Pete Martin is a traveller, author, journalist and coach. This is the fourth 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 my last day in Ghana for this trip. It’s gone so quickly. What a country this is. Like so many places I’ve been to – such as India, Japan and Jordan – it’s so different yet so similar. I need to see more of it.
I walk to the academy for half past eight in the blazing heat. The senior team are ready for action in their new kit with their names on the back. I keep calling this team the senior team and the youngsters the junior team. Yet most of the seniors are (supposedly) ten, only turning eleven this year, so they would still be in junior school back home. This makes it even more bizarre how seriously they play; pushing and shoving and talking of pressing and counter pressing. To think, one or two of them write like kids in infant school. Chris, the academy owner, calls the juniors the second team, but then when the seniors are split, confusingly Coach calls them the first and second teams. Football terminology can be so stupid. The latest common phrase of “winning the second ball” always amuses me, as I’ve never seen a game with more than one ball in play.
The juniors are not ready, some wandering around half dressed and a few still very sleepy after film night. There is no sign of Coach, so I begin the process of checking who has boots and socks. Little Kojo’s boots have a large hole in them. Two of the new players, Yaw and Mohamed, who arrived too late to join in yesterday, have arrived with no boots. I take them to try new ones. The whole team follows. I send them back out of the storeroom. I find boots for all three and tell Kojo to put his old ones in the bin. He is almost in tears when I say this. I fathom from him that his football coach at home wants him to train in the old boots. I suggest he takes the new ones home with him but he insists that his coach will beat him if he doesn’t take the old ones. Once the youngsters are sorted, Chris comes back from his office under the mango tree. With help from Baba (another local coach), he gives out brand new training shoes to the senior team. I sit with the younger ones to watch. I try to explain, in my own way, what it means to be here in the academy.
Coach is now back to lead the team circle for a song and a prayer. I place the young ones next to their appropriate senior player: the captains David and Kobby together, Ishmael with Joseph – both strong midfielders, dribblers Andre and Appiah link up, the tall, lanky forwards Adjymang and Adam are a pair as are Little Kojo and Big Kojo. Coach asks Little Kojo to say the Lord’s Prayer and he does so quietly. Afterwards, he looks very emotional. He asks me to help him with his small bag. I close it, yet he is still upset. I don’t know why so I call Coach over. He finds out that Kojo has lost his money; 1.80 cedis (£0.36). By this time most of the boys have been squeezed into a tro tro and so Coach pulls everyone out as his immediate inference is that somebody has stolen Kojo’s money. It seems that this has happened before. Coach is clear that if it happens again, the culprit will be banned from the academy. I like his attitude, but I wonder how the boys will react to this when they have been given so much gear for free from Chris over the last week. I ask Jonah, who is always willing to help, to speak with Kojo again. The two boys find the cash deep in his bag. Kojo is visibly relieved. Both Coach and I hug him and reassure him that it was ok. I also thank Jonah.
As always, we set off much later than planned. We pick up the last of the new players, Kwado, in Ashaimon. Coach has not been able to get full permission for him to join us. His house has a dirty metal frontage on a main road. A small, thick iron door leads to a courtyard behind. An open sewer runs between the street and the door. His mother is a shy but strongly built young woman and makes us wait in the street. An older man comes from the house. He is Kwado’s uncle. Neither of them will release Kwado to the academy until his grandfather meets Coach and Chris. Kwado is allowed to play in the tournament as long as he is brought back home this evening. In the car, he is all smiles and excited to play.
It’s after midday when we reach the ground that Coach and I went to yesterday. Chris is appalled by the rubbish tip at the entrance. I point out the “No Dumping” signs. Men and women scrounge in the debris searching for anything of value. At the pitch, the desolation from yesterday has been replaced with chaos. There are so many people, as many adults to watch as boys who will play. A few junkies remain under the wall beyond the pitch. True to their promises, the pitch has been marked and a canopy and plastic chairs provided for us.
We now have enough junior players to make two teams. Chris will manage one and I will manage the other. There are also eight other teams here to play, although by the time Coach has weeded out the players who are too old, there are only six. Coach has such a tough job, staying strong whilst the coaches of the other teams remonstrate. Some have travelled for a couple of hours to be told they cannot play.
Chris is not ready, so my team plays first. David, the captain of the junior team, will play in Chris’ team. Michael was substituted a lot and left out in the previous games so we could see the new players and he has not been invited to stay at the academy yet, so I announce him as captain. He is tall anyway but now stands up straight, full of pride. David sportingly wraps the armband around his arm. It’s a nice touch from the squad captain. The match is tough, nevertheless the team manage a hard earned one nil win.
