Monday, 26 January 2015

GPL Match Day 3 Blog: Gilbert Fiamenyo bounces back to set league alight

Gilbert Fiamenyo


This season, it took Gilbert Fiamenyo just one game to equal his own goal tally from last season. Scratch that: make that 56 minutes. Four minutes shy of the hour mark during Hearts of Oak’s home away from home clash with Premier League new boys WAFA in Kpando, the stocky marksman found the net – a goal that proved the decider in what has turned out to be Heart’s only win in the three-game old campaign.

One goal. Baako p3 – just one. That was all the 24 year old managed to score in 10 league games last season. To say it was nightmarish for him would be a gross understatement. He had joined the Phobians as a hot goal scoring sensation from Heart of Lions before the 2012/13 season, but battling a recurring knee injury had meant he spent more time everywhere else – from the touchlines, to the doctor’s through to home – than on the pitch. Spending time off the pitch came with its own additional problems. He wanted to return and prove his worth, but his body was failing him. The frustration was piling up, and, given the inactivity, so were the calories.

His weight fluctuated embarrassingly, reaching an all-time high at times where he took to the pitch and could barely manage a 1 meter sprint without panting uncontrollably. He was called names too; his competence rubbished, fat-jokes hurled at, killing his spirit as he struggled to stage a come-back against that heavy tide. “Why will people say I’m not performing because I’m overweight? I don’t agree with them at all. In football, you might sometimes dip and that is acceptable,” he would say months later, looking back on a painful episode. “It’s about time people start to accept and encourage we the players. Give us motivation when we go down but not to insult and make such comments.”

As early as December 2012, four months after he had been signed, strong rumours emerged that Hearts had given up on him; that they had transfer-listed him, amid growing complaints from fans that he had been a worthless purchase. But Hearts kept faith, defending their man. “It’s not true we have put Fiamenyo on the transfer-list. It has not even crossed our minds,” Hearts spokesman Muheeb Saed said. Fiamenyo would repay the faith. Later on in the season, he would show glimpses of his old form, going on a three game scoring spree that saw him score six goals. But that was it; a flash in the pan. He lost the self-belief again, checking back into the depressing zone of self-pity and its accompanying mediocrity.

But after enduring another difficult season – last season – Fiamenyo is back. Or so it seems. Before the season kicked off on January 18, with Hearts scheduled to play the first game of the season, Fiamenyo poured his heart out. “I know the fans expect a lot from me but they should have patience,” he said. “I am determined to make my mark and bang in the goals for the side. It is my primary duty to score for the team. I will not relent in my effort to ensure I succeed at the club and make the fans happy.”

The determination oozed from his words and by the time Hearts took to the pitch, it was oozing from his legs too. Balling like a player reborn, Fiamenyo – playing at the Kpando stadium, a familiar turf where he scored at will during his time at Lions – put in a solid performance, capping it with the season’s first goal.

Match Day two saw Hearts face Berekum Chelsea away. If anyone was thinking his great start would follow the familiar nine-day wonder script, they would have revised their expectations upon learning that the opponents were going to be Chelsea. Fiamenyo himself must have smiled, comforted by the warm feeling that the gods were definitely on his side this year. Why? Even through Fiamenyo’s well-documented predicaments at Hearts, he has always managed to score against Chelsea. He had scored three goals in his last two games against the Blues from Berekum, and that amazing run was going to continue. Fiamenyo went on to bag a clinical brace despite Hearts giving in to a second half capitulation and eventually losing 2-4 to Chelsea. Five goals in three games against one opponent, three goals in two games this season alone. He was operating on a different plane, gliding smoothly on cloud nine.

Predictably, there must have been niggling fears that this would end soon, given his history. The doubts must have lurked, both from within and from without, the pressure mounting. But few things can stop a man in his elements. If he was doubting the glaring signs that this was going to be his season, he was surely going to change his mind as Match Day three saw him bag yet another brace in Hearts’ 2-2 away draw against Medeama in Sekondi on Sunday.

“Man-of-the-moment Gilbert Fiamenyo proved he is back to his best,” wrote Hearts’official website. Indeed, the man from Kpando is back to his very best. And it has been timely too. The young man, the stone that the builders rejected many times over the last two seasons, is now the cornerstone, carrying Hearts on his shoulders with his red-hot form. Hearts have scored five goals this season, and every single one of them has been scored by Fiamenyo. And they haven't been easy goals too. Every goal has evinced class, born out of exceptional technique and clever thinking, elucidating his predatory instincts. His second goal against Medeama was praised by Hearts journalist Sadat Larry as "the greatest of the growing array of glittering strikes from the in-form target man – a sensational that brought the whole stadium on its feet".

Insiders say the surge in his form owes much to Herbert Addo's belief in him. The new Hearts coach has worked extensively on the striker - both physically and mentally - and has placed a sort of trust and confidence in him that has got him flying and firing.

Just three matches into the new season and it is already safe to say that no matter what happens next, this will be his best season yet. This is how good his current tally is: last season, at the end of the first round (15 matches), the top scorer at that point was Kotoko's Seidu Bancey. He had scored six goals. Fiamenyo is just one short of that tally after just three games.

Hearts' current talisman is back where he belongs; he is reliving the familiar routine of sticking the ball at the back of the net with effortless ease, and he is enjoying it. And it is hard to see this form derailed at some point; there is a visible hunger, a determination to make this season his own. “I think I’m back again,” he told Sadat Larry. “I'm trying to do better than this and I hope to improve more.”

