Pete Martin is a traveller, author, journalist and coach. This is the ninth and last 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
It’s the highlight of my stay. On my last full day here, we travel to play the infamous WAFA … on grass!
After a two-hour journey we arrive in the small village where WAFA is located, just north of Sogakope on the River Volta. The tro tro with the boys is already here and Betty, the cook, has set up her kitchen under an awning. It’s ‘Tom Brown’ again for the players’ breakfast.
I join the boys, plus Coach, Baba and Stephen, who are already watching, sitting in the stands. The facility is impressive with a full size synthetic grass pitch and one grandstand along one side. There are more plastic training pitches behind one goal and various buildings on the other side of the pitch. WAFA’s under sixteen team plays another academy. The boys from the Angels are almost dumbstruck with the grass and the size of the academy. I can understand how they feel; the pure green surface and the cleanliness is alluring. I want to play myself!
The two officials from WAFA introduce themselves. An older, heavier man, Michael, is the general manager of the academy, responsible for its day to day operations. The younger man, Salif, is one of the coaches and as one of the assistants to the first team was actually on the bench for the game I watched at Accra Sports Stadium. Both are so open and welcoming. Salif talks freely about the number of white agents trying to take their boys and how wrong it is. He doesn’t mention the FIFA rules at all but just the social and cultural issues involved. Chris, the Angels academy owner, concurs with him and states his goal to stop any of the Angels going to Europe. He then says he would like to form a German Angels academy back home so he could get the boys to Europe. I am not sure he has thought this through at all and it’s the first time he has mentioned the plan to me. This is actually possible. To circumnavigate FIFA rules, prospective players are often funnelled through to Europe under the pretence of a better education. Ed Hawkins’ book “The Lost Boys” describes the movement of under eighteens from Ghana through charitable foundations “in the guise of improving the lives of the underprivileged”. Of course, the boys that move would not be able to sign for any professional club until they were eighteen and so the facilitators of these moves would take low salaries or payments for their work hoping for a larger pay off, usually a percentage of a future transfer, sometime later.
It’s time for the Angels to play. WAFA’s team are all the right size. I am amazed. It’s the first time I’ve witnessed this in Ghana. Usually Coach Kofi has to weed out the older kids. WAFA’s No. 4 is very tall but he has no weight and is built like a stick. I comment on this to the others and then I suggest to Coach and Chris that we shouldn’t play Kobby. The Angels should live by the same rules too. Chris ignores this, instructing both me and Anthony to remain in the stand whilst he goes to the dugouts with Coach Kofi and Baba. I ask Salif and Michael how old the No. 4 is. The two men confer. They are not sure. They think he has just turned thirteen. I can buy this. We have told them our boys are under thirteens.
The boys are warming up on the grass. It looks fantastic with lots of smiles between them. For most it is their first time playing on grass of any kind. I can see Chris standing proudly on the other side of the pitch. He is taking photographs of his team and I can see his joy that his team is here. Anthony tells me that in the dressing room he told the boys to dress well; socks up, no undershirts showing beneath their bright white shirts that must be tucked into their black shorts, to stand up straight and show off their Accra Angels logos on the front and back of their jerseys.
They practise only for a short time. They huddle in a group around Chris as Coach and Baba watch on. I wonder why they don’t practice for longer as they have never played on this surface before and it’s so different from the bobbly compacted sand they are used to.
The referee blows his whistle and calls the captains over. Despite my request, Kobby walks to the centre circle to represent the Angels. When I look at the rest of the team lining up, it’s the same boys again. Along with Kobby, there is Appiah, Joseph, Boateng and Kojo. I also notice Samuel in goal. He has been injured for two days so Jonah trained and played in practice yesterday instead of him. With the exception of Kojo, these are the bigger boys who lost to the smaller ones in the final of the last tournament. I don’t like it that we pick the same players over and over. With Kojo, it is Jonah, Luke, Luis and Collins that we rely on for all the chores, but they are never rewarded. I feel torn. I am so pleased for Chris getting his team to a place like this, but I wish we would be fair with all the boys and with our opposition.
For the first ten minutes WAFA are so good. The tall No. 4 scores a header but it’s the other players that shine. I am so impressed by them that I am a little afraid of the Angels being beaten very heavily. However, they need to play on a new surface against good players to test themselves, to learn and develop as well as seeing what level they really are at. Yet the Angels start to work themselves into the game, slowly getting used to the grass, but they are still nowhere near as good as WAFA. Kobby equalises for the Angels. The referee rules it out. Nobody knows why. The Angels look shocked, especially the coaches on the other side of the pitch. The referee restarts the game.
Anthony and I look at Salif. He explains that Kobby was offside. I tell him that the Angels don’t play with the offside rule as they are too young. On the other side, Chris walks on to the pitch and halts the game to talk to the ref. WAFA’s coach joins the conversation too. He then phones Salif, who immediately concedes that there will be no offsides.