The next game is nothing special compared with the other tournaments we’ve seen. Chris is now ready with his team and they cruise to an easy five nil win against poor opposition. It’s so hot again today with a wind that makes it hard to catch my breath. Some rapscallions set alight a patch of thick debris behind the canopy and the ghastly smell of burning waste with its dark smoke wafts across the pitch. The senior team are here to show support to the young ones and Joseph sits next to me as I watch. Quietly he says that he will miss me when I leave tomorrow. I am quite moved but then I see he is wearing Chris’ orange sunglasses and his hat, hilariously pretending to be him.
For my team’s next game, I notice Ishmael wears the captain’s armband. I check with Coach, but there had been no instruction from him to change the captaincy. I substitute Ishmael at half time and give Michael the armband back. I tell Ishmael that he is dropped for next game. It’s tough as he’s our best player.
The warm wind is now blowing strongly and it forces sand across the pitch like dry ice at the start of a rock concert. The new kids on Chris’ team play very well, particularly Mohamed and also Kwado. The other new boy, another Andre, does well on my team too, so we are happy with our recruits. Only Salif is playing badly today, but he tries so much that I cannot help but admire his attitude. As with the senior team, there is very little enjoyment as the boys play. Baba screams at them from the side of the pitch emulating the opposition coaches. The spectators are lined up on the goal line and the far touchline, even though Coach keeps asking them to move back. A lone horse wanders across the field too.
Once all the games are finished, we pick an all-star team to play the Angels. It’s quite difficult today. My team will play the first half and Chris’ the second. I tell Ishmael he won’t start, but I will bring him on as a sub. I want him to understand but also not to be punished too much. The Angels win both halves. The No. 2 for the all-stars plays extremely well and we agree to pick him for a trial. The whole crowd surround us as we select him. His name is Francis and he seems absolutely scared to death.
Coach organises the senior team into the tro tro plus David and the other four from the juniors who will now live at the academy. Some of the others know how they will travel home and some don’t, yet it seems nobody is worried. Other teams’ coaches are willing to help with the travel arrangements. Coach pays the various bribes and backhanders for the pitch and the facilities, yet still I am frequently asked for more money. Sensibly, Chris waits in the car away from the lackies and hustlers.
Back at the academy, Baba wants to address the boys as their new coach. Chris also wants to speak. Coach and I are concerned as there is a tournament for the older ones tomorrow and he also will take me to the airport at half past six in the morning. In lots of ways I’m ready to go. The endless time wasting is so frustrating that I am getting close to exploding, not to mention the seriousness of the football. It’s been building up. I’ve dealt with it well so far but now it is starting to get to me.
Later, Ishmael comes out to sit with me. “Pete, my friend,” he says. All of today’s troubles are gone. He has a beaming smile and cheeky attitude that I like. We play a game with our thumbs that he has taught me. I lose. Wilfred comes out too. He spots the Sprites and Cokes that Chris has bought for everyone. When I confirm it’s for them, Wilfred jumps up and hugs me.
Once we have all finished eating I decide to give away my spare Liverpool FC wallet. It’s late and somehow I need to bring the evening to a close. I play heads and tails with the boys to find a winner. Only at the last minute do I let the little ones play too. I thought it may be a little late for them. It’s so much fun, but I have to ask Baba and Coach to help me stop the boys from cheating. Finally, they get the hang of it and after each round the ones left in receive a cheer from their teammates. The last two left standing are Salif and Ishmael, both from my junior team. I bring them to the front. Incredibly, after the up and down day with him, Ishmael wins. I lift him on to the chair at the head of the table. Coach gives him the wallet and, with a proud smile, Ishmael holds it above his head, just like the wining captain holding up the Champions League trophy.
It’s time to clean up and get the young ones to bed whilst the older ones finish their chores. I receive a hug from most of them as they go on their way, even big, strong Kobby. Of course, the older, sulky ones do not come over. I sit outside quietly and take in the night air. Chris is somewhere else, in his room probably. There is a slight breeze. It’s the first respite from the piercing heat today. I am tired too. Ishmael sneaks back out. We play the thumbs game again. He wins again. We bang knuckles together and then bring them to our hearts as Ghanaians do; “Pete, my friend.”
It is time to go. I go to find Chris. Chris and I hug a goodbye. Some of the boys jump on us. I tell them this is how they should celebrate a goal. Suddenly they all jump on us shouting, “Goal!” What a gang!
It’s after eleven o’clock, so Coach will drive me the short distance to the hotel. I walk toward the car with Chris. We turn around and look at the house. We are both emotional. I ask him to take a moment and enjoy what he has created. He may say it God’s work, but what he has done in the toughest of places is astounding. God bless him.
© 2017 Pete Martin