Pete Martin is a traveller, author, journalist and coach. This is the second 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
Today is a football tournament for the senior team – the ten to twelve-year olds. The lads and some of their kit have long been packed off into a hired tro tro. Ten minutes into our journey by car, it breaks down; the engine spluttering, not being able to cope with the sandy Harmattan wind. Chris and I get the ball out of the boot and we pass it to each other at the side of the road whilst Coach Kofi waits to flag down an in service tro tro.
We cram the equipment we had in the car – two large kit bags and two footballs – into the small bus and then we too squeeze into the already full vehicle. In front of me, a sleeping baby is strapped onto a woman’s back, completely oblivious to the strangeness of two white men and a plethora of football paraphernalia joining their crowded commute. It’s a one hour stop-start journey to Ashaiman, a large and very poor town on the outskirts of Accra. A bang on the roof or a loud shout signals that somebody needs to alight. When they do, it means we all shuffle out and then climb back in once the departing passenger has gone.
Coach has phoned ahead and a couple of the boys are waiting for us at the bus terminal in Ashaimon, which also serves as the centre of the market. It’s colourful mania. Tro tros and small freight vans fight for the minimal road space. The market pours randomly into the road and there are people everywhere. The chubby Ghanaian women wear vibrantly coloured and flowing dresses. Both men and women carry goods on their heads either heading in or out of the stalls. The three of us, particularly Chris who is tall and blond, receive strange looks, especially as we wear our Accra Angels football academy T-shirts. Coach Kofi and a number of the boys hail from the nearby slums. Two boys pick up one of the heavy kit bags, each boy holding a handle each. I follow them through the market. I hope that these boys are the ones from here as I have no clue where they are going. There are no street names and every stall looks the same. Away from the main road the streets are compacted sand, but this does not stop the irregular flow of the traffic, especially from the beaten up black and yellow taxis.
We make a turn through a knocked down wall and past some derelict empty buildings into the football ground. The black lines of a square pitch have been burned into the uneven hard sand. Litter is piled up against the high wall at one touchline and the debris encroaches the pitch at end either end. The groundsman has artistically scrawled “Leeds United” across one penalty box. I follow the boys across the pitch to some low-rise buildings beyond the other touchline. One of the buildings, the one behind the goal, has its corrugated iron roof half torn away, yet it is full of adult spectators hiding from the heat as they wait to watch kids’ football. We congregate in the shade of a building. Young street kids have followed us here from the market. Players and coaches, who have been waiting for our arrival, are slumped on the ground wondering when they will play. Yet nobody complains.
Inside the room next us, there is a Sunday school class in session. The building opposite has a sign declaring it “The Church of Faithfulness’s Government School” and I can hear drumming and singing coming out of the unglazed windows. A couple of women wash pots and pans in buckets on the steps of the church. In the midst of this madness, the Accra Angels change into their playing kit whilst Coach and Chris organise the tournament.
Coach, as much as he can, filters out the over age players from the opposition and lines all the teams up. He introduces Chris and explains that they are looking for players to come to the academy. There are gasps and loud cheers from the players and from the punters too. There must be at least two hundred people who have come to watch.
The senior Angels are split into two teams. It’s an easy first game for the first team and Kobby, the tall centre forward, scores all three goals. As I watch, the boys, the opposition and the watching kids constantly touch me. I thought it was mosquitos or flies at first but they all want to touch the weird white skin of the obroni – the white man. Joseph, the young, skilful midfielder, playfully pulls at the hairs on my leg too when he sits next to me. The second team then play and also win, but not as comfortably.
In the middle of the third game between two of the invited teams, a local coach invites Chris and I to sit on plastic chairs in the shade of the overhanging roof to one of the buildings. The small veranda is packed as it’s the only place away from the burning heat. None of the players in this game impress me but a couple in the next game do. The Angels first team now play again. They find it much tougher. I go to make a comment to Chris but Baba, the local coach, tells me he has gone with Coach to buy an ice cream.
In the game, Kobby is fouled and gesticulates wildly to the referee. The referee calls him over, but as soon as the ref’s back is turned, Kobby elbows the opposition player violently in the chest. I stand up in shock. If this was my team I would substitute him immediately. I look to Chris who has wandered back. He didn’t see as he was eating his ice cream. He isn’t bothered about it. Baba thinks it’s ok because he was fouled and therefore it was justified. I am stunned. This is not ok. This is totally unacceptable. If a boy does this at ten (or fourteen or whatever age Kobby actually is), what will he do when he is eighteen or older? It is easy to score three against smaller teams but it’s much harder to be disciplined against tougher opponents. I am struggling to watch. I want to leave. I hate professionals doing this and we have ten-year olds doing it now. I ignore the rest of the game.
When I focus again on the football, I watch Joseph have a second incredible game. He is the pick of the bunch in the Angels team. At half time, I stand to stretch and Kobby and a couple of the first team players are behind me watching too. I shake my finger at him and tell him that the first game was good but the second was unacceptable. I don’t say any more than that as I’m not sure it’s my place.
After the next game, Kobby is standing behind me again. Shyly he wants to know what I meant. Ok, if nobody else cares enough then I will explain. I tell him that his behaviour was totally wrong. He listens quietly and obediently. I ask if he understands why. Sheepishly, he says he does. I ask if he knows how a captain should play and he nods again. I tell him that he is an example for Boateng, captain of the second team, and David, captain of the juniors; they both look up to him. If the captain is in trouble, the referee has nowhere else to go. I add that he has enough skill, so he doesn’t need to become involved in ‘off the ball’ incidents; although to be honest I haven’t actually seen any talent from him yet, just height and muscle, towering over the other boys. If he concentrates on fighting, he will fight. If he concentrates on football, he will play football. I smile and tell him to play with a smile; to relax and to enjoy it.
