Thursday, 22 August 2013
Interview with an African football coaching legend
Fiifi Anaman | Ghanaian Football Writer
NORTH KANESHIE, Accra - Ghana’s first African Cup triumph occurred almost 50 years ago.
The man who was in charge of that team went on to win it a further two times, in 1965 and 1982, making it a then record hat trick of triumphs, cementing his place in the pantheon of not only African but world football coaching legends.
Charles Kumi “CK” Gyamfi, now 84, looks back on his achievements and feels proud, and humbled, in a beautiful emotional paradox that can only be appreciated if you see how he talks about it. He sits in his living room, close to a cabinet that holds many FIFA documents from his time as a technical director in the late 90s, as well as many framed photos from his playing and coaching days.
“I thank God for making me so because I never thought I will get to the place I am today. I feel very happy and feel blessed by the almighty,” he tells Goal Ghana in an interview. “I don’t stress too much about what people think about me. I do things to make myself the people around me happy.”
CK has long been known for his achievements from the dugout, but unknown to many, he was equally as good on the pitch. His talent shown as early as when he was a 7 year old, playing with the senior team in his school. With his talent in hot demand, he would later represent Accra Great Argonauts, Koforiduah Sailors Football Club, Accra Standfast, Cape Coast Mysterious Dwarfs as well as both of Ghana’s two traditional giants, Asante Kotoko and Hearts of Oak.
“I was a very young boy when he played football. Everyone talked about just how good he was as a footballer. He was a star. He’s one of Ghana’s greatest ever footballers,” Cecil Jones Attuquayefio, celebrated Ghanaian coach who cites CK as his biggest influence and mentor, tells Goal Ghana.
Learning the trade
CK left for Germany in August 1959 after German top division club Fortuna Dusseldorf had played a friendly with his club Hearts of Oak. He would become Ghana’s first ever footballer to play professionally in Europe, dazzling German fans with his breath taking talent and earning the nickname "Tunda Vita” (Thunder weather) for his powerful shooting ability.
Interestingly, Ghana’s then Amateur Football Association, under the leadership of legendary administrator Ohene Djan, arranged for him to be groomed as a coach in Cologne, which was at the time the world’s most reputable center for the training of coaches, inspired by the great German coach Hennes Weisweller.
It was all part of then Ghana president Kwame Nkrumah’s grand scheme of things; a plan to express pan-africanism through football. Ghana’s Black Stars was to be Africanized; a native team managed by a native coach, to spread Nkrumah’s popular refrain that “the black man can manage his own affairs.”
“Nkrumah was such a great man, he loved sports so much. He loved us (the Black Stars) so much too. We worked for him. Whenever we were beaten, he would become very upset,” CK says, looking at a framed photo of Kwame Nkrumah and himself, where the former has his hand on the latter’s shoulder, seemingly congratulating him for his good works. “He was always there and supportive of everything we did. He liked the players very much, whenever he met you, he would talk to you. This made us so energetic. We were always prepared to die for Ghana.”
On CK’s return in September 1960, he was made a player-team manager of the Black Stars, as well as given the opportunity to under study expatriate Josef Ember, whom he eventually succeeded. His ascent to head coach status, the first black to achieve that in the Republic of Ghana, occurred when he was barely a 34 year old. He started out as a player-coach, eventually phasing out his on the pitch duties to fully concentrate on training the team. Public expectations of the team – “you always had to win!” - like today, were high, and young CK knew he had to have no distractions. He knew he had to leave no stone unturned.
In June 1962, CK was sponsored to go and study the training methods of Brazil’s National team, a team including the game’s greats such as Pele, Garrincha and Didi, who had won two World Cups. Ghana’s football top hierarchy wanted to know what the Brazilians had done to become so beautifully dominant. They wanted in on some success too.
“The players are dedicated and the programmes are tough and stiff,” CK had observed then. “They run through mountains and valleys regularly before starting with tactics. It is no joke at all. I prize this opportunity highly and I hope Ghana players will benefit from my experience.”
His players did benefit from his experience. CK, though with a team many claimed had been prepared by Ember, went on to win the Uhuru Cup in Uganda, the West African Gold Cup, and finally, the holy grail; the African Cup, hosted by Ghana in 1963. At that tournament, CK was the only black coach – his winning of the trophy representing victory and justification for Nkrumah’s beliefs.
