When Ghana qualified for the World Cup 2006 competition, to be held in Germany, I had to pinch myself to believe I was dealing with reality. Of course, Ghana had been African Champions four times – 1963, 1965, 1978 and 1982. It had also finished as runners-up in the competition three times. Even more important, Ghana had won the very first FIFA World Under-17 championship in Italy in 1991 by beating Spain 1-0. And it won again, in Ecuador in 1995, beating the favourites, Brazil, by 3 goals to 2. Furthermore, we came close to becoming World Under-21 champions on two occasions: we were beaten in the final of 2001 by Argentina (2-1) and in 1993 by Brazil (2-1). Indeed, so well did Ghana do in the 2001 World Under-21 championship that the FIFA website singled the country out for special praise:
“The Black Satellites from Ghana played some inspired football to finish top of Group F, ahead of France and Paraguay, before beating Ecuador, Brazil and Egypt to reach the Final [against Argentina]. Emmanuel Afranie’s side employed their physical game to great effect, and were devastating on the counter-attack, as forwards Derek Boateng and Michael Essien used their lightning pace to crack holes in opposing defences. This was Ghana’s second appearance in the Final after 1993, when they lost to Brazil (2-1).”
That being the case, why was I a bit incredulous that Ghana had qualified for the World Cup itself? Well, although we had achieved much at the junior levels of world football, we somehow never seemed to be able to make it to the senior level. Teams that had done worse than us in the African Championships – Nigeria, Cameroon, Senegal and DRCongo – had all managed to take the stage at the senior level. But we, the glamorous Black Stars, were prevented by other African countries that were relatively more obscure (in football terms) than us from getting to the World Cup. And now, we had done it! Difficult to believe that we had broken the jinx at last! The feat is even more remarkable when one considers the depths of sheer deprivation from which much of Ghana’s soccer genius has sprung.
Most of us boys – including the stars like Michael Essien and Samuel Kuffuor who are now earning huge sums of money playing for the most glamorous teams in Europe – became aware of the enjoyment to be obtained from playing football at a very early age. But many of us could never get footballs to play with. So we “made” our own. We took a cigarette tin into the bush and tapped the sap out of a gum tree called ofuntum. If you scraped off the bark of this tree, white gum came out of it which congealed when you boiled it. You would then find a round stone or orange and pour the rubber around it in order to shape it into a ball. The results were often pathetic. But so long as it was rubbery enough to bounce up and down, you thought you had got a “ball”, and you and your friends would go and find somewhere to kick it about. Do the David Beckhams of this world know anything about such things?
Sometimes, people more adept at using rubbery sap to make balls would make some nice ones and come to sell them to us in our village. They didn’t cost much – three pence or six pence. But if you consider that three pence could buy three smoked herrings, ready to eat!, whilst if you possessed six pence, you were halfway towards being able to purchase a sharp penknife, then those balls were expensive. Unfortunately, they weren’t strong, and many a time, a “rich” boy would bring his ball for us to play with, only to be left with the flaccid remains of a burst rubber ball in his hands.
If he could detect who it was who had kicked the ball so hard it had deflated, he would cry and follow that guy around, screaming: “You have burst my ball! You have burst my ball! You must buy me one to replace it.” I tell you, many a fight occurred on the playground as a result of “burst” balls. For almost everyone whose parents were rich enough to buy him a ball, turned out to be more or less a sissy, and would cry when the inevitable happened.
Now, we knew they were cry-babies, so why did we play with them? It was because we did need their balls! Right? When one of them followed you crying, you thumped him, if you could. But you had to be prepared to expect his mother or father coming into your home to make trouble for you. For if they came, followed by their wimpy, finger-pointing offspring, your mother or father would probably belt you for being stupid enough not to know that a cry-baby was not the sort of boy you should play with. Misery.
Every now and then, some real guy would get a good ball and we would all be in heaven then – for a few days, for these nice balls didn’t last. My house stood close to a school run by the Salvation Army and they had a park which we used whenever the kids were not in school. I call it a park, but it was horrible. It was on a hill, and so whilst the luckier team always played the ball downhill and its shots were speeded up with the help of gravity, the other team played against gravity and its members ran out of breath very easily.
