Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Black Stars in Their Eyes.

Thursday 5th to Saturday 7th September – Football Mental.

With Joseph and Timote outside Baba Yara Stadium.

Eben and I were joined at the taxi station by two other Ghanaians heading to the match; Joseph, the son of the Chief in Busua and Timote, an ex-Kumasi resident now living in Busua. The journey is long. A full 7 hours. This is not only because the distance is great but also because of the quality of the roads and the roundabout journey you have to take to get there: a shared taxi to Agona before grabbing a taxi east to Takoradi where you have to walk across town to get a separate Tro-Tro to Kumasi which then heads east to Cape Coast before cutting back north-west to Kumasi. The Takoradi-Kumasi section is the longest of the trip and unfortunately for us this was the leg where we managed to acquire a driver that was under the illusion that the mini-bus sized tro-tro was actually a rally car. Trying to push the aging tro-tro to its rather impressive speed limit before proceeding to dodge all the numerous pot-holes, other vehicles and pedestrians that thrust themselves in to our path and all with as little use of the break as possible, which he was presumably allergic to. Ebenezer shouted at the wannabe Michael Schumacher twice on our journey to slow down, once after he hit a particularily large bump in the road that caused us all to smash our heads on the already low roof.  The road changed from pothole ridden to freshly tarmaced, Japanese built modern highway as we drove further inland climbing the luscious hills to Kumasi, where we left the open road behind and crawled in to gridlock traffic.

Kumasi is the ancient capital of the Ashanti who’s empire once encompassed much of West Africa. The town used to be full of old colonial style white wash buildings some with attractive thatched roofs, however, this attractive and beautiful ancient city was burnt to the ground in the early 20th century by, who else, but the British as they fought to colonise the interior of Ghana from their Gold Coast stronghold. Ghanaians really do have a lot to thank us for. Today Kumasi is a modern African city with no hint of it’s colonial beauty. It is Ghana’s second city with a population of 1.5 million based in the middle of Ghana it is the bridge between The North and The South. Basically, it’s Birmingham. Now, never having the pleasure of setting foot in Birmingham, I can only assume that Kumasi and Birmingham are exactly the same. Though I didn’t find out where the Kumasi Bull Ring was and to be totally honest I had no idea what I was looking for anyway as I literally have no idea what the Birmingham Bull ring looks like or what it is for. Whatever it is, angry people of Birmingham, I’m sure it is lovely and miles better than whatever equivalent there is in London or Manchester. However, Kumasi did have it’s own smaller version of Spaghetti Junction, the weather was constantly wet and the dominant colour was grey so they have to be pretty similar places at least.  

Being stuck in almost stationary traffic for close to half and hour after a 7 hour drive to the city limits was beginning to grate so the Ghanaians and I made a break for it and marched off with Timote in the lead. I tried to keep up as my dead legs slowly came back to tingling life dodging the endless stream of people heading in every direction possible and indeed impossible. Timote was a good and efficient guide having lived in Kumasi for 3 years before coming to Busua. The pace of our convoy was getting ever more rapid and aggressive with each passing yard. The smell of the open sewers at the sides of the streets was overpowering. My senses were in overdrive. People hit in to you at every turn, flying at you from every direction like the asteroids in Space Invaders except they were mostly carrying a baffling array of goods on their heads at the same time. I struggled to keep pace in the mayhem of people, carpets, fish,  t-shirts, washing machines, mattresses, bread and other assorted goods. Eben stopped to let me catch up.

“Walk straight and ignore everyone in your path.”

I really have been out of London too long.

We left the wide main streets, winding our way in the climbing, narrow backstreets covered with the debris of the day. I’m glad I wore flip flops today. The winding backstreets with the high surrounding buildings brought back memories of the medina in Fes. Kumasi seemed as much of a maze to me as the labarinth of Fes. Finally we came across a barbershop where Timote stopped to chat with his brother briefly before pushing on. We arrived at a small house in a block of flats that strangely resembled some of the art deco blocks of flats in London where Timote would stay. Eben, Joseph and I decided to stay in a guesthouse somewhere so we marched off past churches booming out sermons at full volume (presumably so God can hear them over the rest of the din), through a school which was still inexplicably teaching at night in the school holidays and in to the school field behind where a heard of cows were being grazed. We got out on to the main road and went to check out the first hotel. It was pretty posh and a bit out of our price range at 60¢ a night so back out on the street again to head for a more down market place. The sky started to crack with thunder and lightening. The rain was turning from drizzle to deluge as we entered the second hotel. It looked like a backpackers style lodge but was still amazingly charging 30¢ a night for sharing a room without a fan. I sat in the reception area watching the news with the various hotel staff who had nothing better to do. I sat there for around half an hour waiting for the rain to ease up enough to make a break for it, there were 5 different news items on the Ghana v Zambia match the next day:

I suppose you are?!
There was the history of the game – “Ghana haven’t beaten Zambia in a competitive match since 1992”. Followed by the squad training in front of 30,000 fans at Baba Yara Stadium earlier in the day. The squad meeting the Minister of Sport, who gave them a rousing speech. The squad visiting an orphanage to donate money, food etc. while being mobbed by adoring fans. Then a focus on Zambia and their botched preparations which meant they had only arrived in Ghana this evening due to problems with flying to Kumasi accompanied by more old footage of previous encounters. The news finished in the customary short and finally section but rather than something about a puppy or Jesus appearing in someone’s toast there was a quick story about something to do with Syria and the UN. The rain had slowed significantly so we left on that heartwarming note.