Many Hearts fans tried desperately to believe that Fiamenyo had been the beneficiary of the hype-without-substance culture so familiar with Ghana’s top flight – a phenomenon aided by the fact that about 90% of games don’t make it to television amid the arrangement of eight matches being played simultaneously almost every match day, and so there isn’t enough seen of players collectively to make informed assessments. Thus there were countless times where his talent was questioned. But what many failed to realize – and what Fiamenyo is proving now - is that the art of goal scoring had always been embedded deep within his genes. It had just been dormant, yearning to be awakened, but the discouraging words from fans had been stifling it.

Not anymore. The confidence has been retraced. The brilliance has resurfaced. The boy has found his feet. A beast has been unleashed.

Notes:

---AshantiGold are still winning. The Aboakese lads are still the only club with a 100% record after three match days. Bashir Hayford and his team have disconnected themselves from the early season chaos and they are steadily setting themselves apart. Other teams – read, Kotoko and Hearts – will hope it won’t be too late when they settle into their stride.

---So, after a winless first two games, defending champions Asante Kotoko have finally picked up their first win of the season. This is must have come as such a huge relief; Kotoko’s struggles in the first too games caused a huge panic that culminated in a board meeting. Imagine. Will they be able to use this result to turn things around? It remains to be seen. And oh, the highly-rated Ahmed Toure got off the mark too, scoring the second in a comfortable 2-0 win at B.A United. Are we going to see a Toure-Fiamenyo race for goal king? If so, that would be some explosive race, wouldn't it?

---WAFA didn’t do an Inter Allies after all. After two consecutive losses, the Sogakope-based boys won their first game. And they did it impressively too, coming back from a goal down to beat Olympics 2-1 at home. “They are good side, very technical and tactical. They are also young and fast and a lot of teams are going to have problems with them,” Hearts coach Herbert Addo said of them after their clash on Match Day one. If they are able to build on this and pick up some momentum, they will most certainly, like Addo said, be a thorn in the flesh of the big boys.

---There are four teams apart from AshantiGold who are yet to be beaten this season. They are Hasaacas, Wa All Stars and Aduana Stars, and they are second, third and fourth respectively.  These teams finished 7th, 8th and 11th last season, and are obviously determined to make an impact this time round. Hasaacas, especially, at this point last season had just two points, in what was a terrible start that saw them go six games without a win. The ‘Doooo’ boys, under energetic coach Yusif Basigi have learnt from their mistakes and are doing the right things. Will they be a long term threat?

Results

Sekondi: Hearts of Oak 2-2 Medeama SC [Gilbert Fiamenyo 2x : Benjamin Bature, Hans Kwofie]
Dormaa: Aduana Stars 1-0 Heart of Lions [Richard Arhin]
Sunyani: B.A United 0-2 Asante Kotoko [Jordan Opoku, Ahmed Toure]
Wa: Wa All Stars 2-0 Bechem United [Stephen Nyarko, Joseph Adjei]
Obuasi: Ashanti Gold 1-0 Berekum Chelsea [Bernard Morrison]
Sogokpe: WAFA 2-1 Great Olympics [Kissi Boateng, Samuel Tetteh : David Appiah]
Sekondi: Hasaacas 1-0 New Edubiase United [Roger Lamptey]
Tema: Inter Allies 0-0 Liberty Professionals

Premier League Table here

Thursday, 22 January 2015

GPL Match Day 2 Blog: Olympics show tough inner fight

It wasn't exactly a packed stadium but the atmosphere was electric and the football was cracking


ACCRA-----Heart of Lions coach Yusif Abubakar, in the company of his club’s press officer, ascended the stairs leading up to the press room of the Accra Sports Stadium. Journalists had huddled around Olympics coach Kassim Mingle in the corridor just outside the press room, carrying out a make-shift post-match conference while standing and being engaged in the traditional struggle to get their recorders close enough to their subject’s mouth. The crowdedness of the whole process made the heat unbearable, and some journalists had even given up, going on an angry rant about why the press room would be locked after a game when the Ghana Football Association had specifically declared post-match pressers compulsory.

They weren’t the only angry ones. While journalists gave their attention to Mingle, Abubakar paced about impatiently outside, his temper rising steadily. Then it happened; he let if all out. With his facial veins bulging out amid beads of sweat forming on his face, Abubakar’s fury erupted. “What is the meaning of all this? Where is the respect?!” he questioned angrily. “You people bash us on radio. You say Ghanaian coaches don’t like talking after losing game, that we are primitive. But when we come, you don’t pay attention to us. I’ve been here waiting and not one of you has come to engage me in conversation. Is this fair?”

The journalists had to abruptly end their conversation with Mingle in order to quell the tension brewing from Abubakar’s tantrum throwing. A few of us gathered around him and pleaded with him to be calm and forgiving as this whole mess could have been avoided had the press room been opened. It didn’t help much as the anger was still very much visible, but he made his way into the corridor just outside the press room in order for us to get his views on the game that had just ended.

Lions coach Yusif Abubakar

The game? Abubakar’s Lions side had just lost to home side Great Olympics in their Match Day two fixture. A critical look at the game would perhaps give clues about why his fury seemed so abnormal, so incongruous. It wasn’t only because of the whole journalists-ignoring-him drama, surely. It was something more – something about the game. Lions had gone into the first half break with a 2-1 lead, increasingly looking like they had the game under their authoritative control. In the 32nd minute, the Kpando-based team took the lead with a beautiful free-kick from 20 yards that was expertly curled by winger Isaac Quansah , the ball bouncing mischievously  in front of the Olympics keeper Abraham Odonkor at his left post and beating him.

