Pete Martin is a traveller, author, journalist and coach. This is the eighth 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
Another European has joined us at the football academy in Ghana. Anthony, whilst born in Germany, is of Ghanaian descent and is here to find out about his culture and to give something back to the land of his father. My pick-up is scheduled for half past eleven but, of course, Coach Kofi arrives an hour late. I then wait at the house for almost another hour, whilst nineteen boys, two men (Baba and Stephen, the coaches), one woman (Betty the cook), enough football kit for a tournament and training, plus camping cooking equipment, including pots, pans and plates, are loaded into a blue tro tro. Stuff bulges out of the back door, which is held half closed by a piece of orange string. Rucksacks are tied to the roof in the same manner. It feels spacious in the car with just four adults – Coach driving, Chris (the academy owner) in the front with Anthony and me in the back.
Anthony is tickled with Ghana as we head north to Akuse, on the shores of Lake Volta. This is his maiden outing and his first experience of the potholed roads, of the insane driving, of the women selling food from their heads at every junction, road block and toll booth, as well as the goats and stray children wandering across the main road. He laughs out loud at the tarmac road stopping abruptly giving way to a bumpy carriageway of sand and at the strange coffins at the side of the road. He is awestruck, just as I must have been on my first visit. I am almost used to it now. A gigantic lorry overtakes us creating a storm of sand from the road surface that means we have to close all the windows quickly.
In Akuse, Abedi, the local football fixer who Coach and I met last week, directs us and the tro tro to the boys’ accommodation for the next few nights. It’s a derelict house. In the UK it would be boarded up and fenced off, unfit for habitation. Here it’s a five star hotel for the senior team on their first ever camping trip – a real boys’ own adventure. They could not be happier with their home from home. Once they have found sockets to plug their phones into, they jump on the three dusty mattresses, which apart from an old fridge, are the only pieces of furniture inside the building. There is one toilet that barely works plus an outside tap. As is the norm here, the cooking equipment is set up outside.
We leave the boys under the supervision of Baba and Betty whilst Abedi shows us to the recommended accommodation for us. Without any instruction that I am aware of, it seems that the Europeans will be in a hotel. On the south bank of the Volta River our rooms are inside a two-storey concrete building that is painted bright blue. With its stunning location, this could be paradise too but it’s not. My room is bare, except for a lumpy bed, a rickety table (that has no chair with it), a noisy fridge and a small television that has a cracked screen. The walls are filthy and the air-conditioning that Abedi has raved about on the short drive here doesn’t work. We have to ask the owner for towels and toilet paper.
I join Coach and Abedi on another ‘recce’; this time to inspect the pitch for tomorrow’s tournament and to get water for the participants. It’s by far the best sand pitch that I have seen in Ghana so far. It’s full size but totally flat, none of the usual bumps or hollows and no litter lining the touchlines. Coach has to argue to reduce the size of the pitch as well as the enormous goals. Abedi doesn’t want to do it as it means new goalposts will have to be sought overnight. He explains that all the teams will play only ‘pass and move’, but it’s way too big for under twelves’ football. He finally relents when I intercede. We visit the local carpenter in order to arrange for him to craft two smaller sets of goalposts for us and then, with the help of two local boys, we carry a hundred or so tiny bags of water from a store to the car and then to a storeroom in the school next to the pitch.
At five we are all bored, so Chris decides we should all go swimming in Lake Volta. I don’t even know if it is possible. Coach sends one of the boys to find Abedi. Coach and Abedi confer quietly. I decipher that it’s a three kilometre walk away. If we leave now, even though the boys are not ready, it will be forty-five minutes there and with an immediate return then forty-five minutes back, so we may just do it before dark. It’s a stupid plan but I can’t sit doing nothing any longer. I have no book, no iPhone, nothing at all with me, just a few cedis. A combination of more faffing about before our departure and getting lost a few times on the way, means that it’s almost dark by the time we make it to the river. The riverside location at our hotel is picturesque, with a lining of green palm trees at the water’s edge. Here, in the dusk, we have the monolithic concrete view of the Akuse Dam, stony sand and a sty of horrendously stinking pigs. A few worn-out wooden canoes have been left abandoned. Abedi suggests that the current is too strong for swimming – so why did we come here? – and furthermore there are crocodiles in the river. And the pigs really are atrociously smelly.
We head back after a wasted journey in the dark. There are no street lights either, making it very difficult to see, never mind remember the way back. Anthony is being bitten by mosquitos. Kwesi gives him his towel, which he didn’t need as nobody swam, so he can cover his legs. I walk with a bunch of boys at the front. Luke laughs with me every time I am called ‘obroni’ by the locals. I just wave back smiling. Caringly and very maturely for his age he asks if it’s ok for me. I say that of course it is. However, it makes me wonder. Even said by kids I have never felt any anger or resentment when I hear it. It’s the same with the term ‘white man’. Here in Ghana it’s mostly said in harmless jest and accompanied with beaming toothy smiles. The only exception I recall is when a much older man, perhaps a chief, respectfully spoke to me at the V Club, “White man, welcome.” I wonder whether the boys know what is waiting for them in Europe and the level of racist abuse they will likely receive. Anthony has already shocked me with his experiences from playing in the lower leagues of Austria.