The third guesthouse was not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Hidden down a back street it had a luscious and airy courtyard with 2 stories of big, clean rooms all for the bargain price of 20¢ a night, and yes, there was a fan. Happy, we dumped our bags and went to grab some dinner and a beer. I grabbed some rice and fish stew (as it looked like Chili Con Carne) but tasted horrid while Joseph and Eben managed to put away 3 giant banku balls each, along with the accompanying soup and fish. I didn’t eat much but the beer slipped down nicely before I gratefully headed for bed.   

I awoke at 8:30 the next morning to a knocking at the door. Ebenezer had been to pick up our tickets for the game and suggested we go and get some breakfast. I got changed and met Joseph and Eben in the courtyard. Drizzle was still falling with no sign of stopping. We walked up towards the stadium. With each passing street the crowds grew. Touts sold tickets on the streets; excited fans blew enthusiastically on horns, bashed drums and sang throughout the streets. We finally turned the corner and came in sight of the great bowl that is Baba Yara Stadium. A wall of noise and a sea of red, gold, greeted us, green and white, there were still 7 hours to kick-off. The stadium hadn’t even opened yet but queues of people were huddled around each gate eager to get in. We went to get breakfast in one of the many makeshift stalls and bars that face the stadium. I got myself an omelet sandwich while the Ghanaians went off to get some Fufu and fish, I still can’t stomach this first thing in the morning. I chatted with my fellow diners, sheltered under a gazibo from the ever-strengthening rain. All were confident of a Ghanaian win despite, as I was now well versed in saying, Ghana having not beaten Zambia in a competitive match since 1992. All nodded thoughtfully with this statement but nothing could even dent their confidence. To them my prediction of 2-1 Ghana win was pessimistic at best and treasonous at worst.

When all were fed and watered we headed towards the stadium. Joseph and I checked out the merchedise while Eben headed off to purchase the 8 tickets needed for Simon, Babel and the rest of their Australian contingent currently en-route from Accra after voting in their national elections at the embassy that morning, which is compulsory. I bought a hat for Joseph and I as well as a Ghana sweatband for all three of our contingent before heading in to the grounds of the stadium to wait for Eben and Timote. All of a sudden amongst the mix of bands, drums, horns and merchendise stands a man started sprinting pursued a couple of seconds later by an ever growing band of angry Ghanaians. The man was panicked. Weaving erratically away from the kicks and punches aimed at him by passers by. The gates were blocked by an enthusiastic band of supporters immersed in chanting and dancing. The man desperately veered off to the left before soon realising he was blocked in by a mob on one side, a band on another and by walls on the other two. He made a desperate sprint towards the band hoping to win his freedom. A single chest high kick knocked him to the floor. Cheers erupted. A police man came running in to the mob and landed another boot square on the man’s chest before handcuffing the man and placing him in the back of a pick up truck packed with heavily armed officers to take him away.
“What did he do?” I asked Joseph.
“He was selling fake tickets” Came the matter of fact reply. Probably not the cleverest offence to commit here.

I bought a flag and some sunglasses as we waited. Eben called and said he was stuck in traffic, after retrieving the required tickets. With some time in hand I did what any good Brit at a sporting event would do and took Joseph and Timote for a beer.

Eben turned up after an hour and we headed for the stadium. Baba Yara is bowl on three sides with one covered stand running parallel to the pitch, to the right of us. We were behind the goal, exposed to the elements. At the opposite end of the stadium fans had arranged themselves in to blocks of red, yellow and green, each colour with its own conductor already leading their corresponding blocks in song and dance. It was 11am. 5 hours until the match and the stadium was already half full and the noise was approaching deafening. We grabbed a couple of beers and sat chatting as best we could over the ever growing noise as sellers walked amongst us selling everything from snacks and drinks to horns and photos.

After a couple of hours the noise of horns got too much for me. The sun was now out and happily burning my unprotected skin. I went to the concourse, grabbed a coke and sat watching the mayhem. The police were conducting thorough and often multiple frisk downs at the gate and were ordering fans with different degrees of success, to rip up their tickets to prevent re-use. The crowds, however, were large and th police presence small so many slipped through the net which led to a boom trade in fans passing their used tickets back through the gates to be used again by friends and anyone paying enough. To the left of the gates an impromptu Muslim prayer centre had been set up using broken up cardboard boxes as temporary prayer mats. The number of worshipers was constant. Even on a Friday, Islam’s most sacred day of the week, a day of rest, mosque and family, Muslim’s were here in their droves. Proving, if proof was needed after the mayhem of the last week that Black Stars were not only “bigger than Jesus” but maybe even god himself.

