May 28



New African
July 2006 edition

We were just simply magnificent!
A moment of sublime greatness for Ghana football – Czech Republic 0, Ghana 2. It was a sweet, sweet victory –
it showed us the true meaning of a joy that is perfect in every respect; a victory made sweeter by the faith
it had regenerated in us, in our Black Stars

There are certain moments in our lives that define us not as we normally are, but what we hope we could be. In ordinary life, we may be rich or poor; we may be healthy or unwell; strong or weak. But in our imagination, we can be anything we like.

On Saturday 17 June 2006, the “sleep-dreams” and the day-dreams of every Ghanaian converged into a new reality in a World Cup game in Germany. The message we got that day was that, “We are Ghanaians. We know we are great. And now, we have proved to the whole world that the feeling we’ve always harboured that we are indeed great, is not an illusion at all, or a product of mere self-deception, but based on reality”.

YES! A 2-0 win over the Czech Republic, the nation that went into the World Cup ranked behind Brazil as Number Two in the entire world of football, by FIFA!

But the victory was not the only point we made. What blew our minds was that our boys actually wiped the floor with this ‘World Number Two’ footballing nation called the Czech Republic. We could have scored six or eight goals against them. But the score itself mattered little.

The thing that struck everyone who had eyes to see was that the Black Stars were back to their winning ways – back to the standard that won the African Nations Cup for us four times; that enabled us to draw 3-3 with Real Madrid of Spain 40 years ago; beat Blackpool of England 3-0; draw 1-1 with Argentina (summer Olympics 1964) and beat Japan 3-1 (summer Olympics 1964).
Those were the sort of matches that built the comfortable beds upon which every Ghanaian of a certain age group could lie down and dream. But instead of playing the attack-attack-attack form of football that gave us our reputation, and which springs out of our natural rhythm of play, we have often been held back by the necessities of so-called “tactics”, the exigencies of so-called “total football” as played — and more important, taught to us — by Europeans.

Just when European football was dying, presenting the spectre of dreadful, cynical drudgery-on-the-pitch against the samba-carnival football of players called Pele, Jairzinho, Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Romario and-and-and-samba-samba-samba! — European football, dominated by commercial considerations that ruled coaches who had been trained to be more often interested in not losing a match, than in playing football for people to enjoy — we were provided with European coaches to iron out our so-called “naiveté”.

They came to kill our knack! Stone dead.

They made us bury that free spirit of ours with which we delighted football lovers. Our youngsters (the Under-17s) not yet spoilt by the need to impress European recruiters, and trained by our allegedly “inferior” Ghanaian coaches, would go out and bring us the Under-17 World Cup (twice).

But as they grew up and got selected into the Black Stars team — wonder of wonders — they were made to sacrifice or dissipate the skills that had won them the Under-17 championship twice! Their coaches assiduously worked at taking that spirit out of them, and claimed that they teaching them “discipline”. They dared not shoot at goal “by heart”, in case they failed to score. Pass, pass, pass! They by-passed scoring chances, because they dared not believe they were goal-scoring geniuses. We watched, and we cried silently in our hearts. We dared not make a sound, lest we were thought to be ungrateful defeatists.

Well, on Saturday 17 June 2006, something cracked amongst our boys. Self-belief clicked our spirits back to life, and it all came together again for us.

It hadn’t been easy going before the match began. The formidable reputation of the Czech Republic; the fact that Italy had torn our hopes into shreds a few days earlier; the fear that our coach would once again order our boys to play a defensive game that was unnatural to them and so made them fail to enjoy football – all these had lowered our expectations.

Watching the match on TV in London was even more frustrating than the gloomy thoughts that were flooding our minds. It was ITV that was showing it, and, of course, the producers were so certain that a match between the Czech Republic and Ghana [eh, Ghana-who] would be such a turn-off for British viewers that they started the build-up with England’s performance in the World Cup in 1966, and followed it with some more history – about England against Argentina. Then they cut to an American base in Germany and interviewed loads of Americans about their match with Italy, which was due to start after ours!

So what about Ghana? Does it exist to ITV? They didn’t even show the national anthems being played. We just watched and fumes. And drank our frustrations away.

To be fair, they had a pundit of African descent, Robbie Earle, former captain of Wimbledon, who managed to get a word in edgeways just before the whistle blew, and stated quite categorically that if the Ghana midfield held up, they could win the match! His hostess, the amazingly beautiful Gabby Logan, just managed to suppress a sceptical expression when Robbie said this, and I am sure some of the British people who heard him say that, must have laughed into their beer glasses.

Well, the match got underway, kicked off by the Czechs. One or two passes by them and we had dispossessed them of the ball.

Then we got a corner. A corner so early? It was almost like a joke. Ball cleared momentarily from the Czech half. But it goes back there. Stephen Appiah gets it. Passes to Asamoah Gyan. Asamoah Gyan chests the ball and then lets fly, all in a single movement. It’s in the net – GOOOOOOOOAL!

What? What could one say?

The clock at least could speak – it said 1.07 minutes, though the ITV commentator put it at 70 seconds. He couldn’t add seven and sixty! I mean, it was THAT incredible. It was the fastest goal of the tournament thus far! Later, they rounded it down to two minutes! But who cared?