Olympics, who to be fair worked harder that the Lions team despite looking more vulnerable, equalized eight minutes later when the tall, well-built midfielder Godfred Asante slammed in a rebound from a freekick that had seen the ball come off the wall and into his path just outside the box. The home crowd – not many of them, admittedly, but an encouraging number who had turned up for their club’s first top flight home game in over fours years –cheered wildly.

But the joy was short lived.

Just four minutes later, Lions had the last say – roar, if you like – in the first half, when winger Quansah turned provider, setting up Ousman Muntaka with a well-measured cross which was side-footed in delightfully. The referee’s half time whistle met a Lions team that looked well on course for an away win. But the problem was that they had played with a glaring sense of complacency and cockiness, perhaps owing to the fact that they – a club that finished second last season and started this season with a comfortable win in their first fixture against New Edubiase at home in Kpando on Sunday - were playing against an inexperienced newly promoted side that had lost its first game. “My players did not play to instructions, they were doing what they liked,” Abubakar fumed after the game. “We were over-confident; we underestimated them,” captain Sam Yeboah admitted.

They would pay for that attitude. They found themselves pinned to their own half by an Olympics side that played with so much hunger and so much desire. Their tireless running and relentless surges was justly rewarded 13 minutes into the new half. The clock read 58 minutes and Olympics were still fighting for every ball like they were playing in a World Cup final. Their deep persistence found gold when  they stunned their opponents and struck two quick fire goals to go 3-2 up. Striker Kwame Boateng, whose sluggishness in the first half drew a lot of bashing from the home crowd, stepped up to the plate by bagging all two goals. The first saw him hold off Lions’ towering center back John Kufuor, taking the ball away from him in the box and firing a low shot with the instep of his boot past the on rushing goalie Mozart Adjetey. The second saw him pounce instinctively on a long through ball on the left hand side inside the box, allowing the ball to bounce before unleashing a skillful volley that slammed the back of the net to rapturous applause.

Some Olympics fans enjoying the game

Olympics had worked so hard that even Abubakar had to momentarily snap out of his fury to praise them, his face lit-up with admiration. “They were very very committed and very very determined,” he said.

With many pundits already writing them off and tipping them for an early U-turn back into the second tier – where they endured four long years of struggle since being relegated in the 2009/10 Ghana Premier League season – Olympics are determined to prove their doubters wrong. It is strange that a club that was one of the Ghana league’s founding members in 1958 is now considered as a club whose rightful home is the second division. Long years of boardroom wrangling has confined this illustrious club to mediocrity. But this year, they want to right all the wrongs.

That Olympics is one of Ghana’s foremost traditional clubs is never a moot assertion. With a rich, enviable history, their two league titles and three FA Cups pitch them in as the third most successful club in Ghana besides the top duo of Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko. This year, there's is a noticeable hunger to tap into their immense worth and write a new chapter. The ‘Agorsu’ club is on a mission to restore former glory.

Their first game, a 2-0 loss in Obuasi to in-form Ashanti Gold seems to have been put behind if their spirited display is anything to read from. “We are not going back,” coach Kassim Mingle said, with a sense of aggressiveness that contradicted his calm, soft-spoken demeanor. “We are not here to add to the numbers. No. We are here to fight and make an impact. You wait, by the time the league finishes, you will see us among the top four.”

Olympics will need to replicate the indefatigable fight shown during the Lions game in their 28 remaining fixtures if they are to realize all the courageous talk and fairytale hopes. Talk is cheap, dreams are ubiquitous. It is now time for Oly – the club loved by many in Ghana for having thousands of nicknames - to put in some work to back it all up.

Notes

---AshantiGold are proving that their preseason form – that saw them complete a sensational double over their regional rivals Asante Kotoko and hold Hearts of Oak to a 1-1 draw in the final – was not a fluke. Two matches into the new season and two wins already the Aboakese lads, as they went to Sogakope and outwitted newly-promoted West Africa Football Academy (WAFA) in a 1-0 win. 16 matches played this season and this was the only win chalked by an away team. Bashir Hayford’s men mean business.

---WAFA, though. They suffered their second consecutive loss in what is turning out to be reminiscent of the cliché baptism of fire for newly promoted clubs. Another Inter Allies in the making? Remember them? Inter Allies lost their first six league games last season and everyone jumped on the “they will surely go back” bandwagon. But that obviously never happened. WAFA will hope to draw inspiration from this. The former Feyernoord Academy team are not losing because they are clueless. No.  Look, as far as pure technique and brilliance goes, WAFA are peerless in Ghana. Anyone who has seen them play will attest to that fact. Do not let the results fool you. They have such a young squad and they will need time to warm up to the merciless realities of the top flight. But they need to do so fast. Coach John Kila has to get his men firing before its too late.

---Two matches into the new season and the defending champions are yet to win. An opening day loss has been followed by a 2-2 home draw against Hasaacas. There is something wrong with Asante Kotoko, and this assessment is neither knee jerk nor premature. Last season, they won every single game until Match Day 7, when they lost 1-0 at Bechem. This is a side that is supposed to be above early season struggling – they were double winners last year and the level of dominance they have exerted on the local game does make their current form hard not to criticize. For a team that is gearing up to do Ghana proud in the CAF Champions League, Kotoko need to snap out of this false-start as quickly as they can. Otherwise, catastrophic things will start happening and people will start questioning whether their dominance was really substantial or was as a result of weak competition. Trust me, that conversation has been lurking in the shadows.