Tribute to a fellow legend
The team that won that historic first African Cup for Ghana unfortunately missed one influential member.
Baba Yara, affectionately known as the “King of Wingers”, had been part of the contingent of Ghanaian top flight power club Real Republikans FC (formed with the best players from every other club, in Nkrumah’s image) that had suffered an accident after a league game in March 1963.
Yara, whose legendary name is now on one of Ghana’s biggest stadiums in Kumasi, home of his club Asante Kotoko, had not been lucky. He became paralyzed after the accident, and was flown out for treatment to the UK for treatment. He returned later, his once magical legs immobile and helplessly confined in a wheel chair.
CK Gyamfi talks about Yara with so much respect, so much admiration, so much awe. He thinks Yara is the best footballer Ghana has ever produced.
“Has to be him,” he says with, without a scintilla of doubt or hesitation. “Baba was always careful and he had so much understanding. You could always work with him the way you liked it. He would go so hard; he would never tell you he’s tired, no matter what.”
CK had played with Yara before later coaching him. “He was a great player, very stylish. He was very humble and respectful too.
“Whatever you would teach, he would try to learn. When I was leaving the football scene, I was very much disturbed about my exit because of him. He was such a nice boy.
Unfortunately, that accident and the subsequent paralysis signaled the end of an iconic career for Yara. It was a cruel arrangement by fate that it happened nine months before the National team, of which he was arguably its marquee star, won its first African Cup.
“We all called on God to have mercy on him. Sometimes we would pass by his place after close of training. It was very painful. Very painful.
“When he was taken out from hospital, we were there for him. Anything that he wanted was supplied to him by management. We had to give him a chance to relax. A few yrs later he died. That was the end of him.”
CK’s glowing tribute of Yara is deep, something he barely thinks about before saying. Something that flow naturally. Something so engaging.
“He liked laughing a lot. I cannot even describe him. We were lucky to be very close with him during his playing days. We know just how good he was. He was so flexible, and if a player is flexible, he can do anything you would like him to do - bending, jumping and other things that necessary for the team. He could do all things by himself. It was very sad what happened to him. Very sad.”
Insight into success’s salient ingredients
Talking about Yara, CK tries to reflect on how the brilliant King of Wingers’ values was a microcosm of how every player was during his coaching days, and also of the spirit in camp. Hard work, humility, respect, focus, commitment.
“Most of the young players these days don’t put all their heart in it, so they climb a little and they start falling. Some don’t respect their elders too. And that’s very bad. Otherwise we would have a lot of good players over here in Ghana these days.”
CK goes on to talk about what he discovered is the key to a successful National team, something that the current generation seem to lack. Ghana has gone 31 years without the African Cup since he last won it.
“It all depends on the contact between the players and management; that’s very important. If the management is ok, then the playing body will also be okay. Vice versa. Whole thing depends on the team, management, players. You have to have people who are concerned with whatever happens and take it serious. They must know each other, work together and play together so that when they get on the field, the fluidity will be there.”
He talks about the little things that made his team a delight to watch, and a constant threat in every competition they played in. “We loved each other. There was nothing like arrogance and disunity; no one would say “menim bo kyen wo!” [I’m a better football player than you are!] No.”
“Everyone in the team was a star. I had certain boys in the team who were very very good, and you had to use your head and try to get those people into positions that they loved and that worked for them and for the team. If you went in and you used who you liked where you wanted, then you would obviously be destroying yourself.
“If you did the job very well, you’d find out that you would have your players support, trust and confidence – that way, things would fall into place and they would do whatever you ask them to do.”
And his job was made much easier with the intelligence of his players. “When I used to travel, I would bring back many systems for us to learn and try out. The players had a deep understanding of the game, it was so easy to impart knowledge.”
Faith and confidence in our own
CK is disappointed with Ghana’s constant preference for expatriate coaches, something that seems to have become entrenched in our thinking. The culture, he argues, basically says the black man can’t manage his own affairs, a blatant lack of adherence to Nkrumah’s belief in the 60s that made Ghana a fearsome force. A force which became widely known as the “Brazil of Africa.”
