Pete Martin is a traveller, author, journalist and coach. This is the seventh 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
Coach Kofi and I are on our way back from a bizarre scouting trip to the capital of Togo, Lomé. We are stopped at the same bridge over the River Volta in Sogakope. A policeman talks to Coach through my open window. He explicitly asks for a bribe because we have no fire extinguisher. He doesn’t even check whether we have one or not and this is the first time it’s done openly in front of me. Coach bravely tells the official not to ask in my presence, maybe next time when he is alone he will pay. The policeman backs away sheepishly, embarrassed to be called out in front of the obroni.
It’s Sunday and the churches are all full. We hear the raucous singing and see the mesmeric trance-like dancing as we drive past. It seems that all the food stalls and cafés are empty because the locals are worshipping. Yet it’s a beautiful journey back towards the capital, with green luscious plantation and wetlands.
As we drive, I think about the language the Ghanaians use. It’s English of course but it’s without tenses and it has no relation at all to time. I recall Coach at the Togo-Ghana border speaking to the officials, “I am coming to you.” He also said, “We are coming to cross.” This is when Coach and I were already standing there; we had already arrived, ready to cross. “We are coming straight,” when he suggested we would return later. Coach also says, “There are some miles to Accra.” How many, ten or one hundred? “We take this route for the shortest time.” Compared to what? Time and distance don’t matter here; they just are. He often says, “Pete, I am coming to you.” This would be to take me somewhere, to the airport, to the hotel, to training or wherever, but I now realise this could mean “I am coming to you right now” but it mostly means “I will come to you at some unspecified point in the future.” Even when he describes the football-tennis in the academy, the point has been lost and Coach will say, “He is jumping too early,” rather than “He jumped too early.” The girls working in the hotel confuse me when they ask me, “When are you coming?” as this could mean anything from “What day did you arrive?” to “What day are you leaving?” or even “What time will you be back tonight?” Now I am getting used to it, I like it.
I have no desire to go over to the academy as everything is so slow in the heat. If am going to wait around, it’s nicer to waste time here at the hotel with the breeze of the ocean. Two more days and then we go north to Akuse, on Lake Volta, to play a tournament. Somehow, I need to alleviate my boredom and stay cool until then.
When I do find the enthusiasm to go the academy with the hope of some activity, maybe some training, Samuel and Jonah, the two young goalkeepers, are sitting with a map of Ghana. I ask where they are from. Samuel is the furthest away, from the north part of Lake Volta. Jonah and Kojo, who has just joined us, are from towns north of Kumasi, in the central region. I ask the three of them how long it takes for them to get home. Of course, time is a difficult concept for them. Jonah says one day; usually he leaves late in the afternoon and arrives the next day. Luke brings some water over for us and he finds Ashaiman on the map, the Accra overspill slum where eight of the boys are from. A couple are from Central Accra and one is from the Jamestown slum, infamous for Ghanaian boxing. Only Kwesi is left to plot his hometown and so we call him over. He is from Djemini. We laugh as he pronounces it like Germany. It’s hard to find on the map as the name is in his local language. Nobody knows the English or Twi version. Kwesi finally points to a nearby town he recognises north east of the Akosombo Dam on Lake Volta.
I talk to Samuel alone. He’s a very serious, yet a very pleasant lad and very articulate. As he was back on my first visit here, he is convinced that he will attend a football academy in Europe. It’s hard to let him down in any way. I don’t know what to tell him. It’s against all the rules of FIFA, yet it happens and that’s why these boys have such dreams. Ed Hawkins in “The Lost Boys” notes that, despite FIFA introducing Article 19 in 2003, which prevents any player under eighteen being transferred across international boundaries, six years later half a million players under the age of eighteen were still being sold to clubs. It’s this dream that sustains the way of life in Ghanaian football academies. Again, according to Hawkins, there are perhaps five hundred academies in Accra alone, most of which are not registered at all. Yet I have no sense whatsoever that the boys here are being exploited in any way, although I do wonder what will happen if another bigger academy or, heaven forbid, a European club comes after one of the boys.
Jonah interrupts us. He wants to play chess with Samuel. I watch as they begin the game with equal pieces missing. It’s another very, very hot day so I move under the other tree for some shade. I’m alone again. Apart from the chess players, everyone is inside out of the heat. With at least six boys per room, my guess is that it’s just as hot inside.
I am about to give up and go back to my hotel when some of the boys slowly come out to change into their football kit. Apparently, Baba, the local coach, is waiting for them for today’s training session.
At the local pitch, they do some warm up exercises and then some short passing. Chris, the academy owner, joins us too. “Why didn’t you tell me you were going?” he says, as if I controlled the timetable around here.
Baba lets the boys do some long passing. Some of it’s good and some very bad. I laugh from the side. When we cheer for some of the passes, the exercises become fun. Baba now directs some shooting practice. Each player will have eleven long shots at goal. He lines the balls up so close that it’s difficult for Emmanuel, the first victim, to manoeuvre his standing leg close to each ball. When he does connect, he has good technique and a powerful shot. Sebastian is the same. Cleverly for a left footer, he starts from his right to give himself enough space. He’s wearing his Manchester United shirt, so I boo him but, of course, when he’s finished I tell him how good he was. Joseph does well too, but then it becomes a farce, as Baba arranges the balls even closer than before so that only the ones with superb technique can do well. Even Appiah struggles. Poor Kwako, the new kid whose parents are paying for him to be here and who played so well in the last game, is left until the end and the others don’t watch, playing keepy-uppies together instead. There is no help given from Baba to any of them, no debrief for any kid of what was good or what could be done better.