---Hearts of Oak too threw away a 2-1 first half lead to lose 4-1 away at Berekum Chelsea. Hearts won’t be worried too much as this was an away game; but throwing away a lead has a way of causing psychological damage. It will be interesting to see if the Phobians recover when they host Medeama home away from home in Sekondi on Friday. And oh, Gilbert Fiamenyo’s early season form though; three goals in two games. Great stuff, but he did something similar two seasons ago, around April-May 2013, when he went on a great streak scoring – including a home brace against none other than Chelsea - but fizzled out later. Interesting to see if he’s able to sustain it this time around.

--Kennedy Ashia is back! Don’t know who he is? He is your favourite play maker’s favourite playmaker. Hw3, Dansoman Frank Lampard papapaa. Go figure.

Results

Berekum: Berekum Chelsea 4-2 Hearts of Oak [Stephen Baffour, Kofi Owusu, Benett Ofori: Gibert Fiamenyo 2x]

Kumasi: Asante Kotoko 2-2 Hasaacas [Emmanuel Asante, Dauda Mohammed: Amos Korankye, Emmanuel Ankobiah]

Dansoman: Liberty Professionals 2-0 B.A United [Kennedy Ashia 2x]

Bechem: Bechem United 1-0 Inter Allies [Aminu Mohammed]

Accra: Great Olympics 3-2 Heart of Lions [Godfred Asante, Kwame Boateng 2x : Isaac Quansah, Ousman Muntaka]

Tarkwa: Medeama 0-0 Wa All Stars

Sogakope: WAFA 0-1 AshantiGold [Petrus Shtelmbi]

Bekwai: New Edubiase United 1-1 Aduana Stars [Bernard Ofori : Elvis Opoku]

*Premier League table here

Monday, 19 January 2015

GPL Match Day One Blog: Aidoo-led Inter Allies start strong

Inter Allies captain Joseph Aidoo gives me a thumbs up after I ask him to pose for a shot


TEMA ----- Joseph Aidoo was so neatly dressed, looking so dapper in his club branded lacoste shirt, a pair of jeans and a smart pair of sneakers that it was hard to imagine that this same person had been completely sweat-drenched just a few minutes before.  He walked out of the dressing room, making his way through the bustling zone just outside: with players, fans, traders, coaches, officials, ball boys and general observers all gathered and doing one thing or the other. The game between home side Inter Allies and visiting side Medeama SC had just closed, and the sun was setting beautifully over the Tema Sports Stadium. The activity was just about dying down, with people steadily making for the main stadium gate on their way home.

Aidoo headed towards the team bus. Just as he was about to board, about three little boys mobbed him, singing his praises while asking for coins as tips. Aidoo had no money on him. But he did not ignore them. He asked them to gather around him, and he bent down to talk to them, promising them that he would surely give them something next time. The kids smiled. Aidoo then responded to a few calls from fans, taking his time to respond to each greeting, thanking each person on each occasion. The humility he exhibited was striking, the gentlemanliness too.

What was even more interesting was that during the 90 minutes that ensued on the field just a few steps away from the tunnel, he had been anything but nice. Inter Allies came out victors with an impressive 2-0 win, but contrary to what the score suggested, the action did not always play out in Medeama’ half.

Aided by the superb passing of the midfield duo of Conney Aidan and Malik Akowuah, the trickery of Kwame Boahene and the experience Hans Kwofie on either wing, as well as the tireless running of striker Nathaniel Asamoah, the visitors caused a lot of problems for Inter Allies. But rarely did they manage to beat their back line and make it into the box, because there was one defender who just wouldn’t let that happen – Joseph Aidoo.

His performance oozed so much class. His tackles well so well-timed, his interceptions so clever. Even without an armband on it would be so easy to tell he was the leader – you just had to look at the authority with which he handled the ball and the aura of leadership that glowed like a halo around his powerful , manly frame as he marshaled the defence with dutiful seriousness. There was a sense of thrill that would surge across the crowd anytime a defender came up against him, a feeling that would soon be replaced by awe, because he would boss the situation so admirably. He was so calm, yet so beastly: so composed yet so aggressive.

A gripping chant of “Bobooooo!” – an affectionate stretch of his nickname ‘Boboo' - emanated from Inter Allies fans, greeting every occasion in which he owned an attacker or recovered so brilliantly after a tackle. “Herh, this defender, this captain!” a fan would yell during the silence in between the chants. “What a warrior. What a player!”

The admiration Aidoo commanded from the crowd was as breath-taking as his performance. This was a fan’s favourite at the height of his powers, extracting charged chants from fans who were enjoying their money's worth. At the end of the game, Aidoo led his charges – including goal scorers Lord Ofosuhene and Niare Benogo, who had found the net in either half – to the inner-perimeter marking fence wall to acknowledge the fans who were applauding proudly behind it.

Inter Allies coach Paa Kwesi Fabin walked up to him and gave him a warm hug that evinced so much trust and confidence. A spirited pat followed as he beamed brightly, muttering some words to his captain that from a distance looked congratulatory; not least because of the pride written all over the gaffer’s face. Aidoo, though, with his hands crossed behind him, listened carefully, the look on his face complementing the gesture to depict respect and submission.

“Fantastic player,” Fabin sighed in an interview after the game. He seemed overwhelmed by Aidoo’s impressive display.  “He’s such a committed player. There’s nothing that you tell him at training that he won’t do. I believe he’s on cause for the national team.”

