Pete Martin is a traveller, author, journalist and coach. This is the sixth 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
After much shenanigans back home in Europe regarding the finances of the academy and then a few days with Coach Kofi exploring the Volta Region of Ghana, surprisingly I find myself back at the academy. I say hello to Betty, the house cook. She has lost a lot of weight. She offers me some breakfast and I insist only for some fruit. Sebastian is wearing a Manchester United shirt and so, as always, I make him turn it inside out.
I sit at the wooden table at the front of the house and chat with Baba, the coach of the senior team who has also returned. He says some of the seniors are lazy and won’t listen anymore, thinking they are superstars. Only one or two continue to do their chores with no resistance, such as big Kojo, Luke, Kwesi and Jonah. The junior team members staying here are a breath of fresh air.
He also says that Jacob, the next door neighbour, is complaining about the number of balls coming over the wall from the games of header-tennis. Kwesi brings me some Nutella and bread; I ask him to take it back. Baba and I talk to the junior team. For homework whilst I was away for the two days with Coach, I had asked each of them to write down a team based on their favourite players, making sure the players were in the right positions and names spelt correctly. Some of them can write better than the older boys. Salif writes all of the Manchester United team, so I make him stand in the corner of the garden with his hands on his head. Francis does the same but with all Liverpool FC players and so I make him the new captain, coach and manager of the Accra Angels. The boys are so much fun. Even Baba seems to be more relaxed when he is around the younger ones. I get some mango and everything is well.
At eleven o’clock Baba tells them all to go inside as it’s too hot outside. He tells them it is recovery time. Is this footballers’ speak for doing nothing? There’s actually a lovely breeze today, none of the blazing heat of the last few days inland. I sit around and wait, just like the rest of Ghana does. Baba rests his head on the table and sleeps. I’m bored out of my mind already. How on earth did I do this last time I was here?
At midday nothing is happening, so I walk back to the hotel. I think my frustration comes from not knowing the day’s plans. If there is no plan, I can make my own. There was a tentative arrangement that I would join Coach and we would go to Accra. Nana has an injury and Coach knows a good physiotherapist; I could have him assess my dodgy hip at the same time. There was also talk of watching this afternoon’s football match at the national stadium. Yet I haven’t seen Coach all morning. I sit with a Coke near the ocean. The breeze is refreshing and the wild Atlantic waves spill noisily onto the rocks. Four middle aged Ghanaian women, in colourful dresses, drink Club beer and laugh infectiously together at a table nearby. Today’s lesson is: if I am going to wait around a lot, then let it be in a pleasant place and always have a book handy.
Coach arrives. He’s nervous and wants me to come with him. He thinks we can still achieve today’s plans. It’s almost one o’clock. I ask him how far it is to the healer. Of course, it is one hour. I didn’t need to ask. How far is it to the stadium? One hour too. I can’t see it happening, but I am making a wild assumption that games actually start on time in the Ghanaian professional football league.
We agreed to take two others in addition to Nana. We don’t have much time, so I suggest we take the ones who help out the most. Coach chooses Kojo and Luke. When we reach the house, Jonah opens the gates. Then as the chosen two get ready, Jonah fetches me a bowl of chopped fruit and two bottles of water to take with me. Hm, I’m sorry Jonah, ness time as you say here.
The traffic is insane as usual. We pass the slums of Ashaiman, where a number of the boys are from. One hour in Ghana bears no relation at all to time that any Swiss watchmaker would know. In the car we chat and everything is fine, except there is not a chance that we can visit both the physio and make it to the match. At three o’clock Coach stops at a bank for some money. Once he’s back in the car I ask him what time kick-off is and whether it will start on time; he has been mentioning three o’clock sometimes and other times half past three. He doesn’t know so I ask which is closer, the stadium or the healer. It is the stadium, so the decision is made; Nana’s knee and my hip will have to wait.
The Accra Sports Stadium is nestled in between Black Star Square and Independence Square on one side and the grand International Conference Centre on the other. Sadly, it is the site of Africa’s worst stadium disaster. On 9th May 2001 one hundred and twenty-seven fans were crushed to death in a stampede when police fired tear gas into the crowd to quell disturbances after two late goals were scored by the home team, Hearts of Oak, against their bitter rivals from Kumasi, Asante Kotoko.
Ghanaians gather wherever they can to sell anything they can, so there are makeshift stalls dotted around the waste ground of the car park. At the stadium entrances there are more vendors selling goat meat kebabs, sausages, bread, drinks, hats, bangles and scarfs. I pay for the tickets. Bizarrely three tickets are needed for two adults and three kids, coming to a grand total of thirty cedis (£6).
Inside most supporters sit in the three rows halfway up that are shaded by the upper tier of seats. The first area we choose is much too hot, even for Coach and the boys. The next section Coach suggests smells too strongly of ganja. Kojo agrees. I look at him quizzically. Coach explains that weed is the main crop of his village in the north of Ghana. Our next choice is behind the goal and we settle here.