There was some grass on the park, but it grew on stony ground, and I can’t remember the number of times one had to stop playing and limp off the field after one had knocked one’s toe(s) painfully against a pebble or stone, whilst trying to kick the ball. These sores were almost impossible to get rid of, for even as they tried to heal, one would keep knocking one’s toes against all manner of objects, only to reopen the wounds. And as for the flies – ugh! They followed one wherever one went. Even when one managed to bandage the wound properly, the flies would still be able to find ways of sucking the pus out of the wound. Hmm.
How man has suffered from playing football. If you look closely at the toes of any Ghanaian man of pre-independence vintage, you are likely to spot scars created on the football field. We called these painful sores “kotoniwa” in my language. That word will bring many weird memories to those who were in the same position as I was.
I remember the day when a very big neighbour of mine, called Yaw Gyaami, came back to our village from Koforidua or some other big town, where he had been staying, with a proper football and tried to form a team out of our rabble. We would meet for practice at 3pm every day at the Salvation Army park. The football was made of real leather and it had a “bladder” in it which we inflated with a bicycle pump. But it had seen better days and had patches all over it made from different types of leather. It looked like the multi-coloured coat of Joseph, as described in the Bible. The ball was also huge – I think it was Case 5, which meant that those of us smaller kids could hardly kick it without running the risk of breaking our tiny legs. When it rained and the leather got wet, the ball became very hard, and it really hurt when kicked.
The bigger boys had a different problem – when they kicked the ball really hard, the leather got torn and part of the bladder poked out through the tear! A second shot and the bladder could be punctured. This meant taking the bladder out, going to bring a bucket of water and trying to mend the torn rubber with rudimentary techniques learnt from vulcanisers. First, you detected where the puncture was by inflating the bladder and immersing it in water. Pockets of air would form ringlets in the water and we would know where the hole was. Then we would cut a piece of rubber, scrape it with a sharp object, put some adhesive on it as well as on the bladder, and patch the puncture. Sometimes, Yaw Gyaami came to the field with a packet of readymade rubber patches, which were just stuck on the puncture. We thought these were magical objects and we respected him a lot. When a puncture was successfully repaired and we could play again, the relief we felt was enormous. As for the enjoyment, what can describe it?
Apart from the state of the ball itself, our biggest problem was how to interpret the rules of the game. Usually, one boy was given a whistle – anything that could make a whistling noise would do, for we couldn’t afford a proper whistle – and asked to act as a referee. But any time he ruled that someone had been “offside” when scoring a goal, a fight would break out amongst those who thought the “referee” had been “partial” and those who thought he had called the offside correctly. The award of free-kicks or “fouls” was also fraught with controversy. Did the ball actually touch the hand or arm of the guy who was supposed to have committed the foul? If the ball had touched the arm or hand, was that done deliberately or was it an “accidental foul”? We would stop playing and argue and argue. The referee never won: someone would always land one on him as the arguments raged.
One eventuality that was almost always guaranteed to stop a match right in its tracks was when there was a corner. Could there be an “offside” when a corner was taken? Some said “no”, and they would go and stand with the goalkeeper in order to impede him from being able to stop the ball if it came towards him after the corner had been taken. Another rule – I don’t know where it came from – had it that “SEVEN CORNERS MAKE ONE GOAL!”. Of course, it was difficult to get seven corners in a match, but because people claimed that it was possible to score a goal this way, they tried to make a corner perpetuate itself ad nauseam. Sometimes it worked, and then they would claim a goal. The other side would dispute this, and the match would end abruptly.
Another rule invented by us, which I have never encountered anywhere else, was to the effect that “ABERVE IS NOT A CORNER!” “Aberve” was an (non)-infringement that is supposed to have occurred when the goalkeeper punches the ball right over his goalposts. Because he had punched the ball aberve, it was deemed to be not a corner. This didn’t make any sense, but people would argue heatedly over it and the match could end abruptly whilst blows flew.
It is from such quaint beginnings that Ghanaians – playing in their bare feet, using contraptions other than actual footballs, turning football pitches into boxing rings and generally making a nuisance of themselves – have reached the apex of the game and could well bring the World Cup home to Africa next year, just as they brought the World Under-17 Cup to Africa. It will be a marvellous wonder if it happens. But I wonder whether we shall get as much fun from it as we used to, when we kicked stones and pebbles about, whilst trying to turn ofuntum juice and other things into footballs.