Last season, Aidoo, who rose through the team's youth ranks, broke into the first team from the fringes and emerged as the most fitting candidate for captaincy with regular captain Seidu Diawudeen Dabo out injured. He led the team through a chunk of their much-publicized fairy tale resurgence that saw them recover from a disastrous, six-losses-on-the-trot start through to finishing in the top half of the table and emerging runners up in the MTN FA Cup.

Before the start of this season, with Seidu Dabo struggling to regain his place, Aidoo was named team captain as a reward for his stewardship. “It's a huge step forward but it's a proud moment in my career and massive honour,” he told the club's official website. “This team is blessed with many leaders and to lead these gallant leaders is like a dream for me. I hope I don't change much from the way I am as a player but to improve more.”

In a side brimming with attacking talent, it is telling that the 19-year-old defender has been heralded by many as the team’s main driving force. H is a charismatic professional whose work ethics, passion and commitment is at a standard that all other players wish to emulate.“He has so much command, for someone so young,” a club insider told me. “Even the older players respect him because he does his work so well and guides all other players.”

Inter Allies have had four different coaches since the start of last season and every one of them have trusted Aidoo enough to field him at some point. Even at the national team level, where he plays for the U-20 team, the Black Satellites, his influence is starting to grow. “He’s Sellas Tetteh’s man,” the insider revealed. “He trusts him so much. So much so that he took him on a trip the last time knowing fully well that he was injured.”

Aidoo’s influence is very much needed at a club that is beginning to show signs of ambition. Inter Allies have been, without the slightest trace of doubt, the fastest growing club in Ghana over the last two years. Last season, at the same venue, they lost their opening league fixture 2-0 to an Ebusua Dwarfs side that they completely outplayed. This year, they've learnt from their mistakes after a long, hard road and the story is different: this 2-0 opening day win against an experienced Medeama side seems set to propel them towards a great season ahead. What is even more impressive is that they have not always enjoyed stability: there has been a significant chunk of their players leaving for Europe – a quotidian routine at the club - and quite a number of managerial changes, but the club seems to be growing from strength to strength.

Coach Paa Kwesi Fabin

Coach Fabin, a trained teacher and coach of Ghana’s Under 17 team was appointed at the end of last month. The club’s top hierarchy – consisting of twins Omar El-Eter (chairman) and President Rabeh El-Eter (president) as well as energetic CEO Delali Senaye – have tasked him to finish in the top four.

And with many players – from talismanic playmaker Prosper Kassim, hardworking midfielder Sarbah Lawson, striker Abdul Fatawu Safiu and Aidoo himself – set to leave the club for Europe at some point this season, this will be a herculean task indeed.

But Fabin, who has managed Ghana’s two biggest clubs – Asante Kotoko and Hearts of Oak - at some point in his career, knows pressure all too well to be fazed by such a challenge. Already a players’ favourite with his down-to-earth, affable personality, Fabin seems to know what he's about.

“I like the youthful exuberance of my boys. They are ready to learn and ready to fight and work harder. And if you want to be at the top, you need to work hard. This is just the beginning,” he warned.

Notes:

---Their season ended in defeat last season and it started the same this season too against the same opponents. Dormaa is the definition of dreaded for defending league champions Asante Kotoko. For the sixth time in six years, the Porcupine Warriors traveled there and failed to win. They lost by a goal to nil, a result that has already started causing panic among their fans owing to the fact that so much work has gone into the side over the last few months and the last thing anyone expected was an opening day defeat. Having won the league three times on the trot, the hunger might have subsided on the domestic front as hopes for the CAF Champions League continue to rise astronomically, but the Reds know all too well that “S3 kwasiada anopa b3y3 d3 aa, na 3firi memeneda annwunmer3” 
[An Akan saying that basically means: If the main event will be successful, a sneak peak or indication of that success should be seen in the preparations. Directly translated, it reads something like: If Sunday morning will be fun, it should start from Saturday evening]

--Great Olympics bowed out of the Ghana Premier League in 2010, five seasons ago, with a 5-1 thrashing at the hands of Asante Kotoko in Kumasi. Years of lower tier toil later, they were back in Obuasi over the weekend and the story was the same, as they lost 2-0 to AshantiGold. It will be a long season for the Oly, and a quick U-turn is looking inevitable given the return of their traditional board room wranglings and disagreements. We all hope they go through an Inter Allies-like rejuvenation at some point. It's always fun having a club with so much deep history strutting their stuff in the top flight.

--After a difficult past two seasons, it must have been heartwarming for Hearts fans to see their much-vilified marksman Gilbert Fiamenyo hit the ground running this season. On familiar turf in Kpando – where he broke out as a goal machine for Heart of Lions years back – the bulky Fiamenyo was the difference as the Phobians ground out a typical Herbet Addo scoreline: a simple, effective 1-0 win. That is the thing about a Herbert Addo side; the scorelines aren’t as high profile or spectacular, and so the team escapes the eyes of the public as they steadily grow. As a big club, Hearts’ management and fans may be expecting loud performances, but they know all too well that the quietude associated with the immensely experienced Addo’s modus operandi is admittedly slow, but most certainly sure.