I watch the end of the tournament, but my heart isn’t in it. With Chris, Coach and Baba we choose an all-star team to play against the Angels. The first half is poor but then the first Angels team is swapped out for the second team and the all-stars have to step up against fresh players, making it a more enjoyable second half. Without conferring, Chris makes the selections for trials at the academy. He chooses one boy for the seniors. I didn’t notice him at all. Then he picks four more who actually qualify for the junior team. I am confused. When I look at my notes, I have the same four marked, just in the opposite order of selection. These boys have swapped jerseys to play for the all-stars and have no numbers, so I am identifying them by their shorts, socks and boot colour combinations. The chosen ones are delighted and are hugged by their teammates and many of the fans. I help to get their names. I ask each for a date of birth but none of the five knows.
We traipse back through the market in the heat to the bus terminal and hire an empty tro tro to take us home to the academy headquarters. Chris and I squeeze into the front whilst everybody else crams into the back. I joke that we have found our team bus. I also notice that the vehicle’s controls don’t work. The speedometer and fuel gauge sit at zero and empty respectively. I comment to the driver that I’d like a vehicle that runs on empty too. I get absolutely no response until Coach explains that the driver speaks no English, only Twi.
Despite being appalled by Kobby’s behaviour, it’s been a good day. It’s noticeable when we are back that Kobby, Appiah and Adam – the older lads – keep to themselves. Some of the others join Chris to make a racket of noise on bongos and shakers. It’s as if the market and tournament weren’t crazy enough for them. At times Chris seems to get his energy from the boys, whilst I am tired, sandy and sweaty and am happy to sit and watch them play. The joy is infectious though. There are smiles and laughter to go with the drumming, dancing and singing. It strikes me again that they don’t they play football at all like this. Joseph, who was so serious before the game, is dancing to the percussive music with such a carefree attitude and a big, beaming smile. Luis is incredible on the bongos. He sits abreast two huge drums, beating out mystic and infectious rhythms. Sometimes I just love watching life.
It’s time for showers before dinner and so the music ends. Once they have settled, to their delight, they are given a toy giraffe and a notebook each and then they are excited again when it’s film night. When I see them like this it’s so easy to see them as children, yet I don’t see it when they play football.
We eat banku, which is fermented corn, with pepper sauce that has small pieces of fish in it. It’s very spicy and very popular here. A few boys tell me that it’s their favourite dish. I eat it with my hands, rolling the paste into the sauce, as they do. Chris, it seems, is still high from the day’s events. He wants to give out new training shoes for all the boys that have been donated from kind benefactors in Europe. I throw him a word of caution; we’ve had a big tournament, music for two hours, then they have cooked themselves as Betty, the cook, is not here on a Sunday and then on top of that there is the promise of film night. Sometimes he is like a benevolent uncle at Christmas, having fun until he is bored and then handing the kids back to the parents. I guess it’s his academy and he can do whatever he wants. None of this would be here without him.
Chris takes them inside the house and sets up a projector in the hall. The boys gather on the hard floor. He then puts on “Despicable Me”. I sit outside, as it’s so hot inside, and I hear the boys chuckling at the movie. It hits me again that they really are kids. So why do they play football like hard-nosed adults? They do not play with youthful abandon, chasing and running, but with a detached seriousness and with ‘off the ball’ pushing and shoving. Why is this? Is this Ghanaian football, is this from their training or is getting into the academy so crucial that they must win at all costs?
While the others are inside, I chat to Coach about Kobby. He tells me this has happened before. Chris listens to us, but for him, it’s the boys’ attitude that he doesn’t like. When I question what he means, he wonders whether they really have enough pride in being here and then, once they are here, they become lazy. He thinks they don’t run enough. For me, it is the fun that is lacking. Football at ten or twelve years old is fun. In fact, it should be at any age. I concede that winning is good too, but it would be better for the boys to try out new ideas, to improve their playing ability, rather than win at all costs. Nobody is keeping the score of these games. We discuss the need to win, having the right attitude, which seems to be defined as running from the heart, versus having fun. I am not sure that the others have the same view as me. I know what I would choose.
My thoughts wander to Marco Tardelli’s famous goal celebration in the World Cup final of 1982, when he ran the length of the pitch reportedly screaming “Tardelli, Tardelli” in ecstasy as he accomplished his childhood dream. Steven Gerrard after his last-minute equaliser in the FA Cup Final in 2006, now known as the Gerrard Final because of his exploits, was so taken with his achievement that he uncharacteristically ignored his teammates and showed the world his name printed on the back of his shirt. Is football fun or do these moments of sheer delight solely demonstrate the release of pent up pressure? Maybe it is for professionals, but these are ten-year-old boys. The joy they have playing header-tennis or when making their music does not translate to when they are on the pitch. I find this sad.
I walk back to my hotel rooms in the dark. I use the light on my iPhone to avoid the litter and the potholes. The gate is locked, so I call the security guard to come and open it. It’s only ten o’clock but he’s not happy. He asks why I am so late. I wonder how many times he has had a white man trying to break in.
© 2017 Pete Martin