Why hasn’t a single one of the guys who jumped about and drank champagne with me when Ghana was doing well in the African Cup of Nations tournament, phoned to share my pain at the calamity of Cameroon turfing us out of it?
We often laugh at clichés, especially when we accept the dictionary definition and take them to be “hackneyed phrases”. But take a saying like “when you laugh, the world laughs with you, but when you cry, you cry alone”. It’s a “hackneyed phrase” alright. In fact, so hackneyed is it that as soon as you begin to say it, somebody else will finish it for you.
So it must be true, no? Personally, I do not merely think it is true. I know it is true! Otherwise, why hasn’t a single one of the guys with whom I was jumping about and drinking champagne when Ghana was doing well in the African Cup of Nations football tournament, phoned to share my pain at the calamity of Cameroon turfing us out of it? Maybe they too are crying so much inside that they won’t add to it by talking to another guy they know is crying inside.
Alright, it does not make much sense to expect many “cryings” to add up to “merriness” (in the sense of “the more the merrier!”), but surely the more of us share each other’s crying, the easier it should be for all of us to bear the pain?
Ha, in fact, human beings are extremely funny creatures. When I lost my wife last year, I received a lot of visits from many friends. But one guy I expected to hear from never bothered even to make a telephone call to me. Now, I have spent many an afternoon and evening in crowded London streets driving this guy around looking for good food, music and fun. But at my most trying moment in life, he came nowhere close to “holding my hand” – to use another hackneyed phrase.
One other guy I expected at the funeral, but who didn’t show up, had been so “close” to me that on being admitted into hospital at one time, he had given the hospital authorities my name as his “next of kin”! And, indeed, if he had passed at that time, and I had been informed, I would have done everything that the “next of kin” is supposed to do under such circumstances. But he didn’t show up at my wife’s funeral.
Now, not everyone is lucky enough to have the veils with which people cover their true selves removed for him to see them in their “true colours” (hackneyed phrase again!). So I am one of the lucky few, am I not? In case this litany of disappointments leads anyone to think that mankind is made up of unfeeling pretence merchants, I hasten to add that at the same time as some “friends” were obliging me to take on the mantle of a philosopher by force, others whom I would have regarded as “mere acquaintances” came to join me and my family to send our dearly departed home in style. Among these were the chief executive and the editor of a publication which I knew was going to bed that very week. What can one do but quote another “hackneyed phrase” – “where there’s no hope, from there comes assistance”? (Apologies to the adage writers, in case this is a misquotation!).
But back to the football. I shouldn’t really be surprised that Ghana did not make it to the Final. At every stage, Ghana struggled. In our first match – against Guinea – we were absolutely pedestrian. Our first goal was the result of a penalty “gift” given to us. The referee had awarded it against Guinea for a rough tackle, but how “rough” was the tackle, really? No – it’s neater to hit the ball home “properly”, after one had won it and dribbled one or two defenders and then gloriously shot home.
But “beggars can’t be choosers”, and anyway, we were so tense that anything would do. We watched our players fumble and generally produce crap, and when the Guineans took advantage of confusion in our “18” and teased the ball quietly across the line for the equaliser, we knew that we were looking down the inside of gun barrel.
And then, one chap’s left foot changed everything. Sulley Muntari, who plays for the English premier club, Portsmouth, got the ball. About 30 or 35 yards from the Guinea goalmouth. He looked up once, simultaneously easing the ball leftwards with that left foot of his.
Now, people had been complaining that the grass at the Ohene Djan Stadium in Accra, where the match was taking place, was too long. But none of that mattered to Sulley Muntari. He just whacked the ball, without notice, towards the Guinea goal with all the power in his left foot. And it sailed high, curving all the time, straight into the Guinea net.
The yells of GOOOOOOAAAAAL! that emanated from the throats of the 45,000 or so Ghanaians in the stadium could easily have been heard across the ocean, down here in London, if the Ghanaians watching the match in London hadn‘t filled every particle of air with their own shouts! It was one minute to full time it was when Sulley sent his belter into the net. We held on. Final result: Ghana 2, Guinea 1.