Match Day 1 Results

Saturday January 17

Kpando: Hearts of Oak 1-0 WAFA [Gilbert Fiamenyo]
Sunyani: BA United 1-0 Bechem United [Isaac Danso]

Sunday January 18

Obuasi: AshantiGod 2-0 Great Olympics [Bernard Morrison, Emmanuel Baffour]
Tema: Inter Allies 2-0 Medeama SC [Lord Ofosuhene, Niare Benogo]
Kpando: Heart of Lions 2-0 New Edubiase United [Isaac Twum, Osman Muntaka]
Dormaa: Aduana Stars 1-0 Asante Kotoko [Richard Arhin]
Sekondi: Hasaacas 3-1 Liberty Professionals [Frederick Quayeson, Samuel Afful 2x: Alfred Nelson]
Wa: Wa All Stars 1-0 Berekum Chelsea [Stephen Nyarko]

Premier League Table here

Monday, 1 December 2014

Ghana's Neglected football Stars



By Fiifi Anaman

Its late afternoon on a Monday, and heavy rains in many parts of the capital means the refreshing cool breeze from its wake blows into the Accra Sports Stadium. 

On the pitch, a football team is having a practice session. It is a national team training, yet there’s not a single fan or journalist in the stands to cheer or observe, to encourage or report.

Apart from the footballers and their coach, the only people around are some young boys acting as “ball-boys”, while the few others are grown men, encompassing officials and one journalist -  sitting on ledges inside the inner perimeter.

The deserted stands tell a depressing story of neglect, but the team on the pitch carries on training diligently nonetheless.

The team on the pitch is Ghana’s national football team.

Except…

Except this version is made up of players not fortunate enough to have two legs – or two arms, in the case of goalkeepers.

This team on the pitch is Ghana’s amputee national football team: The Black Challenge.

A fellowship of inspiration

Despite the emptiness of the stadium depicting a glaring lack of support and attention for their activities, the players on the pitch – comprising the main national team (mostly professionals) playing against the locals (considered to be the upcoming generation) – are playing with a peculiar sense of seriousness and commitment. So serious that, at a point, a player brutally tackles his opponent who is advancing towards goal. 

The coach – seated close to me by the pitch – gets up almost impulsively and roars. “Hey, it’s just a training session, and you’re playing it like you’re on TV!” The player respectfully turns towards his coach, focusing an attentive gaze, a smile waiting to happen drawn on his face. “You wait,” the coach, named Ali Jarah, continues. “Don’t do all your tackling here. When we go to aburokyire (abroad), I’ll let you hack down any player you want!” The rest of the players burst into laughter. It is a congenial atmosphere afterall.

Watching this – a group of young men in crutches – rising above their limitations and taking the art of determination to a whole new admirable level is perhaps the most inspiring phenomenon I’ll ever experience in my career as a sports writer. My body succumbs to an inevitable invasion of goose bumps as I observe the sheer display of technical skill and intelligence heartwarmingly overshadowing glaring disabilities. They say disability is never inability. They never lied.

There’s an indescribable feeling of awe that is hard to shake off watching these players use their disabled bodies as a beautiful expression of power and energy, achieving the seemingly impossible coordination of the basic elements – controlling, passing, running, crossing shooting et al – with so much forceful effort yet it comes across with calming ease. 

“Isn’t it amazing,” smiles Philip Otuo, an Accra-based journalist who has followed the team since its inception. “Look at the amazing things they are doing on just one leg. It is why some of us decided to follow this team. They are so talented!”

At the end of the first half of the training match-up, the locals are ahead and dominating. “What shows that you are different from the younger ones?” Jarah bellows, standing over the sweat-drenched players who have gathered, seated on the grass for a pep-talk. 

He is referring to the main stream side. “The younger ones totally outplayed you, and all you could do was fight among yourselves? Where was the understanding we worked on? The one-touch passing? What shows that you are different? Even as a coach I’m expecting to learn more from you, given all your experience abroad. At least, let us see that you’ve learnt something over there.”




The players are listening intently as Jarah rants, his gripping tone reflecting his disappointment at his first team’s abysmal first half display. “We move around begging for money,” there is dead silence when Jarah passionately yells these words, which echo and reverberate across the empty stadium. “We need to prove a point!”

That last statement, filled with a lot of noticeable emotion, is a summary of the team’s painful struggles over the years. The team – a very talented unit that is arguably one of Ghana’s best performing national teams across any sport – has been subject to a shocking level of neglect, both from the public and from the government for years.

Challenged Challenge and the bigger picture

During the same year it was founded, the team won the first ever Africa Cup of Nations for Amputee Football (CANAF) in 2007 (Sierra Leone), but, shamefully, couldn’t defend their title in 2009 because there was no money to facilitate the trip to Liberia, just hours away from Ghana.

Indeed, during the Amputee Football World Cup in Argentina four years ago, the team’s struggle for financial sponsorship team meant they arrived close to three days after the tournament had started. The budget amount they had so much difficulty raising? GHC 89,000. While the country’s Sports Ministry inexplicable failed to raise the figure (about $28,000 in today’s rates), the National Sports Council at the time also infamously admitted to exhausting its budget for that year, thus not being in a position to help out.

The irony of the situation lay in the fact that that same year, the Ghana government had sponsored a lot of football fans to South Africa to cheer the country’s football team, the Black Stars, on at the FIFA World Cup. Yet here it was, a government responsible for the well-being of its assets, unable to lend a helping hand to a whole national team. A national team, in fact, that merited help, given the fact that they were ranked number one in Africa and number four in the world at the time. 

“Of course we’re not asking anything huge from the government and I’m afraid when we participate we lift the flag of Ghana high,” a disappointed Adjetey Sowah, then the Vice President of the Amputee team, said. “Are we saying they (the fans sponsored to South Africa) are more important than us who are going to be real actors of the game?”