On the town’s main road, we come across Baba sitting on a wooden bench in front of a television perched on a rickety table in front of a shop. He has his seat ready for tonight’s football – Champions League. This is ‘public viewing’ the Ghanaian way. I buy some Cokes and Fantas for me, Anthony, Baba and the four boys with us from a bar opposite and we join Baba. The doors of the small stall to the left of the television are open. Inside two Muslim men are praying. In the store to the right, single cigarettes are being sold. Anthony borrows some money for a cigarette. He’s gone a few days without and says he would like just one to enjoy the moment here. I like it; good on him.
It’s been another day mostly full of nothing. Thankfully there is a tournament tomorrow, on Friday nothing, on Saturday a match and then I can escape from all of this. I really am finding the boredom hard to cope with. With a little bit of upfront planning this could be so good. Yet I am judging again. It is not my academy and it is not my country; I try to surrender and try to stay positive.
I haven’t slept. The heat in the room is incessant. I have paid an extra ten cedis per night for air-con that doesn’t work. The fan is so loud that I alternated between sweating in peace or being cool but deafened by the whirring motor.
Finally, there is some football today. The pitch is excellent. Abedi has done a fine job as white lines delineate a smaller, appropriately sized pitch. Obliviously school is underway in the buildings alongside the sand park. Teams wait patiently on the concrete outside the classrooms. Abedi tells me that some have been here waiting for two hours already. It’s busy too, with many locals here to watch the tournament. There are no goals yet but Abedi says they are being carried here from the village.
Chris is ready and the teams have to cross to his side of the pitch to line up for him. A canopy has been set up for the ‘officials’ to sit under on plastic chairs. It will be good protection from the sun too. There are only eight teams, not ten as Abedi had suggested. Chris wants to throw out a full team because of their size. It’s supposed to be under twelves and some of them are obviously at least sixteen. Coach and I suggest to him that eight teams are better than seven for a tournament and that the giants actually have enough smaller boys to make a team. Chris wants their goalkeeper thrown even though they have no reserve. In my mind if we can have Kobby, our giant of disputable age, they can have an older goalkeeper.
The coaches then concoct the strangest, longest and most convoluted draw to see who plays who. There are eight teams, so why don’t we just have a knock-out? It’s not my decision, so I leave them to it. I sit under the canopy and wait. Using bits of paper, Chris, Stephen and Baba draw lots with the coaches of each team to be able to allocate the eight teams into two groups. Then there is another similar exercise for the order of play. Chris has the schedule of games worked out on his note pad.
The Accra Angels are split into two teams as usual. The first team of seniors comprises the bigger boys, those that are always chosen: Kobby, Appiah, Joseph (although he’s not that big, he’s just very good) and Samuel in goal. Today they also have the size and strength of Boateng and Luke plus Sebastian, Nana and Isaac. The second team comprises the smaller ones: Kojo, Jordan, Luis, Kwako, Emmanuel, Alexander, Kwesi, Adam and Jonah in goal. Collins is a substitute as always.
Abedi’s helpers are still faffing with the goal nets when the Angels second team kicks off the first game. The goals are actually too small for the size of the pitch. Abedi, you very nearly pulled it off, but not quite. Anthony speaks to the first team, the big ones, as they wait to play, “If we foul someone, then you pick them up. It’s a game, show respect.” Wow, I like it, thank you, Anthony.
The second team are very good, picking up the same level of good performance that I saw during the “third half” of the game in Accra last week. Adam misses chance after chance and so undeservedly they are beaten by one goal to nil. They walk off the pitch dejected. Anthony and I shake our heads. Both of us tell them how good they were but it makes no difference to them.
The first team play next. They tower over their opponents and win easily 2 - 0. Samuel, the Angels’ goalkeeper, cuts his leg, a deep gash on his thigh from diving on the ground. Anthony, not Chris, Coach, Baba or Stephen, assists him with clean water to get the gravel out and clean the wound. It means Jonah will likely have to play for both teams now.
The next five games are all nil - nil. The size of the goals makes it difficult for anyone to score. The standard of play is not very good either, including the big team that was allowed in. They are the worst team by far. I suppose if they were any good they would play at the right age level. The last game of the sequence includes the second team again. Goals arrive only when the big Angels team plays again and record another easy win. They score very good goals but it’s not a level playing field (pardon the pun).
Dark, ominous clouds are overhead and the wind is now very strong. I have not experienced any weather in Ghana that is not blazing heat. I ask Abedi if it will rain. He gives me a perplexed look, walks from under the canopy, stares at the sky then looks at me as if I am stupid and shakes his head. Ok, it looks like it will to me. I suddenly realise it’s those tenses again. He means it’s not raining now, which, of course, I can see for myself. The future is the future; if it rains, it rains. There is nothing he can do about the weather; it is, therefore, not important to him. I smile to myself. It’s a good way to be.