It’s very, very hot. In the wide open roofless bowl I spot one other white man sitting not too far away. He is quite old and wears a cap that has the emblem of the Scottish team, Heart of Midlothian. It also fits here, as the home team is Hearts of Oak.
It’s an unusual atmosphere. Everyone seems to be here alone, most jabber loudly on their phones. The stadium is perhaps a quarter full, if that. The sensible ones like us are in the shade; the brave ones are in the open on the upper tier and the rich ones are in the covered area in the main stand. Kojo, in his broken English, proudly points to this area and tells me that is where he was last time. Finally, the kid speaks; he’s such a nice kid, a very good player and a hard worker, yet he can hardly read or write. His front tooth is missing and so he is extremely self-conscious when he speaks, particularly in English but also his native language.
The teams come out only five minutes late. Coach explains that even though many fans can’t get here as they are still at work, it’s a mid-afternoon kick-off because the club cannot afford to use the floodlights. We watch an average first half. The hosts are non-existent and the visitors, WAFA, pass the ball around neatly but to no avail. The pace is slow in the blazing heat. WAFA score an unlikely but well worked goal and then continue to pass sideways and backwards.
The half time whistle is blown. This means everyone around us remonstrates with each other loudly and animatedly, arms flailing, spittle to the fore as though each of them was the greatest ever football manager. There never seems to be a conversation, just one man shouting then another with nobody listening or engaging intelligently back. Yet the fans are passionate and are decked out colourfully. Unlike the Scottish version, Hearts’ colours are red, yellow and blue with most wearing some club artefact in these bright hues. Apparently, Hearts are joint top of the league, second only because of a lower goal difference.
WAFA on the other hand are one of the most infamous teams in Ghana. In 1998 the chairman of Feyenoord and the chief of Fetteh, an area outside Accra, agreed to establish an academy for the Dutch club and it was originally known as Feyenoord Fetteh. Despite it clearly being an extension of Feyenoord’s youth development setup, the ensuing years saw very few graduates of the academy make it to the first team in Rotterdam; in fact, only one player, Mohammed Abubakari, signed for the Dutch club although he didn’t actually play a first team game. In 2014 Feyenoord Fetteh acquired the Red Bull Academy further west in Sogakope and became known as the West Africa Football Academy (WAFA). Along with Abubakari, less than fifteen others have managed to forge professional football careers in Europe after attending WAFA and mostly in the lower leagues. Neither Feyenoord nor Red Bull has ties to the academy any longer. Since 2009, Wienco, a Ghanaian agricultural company, has funded WAFA.
The second half starts and it’s the proverbial game of two halves. Hearts are a different team, now totally on top. It’s a faster paced, more fluent and exciting game with numerous chances. WAFA resort to time-wasting tactics. They are awful to watch, like Chelsea became under José Mourinho once the flair of Duff and Robben were sold off. Every throw-in and every goal kick takes an age. The keeper is booked for time wasting and I’ve lost count of the times the trainer has been on. I am pleased when Hearts score. They push for another. WAFA’s response is to settle for a draw by play acting even more. It’s sad as they had shown some fine passing skills in the first half. Of course, it was typical academy football with drilled tactical moves of sideways passing that always end up back with the keeper with no heart or passion whatsoever. With five minutes to go and the Accra traffic ahead of us I can’t take any more of the atrocious and unsporting behaviour. I hope Hearts score five goals in the last five minutes. It’s time for us to go. In the car park I hear a loud jeer from the home fans for the end of the game and a draw that keeps them second in the table.
The traffic is just as ridiculous going back as it was when we came. It’s now Accra rush hour – another time misnomer as it’s like this all time. How can a city of nearly two and a half million people not have any public transport apart from intercity coaches and tro-tros. Coach chooses the coast road in an attempt to make some progress. For a few minutes I smell the ocean before I get a nose full of burning rubbish and a river of floating raw sewage. His short cut takes us through the narrow, clustered streets of Teshie, one of the oldest and poorest slums. It’s twilight as we move along slowly. Down each tiny side alley are masses of people just sitting around; mothers breast feed their babies, children play and old men sleep. Old women cook, sending the smell of burnt rice and beans into the night air to battle the humidity, sweat and effluent. It’s poor and as cramped as anything I have seen elsewhere. Yet I hear no calls of “Obroni”, just smiles or waves from those who notice the unusual occurrence of a white man passing by.
We follow the traffic through a few sets of red lights into the port area of Tema. It’s overloaded with people. In the dark the cranes continue to work, shifting multi-coloured containers to and fro. Lorries and fork lift trucks busy themselves around the shipyard. Where there are people there are market stalls, which encourages more people to mill around.
It takes over two and a half hours to get back to the academy just outside the capital. How does anybody live here? I am sick of it already. It’s Liverpool against Everton tonight and another hometown derby to be watched somewhere on the other side of the planet. The game has started so Coach drops me at the V Club. I pay my two cedis entrance fee and I find a seat to watch the big screen. I enjoy a routine four nil victory for us and it’s a good ending to another crazy day in Ghana.
© 2017 Pete Martin