While corporate bodies, touched by the side’s plight, came in to help out in bits, it took the timely intervention of Ghana’s President at the time, the late Prof JE Atta Mills, to personally order the release of $75,000 to the team to finally enable them travel. 

The relief, however, was short-lived. Their problems didn't end there. After a long trip from Ghana to Argentina, the team had to travel 12 hours by bus to their match center, and had less than four hours to prepare for two games that were played about eight hours apart. 

Even worse, their luggage arrived close to a week after touching down in Buenos Aires, meaning they had to borrow jerseys to honour their games.

For the team’s campaign at the 2012 World Cup played in Russia, where they would eventually place 6th against a tough obstacle course, all the Sports Ministry could give them as a parting gift was a local smock called Fugu

Otuo - who travelled with the team for that tournament - is shaking his head as he recounts the story. The look of disappointment is palpable. 

“We reached Russia and the weather was so cold - we’re taking negative temperatures - and we didn’t even have jackets,” he recalls. “They had to give us blankets – imagine, blankets!- to enable us cope. Later, the Ghana ambassador in Russia sponsored the purchase of some jackets for the team, but even with that, not everyone got one. We didn’t even have adequate medical resources to treat our players. During out 5th/6th play-off clash with England, we had about five out of 12 players out injured, and we ended up losing 2-0. We had to borrow everything, including ice cubes and gentian violet.”

“A philanthropist had to sponsor the team’s jerseys. We had virtually nothing: no money to buy food. I remember how gari became such a savior, especially in 2010,” Otuo adds, falling into fits of laughter he clearly wishes to stifle. “I don’t know why, but it’s interesting that just as the name Black Challenge suggests, we always have challenges.”

The unavoidable debate that emerged from these episodes, especially that of 2010, was whether Ghana really cared about the interest of her citizens living with disability. “Issues of persons living with disability are not issues of politics. They’re issues of fundamental human right and it’s a shame we find ourselves in such an unfortunate situation,” Sowah had claimed, adding that he feared it was only going to deepen the stereotypical discrimination towards the team and the people they represented.




As if being subjected to a negative socio-cultural perception is not enough, persons living with disability In Ghana – estimated by the World Health Organization to be between 7-10% of Ghana’s population –  have long suffered from a lack of support from the government. 

According to the Ghana Federation for the Disabled, they “constitute an impoverished marginalized” group in the society who are “characterised by lack of access to public health, education, and other social services that would ideally support and protect people with disabilities living with disability”. Consequently, the norm in Ghana is a heart-breaking sight of disabled persons unfairly confined by their fate to the streets, helpless, begging for money from commuters.

Tellingly, most of the current players of the Black Challenge were recruited off the streets, a process that has evidently breathed uplifting hope into their lives. “About 60% of them knew very little about football when we took them in, so we had to start from scratch,” Jarah reveals. “We had to even teach some of them how to walk in crutches. And then from then on, how to run in them, how to work with the ball in them and so on.”

Calm and progress as big test looms

Despite being dogged by challenge after challenge, it hasn’t been all gloom. As the team prepares to depart for Mexico to partake in the World Cup [Nov 30-Dec 8] after placing third in the CANAF in Kenya last year, things are steadily improving. “I can say this year has been good,” Jarah admits. “We have had 110% support from the Ministry. Preparations have gone quite well.”

Amputee football began in Ghana around 2001, when some Englishmen in Accra gathered some disabled boys and started teaching them how to play, mostly around Kwame Nkrumah circle, the bustling hub in central Accra. It has come a long way since those modest beginnings. While it was the norm for the national team to train on dusty, foul-stench filled pitches in Accra, they now train at the national stadium – the Accra Sports Stadium, and sometimes at the plush Lizzie’s Sports Complex, owned by Marcel Desailly.

Whereas most of the players are amateurs, it is interesting to know that the team is nourished with some players who play professionally in Turkey. Dreadlocked captain Richard Atta Openstil, his vice Francis Darkwa , midfielder Richard Akwam, and Collins Gyamfi – who commendably is the leading scorer in the Turkish league – are the foreign-based key members of the side.

After the last world cup in Russia, the exposure the players got meant Collins Gyamfi was snapped up by Turkish league, a motivating reward for the team’s efforts. “We pray that after Mexico, more people will be discovered to go, learn come back and contribute,” says Otuo.

In a situation that threatens to derail their focus, there is a court dispute involving the team’s management, a struggle for power and control common amongst Ghana’s sports associations. But Jarah is adamant it won’t affect the team’s hopes of making an impact. “I don’t want to talk about it [court case]. Ours is to build a formidable team to go and do Ghana proud. We will make mother Ghana proud.”




“The only problem,” begins Jarah, a former highly regarded youth International goalkeeper for Ghana, who now has a noticeable walking difficulty due to a spine injury sustained while playing, “…is that I think journalists give too much attention to the glamorous national teams. But we are the disabled ones, the people who need help and support the most. If these players feel noticed and loved by Ghanaians, we will be able to achieve.”

A sport on the ascendency

Amputee football – a game played on a seven-a-side basis (outfield players must have a single leg, while goalkeepers must have a single arm) – is a game fast gaining worldwide prominence.

“It was one of the fastest growing games now,” remarks Otuo. “But unfortunately it’s not an IPC (International Paralympics Committee) registered sport, meaning its not played at the Paralympics. But efforts are being made to incorporate it, and if that happens, at least we can start benefiting from grants.”

Interest in the game is on the rise too. “There will be 23 nations for this year’s World Cup, compared to the 12 of four years ago,” Otuo observes. “So it tells you that it’s gradually taking shape. When we (Ghana) hosted the CANAF in 2011 there were journalists from big organizations like Reuters, and top countries like Spain and the US.”