For the next game, which involves the second team, the wind is howling. I’m almost certain there will be some kind of storm. Abedi instructs two young boys to hold the metal poles of the canopy to stop it blowing away. Sand is blowing across the pitch, litter, always black plastic bags, swirls around. The football carries on, even though it’s impossible for any sensible game to take place. Samuel is actually playing this game despite his injury but I can hardly see him in the far goal. It ends with another goalless draw. Adam is awful again. After missing so many chances, he has almost given up.
As the first team plays the wind turns to torrential rain, an absolute downpour. Anthony and I race with Baba and the boys to the safety of the classrooms. We’re wet but protected from the worst of it now. The rain lashes down and I joke with the boys that this is English weather, perfect for football. I realise Chris is not here. Where is he? Anthony and I look across the pitch where he remains in his chair under the canopy. The boys holding it up take a battering of wind and rain to keep him dry. Coach stands behind him like a bodyguard. The car has been driven closer to the canopy in case he wants to leave.
After twenty-five minutes the storm abates and play can resume. The pitch is now a mud bath. Back under the canopy, I’ve lost track of who is playing who. There seem to be so many games. Anthony asks Chris for the note pad, but neither of us can make any sense of the schedule. It looks like there are ten teams playing. Chris confirms that there are. Two groups of five, each playing each other. Anthony asks if he should work out the tables to make a quarter final or a semi-final draw. Chris says he has it all under control and not to bother. He wants one of us to find Coach as he is hungry.
Even I am becoming bored. The standard is so poor and I’ve seen four hours of this already. Thankfully there is a decision to go straight to semi-finals and I agree with them. They decide on one with the Angels second team against Abedi’s team and then the Angels first team against the best of the other teams.
The first game ends nil nil. Adam again misses the chances the others create for him. That’s four goalless draws for the second team in a row after their opening defeat. Baba and Abedi agree on three penalties each to decide the game. Jonah is back in goal as Samuel worsened his injury playing the last game. He saves two penalties. The Angels score all three of theirs. I am so pleased for them. They have played so well and are in the final despite not scoring a goal in normal play.
The first team players are given their strongest test so far. It’s a very tough game that also ends nil nil. The boys are shocked that these smaller kids have played so well against them. It’s a penalty shoot-out again. Jonah saves another penalty and they also miss one. The Angels are successful with all theirs. After all the misses against the coaches’ team, they have scored every single one this time, so we have an Angels against Angels final.
It’s so easy to decide which team I want to win. I ask who will be the coach of each team. Coach Kofi immediately takes the smaller second team and Baba goes toward the bigger first team. Perfect, now I want the second team to win even more.
A goalkeeper has to be borrowed from another team as Samuel still can’t play with the cut to his leg. At kick-off I’m amused as Kobby towers over Kojo and Jordan. I am a bit apprehensive as the big team start well. The second team sit off them, almost in awe, but they slowly begin to get into the game. Emmanuel starts to dominate against Joseph in midfield. Appiah disappears as his buddy Joseph can’t make him look good. By half time the second team are far better. A few minutes into the second half it looks as if the ball goes out for a corner but the referee waves play on. Kwesi crosses dangerously but Boateng clears it. It’s then possibly a foul too as tiny Collins challenges the sturdy Luke but the referee waves play on. Suddenly Adam is through on goal and Boateng is nowhere near him. Having missed every chance he’s had all day, this time he chips it neatly over the substitute goalkeeper and into the net. The second team are winning and I cheer. I am so pleased. It’s only in the last few minutes that I am worried there may be an equaliser but I needn’t have been. I can’t hide my joy at the final whistle. Coach and Anthony are clapping too.
I can’t help myself. Skill over strength. This is why I love football so much.
Chris comments, “The second team always beats the first team.” He seems dejected somehow. Maybe he’s bored. And if they always win, why are they called the second team?
I shake hands with the referee; great decisions even though they were probably incorrect. The smaller boys almost look embarrassed they have won. I high-five them all. Only Adam has a beaming smile. It’s the first time I have seen him happy as he is usually sulking.
Showered and refreshed at the hotel, Anthony and I wait for Chris. Anthony has ordered a beer and the hotel owner has brought out a plastic table and chairs for us to sit at. It’s just the beginning of sunset, which gives an orange tint to our vista of palm trees, river and sky. Chris joins us. Anthony looks so happy. He seems to have a tear in his eye. I ask him if he is ok. He is emotional. “I didn’t think Ghana would be so good. It’s everything I have dreamed of and everything my father told me it would be. I feel at home.” It is a special moment for him and I am so pleased. I order a couple more celebratory beers. The stars in the sky are incredibly bright. I don’t think I’ve seen so many so clearly before. I wish Anthony a good night and leave him alone with the stars and with his wonderment for his newly discovered home country.
© 2017 Pete Martin