Chris and I can’t resist a few shots and so we join in too. Samuel saves most of our shots very well, but again there is no feedback given to the goalkeepers. A final team circle and a mumbled prayer and today’s training is over.
One more day of boredom and then we are on the move and instead I can be bored in Akuse, where the tournament will be played. At least with a match there is something to do here instead of just sitting around in the heat.
The following day the team is at breakfast after morning training. The boys have glasses of thick brown liquid. I ask what it is. A few of the boys murmurs, “Tom Brown.” I am none the wiser. It’s actually roasted corn porridge, very heavy and sweet.
After a morning of nothing, I receive fruit from Betty. I didn’t ask for it, but I accept it graciously. I am halfway through eating when Coach tells us that Chris wants us all to play football; the coaches included. I leave half my food and walk back to my hotel to change. On a semi-full stomach, just walking, changing and then jogging slowly to the pitch, I am soaked with sweat. Often in the shade I can forget how powerful the sun is here.
The boys begin to warm up. The Europeans here hide under the only tree to cool down. We haven’t even started yet, so Coach wants us to warm up. He is right, but it feels so weird to warm up in this heat.
We have the first game. It’s a boys’ team against a coaches’ team – we also take Fosu, the only one of the small boys left as he is still waiting for one of his parents to make the long journey to pick him up. Samuel is our goalkeeper. It’s only by playing on the sand that I actually get a feel of how skilful these kids are. Chris and I only have training shoes and it’s so difficult to balance. When I watch the boys run, they naturally skid to turn as there is no grip at all. The ball constantly bobbles on the uneven surface too. It’s as if the first touch is irrelevant as the ground determines where the ball is not any skill. I make my first run, picking up a loose ball and I drive forward to shoot. I think I have scored but Jonah makes a wonderful save.
I acknowledge his save with a high five before the resultant corner when I realise I can’t breathe. I need air, but I am just breathing in heat. It’s a disconcerting feeling. I must take much deeper, slower breaths. The game continues as I recover. The ball is too big and too light. The boys pass well, much better than we do, using the surface to their advantage as they are much nimbler. They make us run but we have the chances. I put Chris through, but he stumbles and falls. Coach has a powerful shot that goes over the bar and then he scores.
Baba follows through on Kwesi. I was worried the boys would be too rough with us, not us with them. Kwesi is winded badly and we stop the game. Baba restarts the game but does not award the boys a foul. One pass by Chris hits Coach and goes for a corner. Baba and Chris continue to play but the boys want the corner. I call the game back. It shocks me. We are the coaches, shouldn’t we set an example? With a minute to go, little Fosu robs Sebastian and scores. I tease Sebastian as he wears his Manchester United shirt again. It’s game over, two nil to the coaches.
I am exhausted. I look at Chris. He is pouring with sweat too. We find the shade again under the tree and watch the next game. Coach and Baba are fine, and they laugh at us. I am genuinely shocked how difficult it is to play in this heat. I have never experienced anything like it.
It’s time for the final. We play the winner of the two boys’ teams that have just finished their game. It is a little later in the day now and so one of the teams must face into the low sun; we therefore agree on two halves of ten minutes. I find the first half very tough. Incredibly, I have almost nothing left after the first game. This boys’ team have worked out that they just need to make us run, passing around us until we will tire. They have the players to do it too with Joseph, Emmanuel and Appiah. Luke holds their defence together. Collins plays wide on the left and Luis runs us into the ground. It’s nil nil at half time. The second half is noticeably cooler and so it’s easier to play, but the boys still dominate possession. Only once do they really penetrate, finally playing a forward ball to Luis, instead of the constant sideways modern academy football that goes nowhere. Luis pulls the ball back to Joseph. His fierce shot beats Jonah, our goalkeeper, but somehow Baba contorts himself to head the ball off the line spectacularly.
I try to play Coach through, but my pass is terrible. I control the ball well but when I try to make the pass the ball has bobbled wildly and is somewhere up by my chest. I play Chris through again but he is flagging, just as I am. Then Baba blatantly takes out Luis. I think it’s a penalty for the boys, but Baba plays on. I pick Luis up. When the ball goes out, Baba screams at Luis, “You must be stronger. You must be stronger.”
The game is over. I am not sure I have enjoyed it. I can just about breathe again. The heat is something else. With no goals, the boys want a penalty shoot-out. Baba begins to organise the shoot-out. He wants five penalties each and a written order of who will take them. I can’t resist. I am trying not to be judgemental, but he winds me up so much. “Baba, no. C’mon, everyone in the team takes a penalty, even the goalkeepers.”
The boys look relieved, as they all wanted to have a turn. So all seven on each side will now take a penalty to decide the game. There is fun banter between the boys and us. It’s good natured until Baba races over to us adults and screams loudly, “We have to beat them. We have to beat them.”
He is insane. “Baba, we do not. They are eleven-year-old boys. It really does not matter.” Part of me really wants them to win now.
Coach charmingly lets the goalkeepers go first, so then they can concentrate on facing the subsequent penalties. We win. I have to calm Baba enough to make sure the last ones get to take a penalty too. The final score is 4 – 1 to the coaches. Even Fosu scores for our team. With the exception of the first one by their goalkeeper and then Fosu’s final kick, one day after shooting practice, the boys have missed all their penalties.
© 2017 Pete Martin