours to be here and then we played football for about two hours. They will stay here overnight and play the tournament tomorrow.
Chris and Baba are giving a team pep talk to the older ones. I take the young ones outside to listen. Baba uses the opportunity to talk about timekeeping. He tells them that if they want to play in Europe, they must be on time. This is not a concept understood in Ghana. Things happen when they happen. Chris tells them that if they believe in themselves they will make it and that he believes each and every one of them will make it. They cheer and clap to this. Chris then asks them to sing the Accra Angels song that they have created as a welcome to the young ones. The young ones are moved.
As I wait outside to catch some evening air, Mensah – one of the new boys – comes to sit with me. He asks me if he could stay here forever, instead of going home. I explain that it is for one night only and he must wait until there is more space for the junior team if he is chosen. He then asks me if we will get more space tomorrow. I say no but soon. He asks whether this will be on Sunday – two days from now. I laugh. As with the others, he has no sense of time at all. I tell him to wait for Coach to contact his parents. I like Mensah a lot. He is quiet and well behaved. Yaw and Mohamed join us. Yaw has lost a tooth over dinner but with no complaint.
Chris puts on a film for them: “Toy Story”. There is complete silence as they settle in the hall to watch. Despite it being one of my favourite films, I sneak out at ten o’clock. Most of the boys are already asleep on the hard floor.
© 2017 Pete Martin