“The way the game is developing especially in Turkey is amazing. They have a structured league . And since it’s a good initiative, other countries have started pushing their players into their league. Uzbekistan (who won the last World Cup in Russia) is the leading country in the sport, but the Turkish have always been on the podium after every World Cup,” the articulate Otuo, seated by the pitch, explains.

Achieving against the odds

With no running league and no system at all in place for the game’s development, it remains utterly impressive how Ghana – ranked sixth worldwide - is considered one of the world’s top teams. Even with the clear lack of motivation and support, Ghana is Africa’s leading amputee football nation. 




Otuo believes the country must capitalize on this reputation to improve. “We must work hard and hold on to it because we don’t want to become known later as one of the countries that developed it but faded out, thus missing out on all the benefits that the game’s growth brought.”

“We should be more proactive,” he adds. “We only wait till somebody has moulded them together and achieved something before you see people in suit and tie stepping in to claim all the glory. Let this team win the trophy [in Mexico], you’ll see the number of people that will come out and usher them to the flagstaff house (Seat of Ghana’s Presidency).

“We should take it serious because disability sports are changing lives. How do you feel when you see some of these people on the streets begging? Look at the danger they put themselves in in a bid to make ends meet. We should know that they also have talents which they can feed on and make something of their lives and be of importance to the nation.”

He believes it’s high time the nation stepped up in its efforts towards disability sports. “We’re only praying that at least we can get a mini sports arena not only for disabled footballers, but for other sportsmen in other disability sports to develop their skills. Look, some of them are multiply talented too: some are also cyclers and some practice taekwondo,” he says, pointing out some players as they busily train on the pitch.

Worlds apart

While Ghana’s Black Stars continue to underachieve (the team hasn't won a trophy since 1982), they continue to enjoy massive attention and a range of enviable privileges, being on the receiving end of superstar treatment and conspicuous pampering. Receiving fat bonuses and living like kings across five star hotels, they remain the country’s most patronized and powerful sporting institution – so powerful that their demands brought the country to a standstill during the World Cup, with the President having to step in and fly close to $4.5 million dollars on a chartered flight to settle their bonus agitations.

But, receiving barely one millionth of the support the Stars get, the Black Challenge – who are not beneficiaries of any structured bonus systems and are owed tons of cash from previous assignments - continue to overcome many barriers in an admirable bid to fly the flag of Ghana high.




“It’s a very difficult game to play, as you can see,” says Otuo, as we watch the players exhibit unbelievable perseverance in replicating able-bodied football antics in crutches; a magical sight. “When they make all this effort and they aren't even recognized, it’s sad,” he adds. “Very sad. Sometimes, its not even just the logistical or financial support. They need psychological support too. People have to show care.”

At the end of the session, with night fast approaching, some of the players approach Otuo - “Philipo”, as they affectionately call him - to ask for coins to buy sachets of water, because there are no provisions made for it. Otuo looks at me and shrugs.

A source of hope

The players, tired but in a chatty mood, walk out and head towards the team bus in front of the stadium. In the short ride from the stadium to their camp – a hostel on the compound of Ghana’s National Hockey Stadium – I am seated by Hafiz Iddi, one of the team’s players.

He’s noticeably quiet as he looks out the window. “Do you feel the nation does not care about you?” I ask, curiously. He nods slowly. “Yes,” he whispers. “Yes. As you can see, the Black Stars for instance have people throng to the stadium to watch them train, but for ours, we are always alone.”

He is right. There wasn’t a single spectator at the 40,000-seater stadium. Heck, most Ghanaians are not even aware of the existence of the team, and the few who do unfortunately find themselves on the verge of losing interest due to the media’s lack of attention towards the team.“It’s sad, but things will get better,” he opines.

Unlike many other countries whose amputee football teams are made up of ex-military men (who acquired their disabilities as a consequence of wars), 80% of Ghana’s team, reveals Otuo, became disabled due to accidents.

Iddi, who works a modest job as a cleaner up North in Tamale, painfully remembers how his leg became amputated. “I was a young boy in Tamale,” he recalls the touching story, slowly. “I was with my brother. And then there was a car. Hmm,” he pauses momentarily. “It knocked me down, and my injuries were very serious.”

Iddi believes amputee football has given meaning to a life that would have been otherwise so hard to live. It has made him happy.

“It has given me hope,” he says, his face surrendering to an encouraging smile as he movingly clenches his fists for emphasis.

The smile speaks a thousand words, an expression of the joy of finding life’s purpose in this sport. 

NOTE: As a freelance reporter, I planned, researched, went on location and wrote this article independently as a freelance piece, originally for this blog (My own blog). It however first went live on ZONALSports.com, a new Kumasi-based sports website. The interest it generated however also meant it also appeared on Ghanaian websites such as , StarrFMOnline.com, GhanaSportsOnline.com, GhanaWeb.com among a few others.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Didi Dramani aims to set the pace with his pursuit of perfection



By Fiifi Anaman 
 

BABA YARA STADIUM, Kumasi - Mas-Ud Didi Dramani is standing in the middle of the pitch on a warm Saturday morning, surrounded by his players. They are practicing, and he’s observing intently, barking orders in between. His concentration is noticeably engrossing, his gaze philosophical. There’s a peculiar sense of an obsession with being meticulous: he wants everything to be perfect, and he signals them to repeat every drill if he notices the slightest compromise.