We were surprised! We were delighted! We were relieved! We knew we didn’t deserve such a goal, judging from the many misses at goal indulged in by our other forwards. So the adulation that descended upon the head of Sulley Muntari was akin to that heaped upon the 17-year-old Edson Arantes do Nascimento (known to you as “Pele”) when he helped Brazil capture the World Cup in Sweden in 1958 by scoring a hat-trick against France.
Sulley’s goal put so much spirit into us that when we defeated Namibia by only one goal to nil in our next match, we were not worried. And then we went on to beat Morocco 2-0 to top the group, taking the maximum nine points in our stride.
But when our next opponent in the quarter-finals turned out to be our old rival, Nigeria, we were scared to the roots of our hair. Nevertheless, we boldly remembered that in our last encounter against the Nigerians, in a friendly match in London last year, we gave them a 4-1 thumping. The more foolhardy of us take our minds as far back as 1955, when the “Gold Coast” (as Ghana was then) beat Nigeria 7-0, or, as a witty Ghanaian journalist put it, “spelt Nigeria’s name in goals”.
It is now Sunday 3 February 2008. The match is on. The Ghana Black Stars are reduced to 10 men, when their captain, John Mensah, is shown the red card by the referee, Mohamed Benouza of Algeria, for a “professional foul” on Nigeria’s Odemwingie in the 58th minute.
The score at this stage was 1-1, the Nigerians having scored first through a penalty that most Ghanaians thought had been wrongly given by the Algerian referee. But exactly on the stroke of half-time, Ghana had equalised, through a brilliant header sneaked into the Nigeria net – squeezing only inches past the post – by the redoubtable Michael Essien.
The goal had enabled Ghanaians to breathe again, after being made to experience slow death, after Nigeria’s penalty award. But now, John Mensa (who is best placed to perceive that a referee who had already awarded a penalty against his team would not show any mercy if Ghana engaged in any hanky-panky), has taken a risk and paid for it by being sent off.
Ghana is reduced to 10 men! Even with 11, we hadn’t been exactly brilliant. Our usual inability to shoot accurately into the goal had been evident throughout the afternoon. I groan – a deep, heat-rending groan. I get a text message from a friend in Uganda saying she is suffering from “stomach pains because of stress”.
What? Ten men against a team of 11 that had been the first to score? And “bitter” Nigerians at that!
The Nigerians swarm into attack. Again and again. We defend as best we can. But it’s all Nigeria now.
Our boys are getting flustered. In the 75th minute, my heart jumps straight into my mouth: Annan of Ghana is hacked down by Mikel Obi of Nigeria and as they get entwined, Annan petulantly pokes Mikel in the eye with his finger! Mikel falls writhing to the ground. Is Annan mad or what? You are down to 10 men and you go and poke someone in the eye? But the referee leaves Annan scot-free and instead, books Mikel! Unbelievable luck for Ghana.
In the 83rd minute, substitute Dramani gets the ball. He rolls it to the feet of Muntari, who whips it across the face of the Nigerian goal. Junior Agogo comes in from one or two yards and slots it past the Nigerian goalkeeper into the net. GOOOOAAL! We yell so hard I fancied we could be heard all over London. We defeat Nigeria 2-1.
To many Ghanaians, that was the Cup Final. It didn’t matter that Cameroon took us out with a lone goal in the semi-final. Egypt’s thrashing of Côte d’Ivoire and their possible retention of the Cup meant little to us. Almost all our emotions had been expended on the match against Nigeria, and Cameroon’s dagger-thrust into our heart was only painful up to a point.
Hey – now I get it! Maybe my friends hadn’t called to share their pain with me because there wasn’t much of any emotion – including pain – left in them to share.
Ok, guys. I forgive you. As the cliché goes: “To understand all is to forgive all.” Not so?