Asamoah Gyan now goes to the touchline, pursued by his team-mates, and brandishes one leg to the crowd, then another — in celebration! But he’s soon on the ground, his mates lying on top of one another on top of him. He’s in danger of being suffocated by a collective joy, such as is not often seen in World Cup matches.

We can’t believe our eyes. I tell my son: “It’s like the old, old days – we used to say that ‘Kotoko is most dangerous in the first five minutes of a match’.”

We yell.

We shout.

We punch the air.

It’s Ghana 1, Czech Republic 0.

And then the “Agoro” [beautiful man-to-man possession football, now often described in derogatory terms by European commentators as “showboating“] more or less started and wasn’t to let up for the whole of the remaining 88 minutes.

This was real football, for the Czechs were not about to roll over and go to sleep. They gave as much as they took. Their goal-getter, Pavel Nedved, in particular, was extremely dangerous. But our efficient defence held firm. Our midfield collected balls from them and strung the play together magnificently. From man to man, across wings and into the Czech penalty box. We were just simply magnificent.

But somehow, we just couldn’t score more goals! Chance after chance after chance came and we squandered them. In a World Cup match where you are not supposed to get more than a few chances? Our shooting ability was pathetic. Had we not gone ahead so early, those missed chances alone would have made us cry bucketfuls of tears. So much so that the players themselves became amused when they failed to shoot into the net, as if asking themselves: “Ah, but what on earth is happening?”

Much of our failure to score more goals was also due to the amazing skill of the Czech goalkeeper, who happened to be called Petr Cech [latterly of Chelsea.] Anyway, we overwhelmed the Czechs and could have got at least five or six or seven more goals, had Madame Luck decided to stay at our side all the time, instead of playing hide and seek with us.

Then, in the 65th minute, we swept forward (again, once more!) into the Czech box. Amoah was brought down by Ujfalusi. I thought the Argentinean referee would – as is usual when a team from a country that is regarded as “small” in football terms is playing a “big” team – ignore it. But he blew the whistle and pointed to the spot. He stayed far back out there, sending off Ujfalusi and warding off the protests of the Czechs. It was at this point that one of those bizarre incidents in football, that no one can quite explain, happened.

Asamoah Gyan wasn’t paying any attention to what was going on around him, but concentrating very hard on how to take the penalty effectively. He heard a whistle sound and thought it was for taking the penalty. So he took it. But the referee was only blowing it in relation to the sending-off incident, and in a demonstration of how difficult it is for people of different continents to understand each other’s mentality, assumed that Asamoah Gyan had deliberately kicked the penalty prematurely without waiting for him to whistle. And he ruled the goal a no-goal, and booked Asamoah Gyan into the bargain.

The ball was put back on the penalty spot for Gyan to take the penalty again. But what with his discomfiture at his yellow card — and the matches he might subsequently be disqualified from playing — he didn’t focus properly and struck it – very hard, it must be conceded – against the Czech’s left-hand goal-post.

AO! My word!

We sighed in disbelief. It should teach our boys not to ever get over-excited during a match but to remain completely aware of what is going on around the entire field. If only someone had warned Gyan just to wait! And as for that referee — well, he’d probably seen too much cheating in all manner of ways, and sincerely believed Asamoah Gyan wanted to cheat.
However, not at all disheartened, we continued to dominate the Czechs, and in the 82nd minute, Madame Luck said, “I’ve teased you enough, come for a kiss!”

And what a sweet kiss it was! The person she chose was Sulley Muntari. When the ball went into the net, we couldn’t, of course, believe our eyes. You mean after all the chances we had lost, a proper straight-forward shot had at last entered the net?

At this stage, I asked my son to open the champagne. “Dad”, he yelled in fear, “don’t tempt fate! There’s still nine minutes to go!”

“Open it!” I insisted.

He opened it.

And we drank it.

And ninety minutes went past.

As well as stoppage time.

And we still held on to our two-nil lead.

It was a sweet, sweet victory – it showed us the true meaning of a joy that is perfect in every respect; a victory made sweeter by the faith it had regenerated in us in our Black Stars.

As I write, we have disposed of our next opponents, the United States. We are now waiting for Brazil, five times world champions. Will it be champagne again, or the ash cloth?

Who cares? That match against the Czechs will be there to comfort me, should the unthinkable happen. A moment of sublime beauty cannot be eradicated by winning or losing individual matches. But the ‘impossible can happen: one London Times correspondent inventively wrote, when we beat Brazil in Carrara, Italy, on August 25 1995 in the Under-17 tournament (on our way to winning the tournament itself and becoming Under-17 World Champions by beating Spain 1-0) [The Times Football Correspondent memorably wrote that: “GHANA OUT-BRAZILLED BRAZIL!”
Maybe we can ‘out-Brazil Brazil again!

ENDPIECE: In the event, Brazil beat Ghana 3-0. Or rather, Ghana’s stupid coach beat Ghana 3.0. For his amazing strategy was to get our boys to play a defensive game, in the hope of playing a drawn match, by often catching the Brazilians in offside traps.

Someone should have told him he was a damned fool. For you simply cannot catch the Brazilians in an offside trap. They are taught to be
“too fast” to be caught offside! And our coach should have known.

And that was how Ghana’s 2006 World Cup ambitions were shattered by the rock-like mind of a coach who totally lacked imagination and killed off the natural flair of our boys — in the match of their lives!


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