The change seems to wake up the Angels. Perhaps they are a little aggrieved by the disallowed goal. Baba certainly is, screaming at the boys and the referee at every opportunity. Isaac pressures the tall No. 4 and the ball breaks to Appiah. After an exchange with Kobby, he drills a low shot into the goal. 1 – 1. WAFA just step up again. They miss chance after chance and I am very impressed. At half time it’s 2 – 1 to WAFA and both Anthony and I clap them off.
Chris, Coach and Baba have their team talk over on the other side from us. WAFA make a raft of changes. Salif explains they want all their players to get game time. There are a couple of changes for the Angels too but Kobby, Appiah, Joseph, Boateng and Kojo remain in place. With the substitutions, it’s a much closer game than the first half was. Boateng handles the ball and a penalty is awarded to WAFA. I can hear Baba yelling at the referee from the other side. He really is an embarrassment. Neither Coach Kofi nor the coaches from WAFA behave this way. Samuel saves the penalty and we all applaud him. Almost immediately a penalty is given to the Angels. Kobby, taller and stronger than any other player, wins it and then takes it himself. He puts it wide but then scores from open play a few minutes later by barging over one of the defenders. I remark to Anthony that I hope it stays a draw as a win for the Angels, who are now in the ascendancy, would paper over the cracks of the performance. We both wonder why there are no more changes and why the other players are not being brought on. He wanders over to the other side to Coach and Chris. One change is made before the end.
It’s Sebastian and Emmanuel that I feel for. They played so well two days ago. Collins too is ignored every time. Kwako and Nana too. Jonah thought he was playing as Samuel was injured. I feel for them so much. A lot has been made about coming here, to a real academy and playing on grass. After the final whistle, I cross the pitch and thank the referee and then shake hands with the opposition coaches. Chris, Coach and Baba are in consultation with each other. The unused substitutes, the ones who didn’t play, are kicking a ball around, feeling the pitch again. I say I am sorry to them, I really hoped that they would have played. Collins sits alone in the dugout. Coach notices me and comes over to put his arm around Sebastian and Emmanuel. I hear Chris explaining to Anthony that the offside goal was WAFA making sure they would win. Yet it was a draw, they didn’t win, and they immediately changed the rule for us when we asked.
I walk back across the pitch to get my phone and cap from the stand. It hits me hard how disgusted I feel that six players didn’t get to play. It’s always the same ones who miss out. I really don’t like it. These are ten, eleven, twelve-year-old boys. This is a squad and a team.
Whilst the teams change, Michael offers us a full tour of the facilities. The place still displays the red, white and black colours of Feyenoord all over it as well as Red Bull logos and kit. Hawkins suggests that such academies have given rise to charges of ‘neo-colonisation’ so I am a little wary of what I will see and with the ethics of its operation; yet Michael is surprisingly open. The facilities are clean and well organised; without the unrelenting heat up in this region it could almost be an academy in Europe. Salif even shows us his onsite apartment with its adjacent swimming pool. It’s quiet and peaceful too. When he is asked about funding Michael bemoans the fact that Feyenoord and Red Bull have departed, but that local sponsorship keeps the academy operational. Chris is deep in thought, envious of what has been created here, considering how he could emulate this. I wonder what the future will be for a place like this. The lack of real success stories regarding a throughput of players to succeed at higher levels resulted in the European heavyweights of Feyenoord and Red Bull withdrawing. The one thing missing in the academy is a school; the students instead attend a local government school. Yet, academies continue to be opened across Africa, mainly by former players and perhaps it’s their way of giving back to a sport that has made their lives more than comfortable. Clarence Seedorf, the much-travelled and highly successful Dutch player, is opening an academy in Ghana. Craig Bellamy, formerly of Liverpool and Celtic, is opening a not-for-profit academy in Sierra Leone focused on education rather than football. According to Hawkins he has invested £1.4million of his own money and the finding of any future football stars would be a bonus.
Once the boys have finished they are allowed to go to take photographs of the pitch and stadium they have just played in. Coach, Baba and Chris go with them. Jonah sits alone, holding back the tears. What can I say to him? Anthony sits with him. Collins too is alone and doesn’t join his teammates. I ask him if he wants to sit with me. He comes over. He mumbles to me that he really wanted to play. Coach had told him to sleep early to be ready. I put my arm around his shoulder. “Next time I am here and there is a grass pitch you will play. I promise.” He smiles at me. It’s all I can do and I’m glad I can help.
Back in Accra, I order a beer and, ignoring the tables and chairs, I sit on the edge of the patio close to the ocean. It’s magnificent and I feel so happy to have decided to be out of this madness. It’s my last night in Ghana. No more Angels for me. It’s not for me – the culture and values clash with mine, yet what an experience it has been. I really wish them all well, especially the junior team – Ishmael, little Kojo, Andre, Wilfred and the others. I will help Coach Kofi from afar in any way I can. Like my retreat at the Ayurveda camp, this has been a tough two weeks for me and, as with the retreat, now at the end of it I feel so good. Thank you, Ghana. What incredible people.
© 2017 Pete Martin