Finally Simon arrived from Accra and I passed his (unused) tickets through the bars as casually as I could and headed back to my seats. There was still over an hour to kick off but every seat was taken. The steps were full of people claiming a good vantage point for the game but somehow the sellers still managed to move freely like mountain goats on cliff faces. My progress back to Eben and the others was somewhat slower.

A happy Eben.
The Zambians came out first to warm up to a wall of boo’s. If there was a single Zambian in the house you couldn’t tell. I have never been in a more partisan and intimidating atmosphere. Thankfully I was supporting Ghana. The boo’s and jeer’s continued until a small man in a while Ghana polo-shirt carrying a Ghana flag shot out of the tunnel like he was selling fake tickets, completing a lap of the pitch in close to world record pace stopping only to do a short dance in each corner to whip the crowd up in to a greater and greater frenzy. Finally, when the you thought the noise could get no louder, they appeared. The crowd went in to complete delirium as the Black Stars walked out lead by the holy trinity of Gyan, Essien and Prince-Boateng. It was only the warm up.

When all were finished and sufficiently warmed up the players disappeared the normal cacophony of drums and horns re-started. There wasn’t a spare bit of concrete in the house. We all sat, waiting, watching the flag carriers practice their role over and over, for some reason without a Zambian flag meaning one group of flag carriers had to pretend diligently each time. They left only to be replaced by an army of ball boys. There were 12 alone behind our goal. Three elder boys in blue were in charge, pitch side ready to pass the ball back to the player were backed by 4 deputies in grey who were also backed up by 5 deputy deputy ball boys behind them. They waited patiently in formation.

After 7 hours of travel, an overnight stay and 6 hours in the stadium the players emerged fronted by the flag carriers who had thankfully managed to find a Zambian flag since rehearsals, the crowd went wild again. The teacher from Charlie Brown made a few announcements over the tannoy, anthems were sung (well one was anyway) and then, a mere 10 minutes late, we kicked off.

The game was fast paced and physical from the outset. Ghana had the better of the opening chances with 2 free headers being sent just wide. Zambia weren’t creating much apart from a couple of half hearted long range efforts. They looked intimidated. I didn’t blame them. Ghana attacked down the left, whipping another threatening cross in to the box, this one wasn’t wasted as Waris stooped low and headed the ball in to roof of the net. Cue eruption. The stadium was rocking, dancing, singing, blaring horns. A man dressed in red paint emerged from the delirium and placed a smoking pot on his head with Ghana 1 – 0 Zambia on it while dancing, much to the delight of the crowd and adding much to my confusion.  The singing became louder and louder until half time. When the whistle blew they players, coaches, ground staff, ball boys, officials, press, police (dressed a bit like RoboCop), security and other mysterious pitch-side dwellers decended down the tunnel. The stream of important people was so long that it took most of half time for them to dis and re-appear.
"Look! I've got the shopping!"
In the second half Ghana started quickly putting the pressure on the Zambian goal right in front of us. Zambia had managed to shake off some of the nerves and were also creating chances which would have opened the game right up. Though it was Ghana who scored next after almost 10 minutes of completely open football. Zambia failed to clear a corner sufficiently letting the ball fall nicely for Asamoah just outside the box, who fired it in to the back of the net from distance. Cue more delirium and red pot men. When Zambia pulled one back with about 20mins to go Baba Yara fell eerily quiet, though I was relieved to have even a small break from the incessant horn blowing. The rest of the game was slow and physical; Ghana needing only a point to top their group weren’t taking any chances. On more than one occasion the stretcher golf cart needed to be called on to the pitch, once almost running over a Zambian player in it’s zeal to get to a fallen Michael Essien. With 5 minutes left on the clock Joseph announced he was going to get out before the rush. I was astonished. We hadn’t spent 2 days getting to this point to miss the last 5 minutes. I wasn’t going anywhere.

The final whistle went to loud cheers and a pitch invasion from the hundreds of pitch side officials while the Zambians tried to skulk off as quietly as possible. Eben and I watched the lap of honor before exiting the stadium through a minor scuffle.

The clock ticks down to victory.
I met the Aussies for a beer while the Ghanaians went back to the hotel. All were in good spirits. The Ghana team bus went past to cheers followed by a stream of ecstatic fans while the Zambian bus passed to more boo’s and jeer’s the team looking like they wanted to be anywhere but there. The Aussies and I headed for a curry but my stomach was going mental by that point so I couldn’t eat or drink much. Even so it ended up as my most expensive meal in Ghana. I finally got hold of Eben and found out the name of our guesthouse, which I had forgotten. I grabbed a taxi and went back to the room to fall in to a deep and happy sleep.

The next morning as the rain drizzled down again, Joseph and I went and grabbed some breakfast before we headed to the tro-tro station to begin our long journey home with the same Michael Schumacher wannabe  driver and 6 screaming kids. Oh joy!    

Celebration time. Someone should tell the guy on the left. 

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