The matter is most dear to his heart because he’s been a victim of it before; he was surprisingly a second choice on the scale of preference when the Ghana Football Association was about appointing a coach for the Senegal 1992 African Cup. German Burkhard Ziesse was preferred over CK – despite the latter’s glowing and much superior C.V.
“Why should we sit down and have a white coach come and dictate to us? What they have to do, they’ve done it already, we’ve seen whatever they want to do with football in the country.
“Anything we have to learn from them we have done. I can’t see anything more important thing that they can add, honestly.”
The Brazilian connection
CK would prove his competence two years after the 1963 triumph, assembling an almost totally new team in his own image and ideas to clinch a second successive African Cup in Tunisia. That squad, which was tuned to employ the 4-2-4 formation that CK had picked up during his time in Brazil, included the likes of 1965 Ghana footballer of the year, Osei “Wizard dribbler” Kofi, Ben Acheampong, Frank Odoi, captain Addo Odametey and a young Jones Attuquayefio.
Condescending whispers that he was a clueless beneficiary of Ember’s foundational work ceased, with Ghanaian fans developing a deep admiration and respect for him. His momentous African Cup three-peat in 1982 would come at a time when his pedigree as one of Africa’s most competent and successful coaches was already indubitable.
Nkrumah’s overthrow in 1966 saw CK assume a relatively quiet professional life. He had however helped a then 24 year old student named Carlos Alberto Parreira, a future World Cup winner, to prepare Ghana for the 1968 edition of the African Cup.
“I met Parreira in Brazil. He was a nice person and serious about his job. When I came back, I said very good things about him to the authorities. Then it became necessary at some point that he came over,” CK says.
In 1967, Ghana, under the National Redemption Council - the military junta that over threw Nkrumah - had approached the Brazilian foreign ministry for a trainer, with Parreira being selected. He was considered the brightest physical education student at Rio State University. “Together with my assistant Ben Koufie, I decided to help him out in preparing the team,” CK, whose recommendation played a part in the Brazilian’s advent, says.
Ghana would win silver medals at the African Cup in Ethiopia. Parreira, who also led Asante Kotoko to a runner-up finish in the 1968 African Champion Club’s Cup, would go on to become a physical trainer for Brazil’s golden team that won the 1970 World Cup, as well as winning the World Cup as coach himself 24 years later. He is now one of the biggest names in world football, and Ghana, through CK, played a vital role in his formative years as a coach. “That experience abroad in Ghana really helped my career,” Parreira would admit years later in film Director Baff Akoto’s Ghanaian football documentary Football Fables.
CK himself was then a much bigger name than Parreira. His exploits from Ghana’s bench had made him high profile coach on the globe. He was famously selected to be the head coach of an African XI side that played in a tournament featuring other strong nations as Japan, Italy, France and Argentina.
Now known as Nana Kumi Gyamfi I after being enstooled as a chief by the people of Okorasi in the Eastern Region of Ghana (1999), CK’s importance to football history and development in Ghana cannot be over emphasized. His influence grew from the landmark genesis of being part of the Gold Coast XI team that toured Great Britain in 1951, where Ghana lost eight of its ten matches playing barefooted. CK, then a young 22 year old amongst senior players, scored 11 of Ghana’s goals. “It was a sign of good things to come.”
Very few athletes have made the successful transition from exceptional player to exceptional coach. CK would later play for both Kotoko and Hearts, Ghana’s biggest clubs as a star player and captain, as well as once forming his own club (Great Ashanti 1954, after breaking away from Kotoko) through to being a founding member of the Black Stars, captaining and coaching it to many laurels.
“We did our part,” he says, nodding, staring reflectively at a clay sculpture of himself on top of his cabinet. That wonderful piece of art was done when he was approaching the twilight of his playing career, and he says it reminds him of how he looked like in his youth. It aids all those nostalgic memories to flow back. To be relived and looked back on with pride and satisfaction.
“We really did.”
CK says he is close to completing his memoires, which will be on bookshelves before the close of the year.
This article first appeared on Goal.com. You can follow me on twitter - @fiifianaman - for the best in Ghanaian (and occasional world) football news and opinion.