Friday, 29 July 2016

When Sir Stanley Matthews came to Ghana




This image was sourced from the book 'A short history of Ghana football and the rise of the Black Stars', written by the late Ohene Djan

Below is an extract from the upcoming Autobiography of Charles Kumi 'C,K.' Gyamfi, published with permission. C.K Gyamfi, who died in September last year, was an accomplished footballer who captained Ghana's national team before going on to become the first African to play professionally in Germany. His record of three African Cup of Nations titles (1963, 1965 and 1982) as coach of Ghana makes him one of the most successful black coaches in football history. Below, he recalls when the great English footballer Sir Stanley Matthews visited Ghana, in 1957.

-------

When our club, Hearts of Oak, decided to invite the great Sir Stanley Matthews, everyone wondered how we were going to pull it off.  Sir Stanley, ‘The Magician’, one of his affectionate monikers, was by then the biggest footballer on the globe. The year before, he had been awarded the Balon d’Or, football’s biggest individual prize, when UEFA-based journalists voted him ahead of Real Madrid’s Alfredo Di Stefano.

Our coach Ken Harrison, himself also an Englishman, had handled the negotiations and correspondence with Sir Stanley’s camp. Then playing for Blackpool, Sir Stanley had expressed interest in touring Ghana and indeed had followed it up by giving his word that he would come, but where were we going to find the money to finance the operation? I must admit that most of us were doubtful about it happening.

It took an assurance from our chairman H.P Nyemetei, or Henry, as we simply used to call him, to give an assurance that the club could shoulder the financial burden of such a huge project. He announced that the superstar’s ticket and match fees had been guaranteed.

Sir Stanley’s arrival was accompanied by colourful fanfare. At the airport, soon after his BOAC Argonaut aircraft touched down, he heartily descended the gangway, wearing a sleek Blackpool Blazer and a grey flannel pair of trousers, soaking in the hot Ghanaian ambiance. 

Sir Stanley descending from his plane on his arrival in Ghana [Daily Graphic]

He was met by a range of high profile dignitaries from our club and beyond – including a representative from the British Council and Kotoko’s President J.D Amoah. Players and fans of Hearts were also there to hijack the atmosphere with sprightly renditions of the club’s anthems. It was a proud moment for the Hearts fraternity.

From the airport, he was driven to the Accra Community Center, where a sort of welcome ceremony was scheduled to unfurl. The venue was full of colour and ardour, filled with tradition, and an addition of local and foreign pressmen.

The Sempe Mantse, Nii Tetteh Kpeshie II, on behalf of Hearts - of which he was Patron - enstooled him ‘Soccerhene’ (king of football). This was after a range of speeches by Henry, FA chief Richard Akwei, and Sports Council chairman Sir Leslie McCarthy.

Sir Stanley looked regal sitting in state. Fittingly, he was dressed up in full Ghanaian chieftain gear –  a kente cloth over a white jumper, while his famous feet, featuring distinct Ahenema (Native sandals), rested on a pair of footballs. He beamed with smiles and seemed fascinated by the warm hospitality and the resplendent cultural exhibition. 

The Sempe Mantse then handed him an ivory sword as a “symbol of authority as soccerhene.” “I realize what it means to be given such an honour and I will strive always to live up to the best traditions,” he pledged to an outburst of applause.

Mr E.M.I Maclennan, the British High Commissioner, Mr Dennis Saunders, his host, and Ken Harrison, our coach – all Englishmen – made Sir Stanley feel at home.

Later the next day, he began what would be a running theme throughout his stay: calling on dignitaries, visiting places of interest, and participating in numerous sherry parties thrown in his honour.

Sir Stanley [R] at a gathering. On the extreme left is Hearts of Oak President Henry Plange 'H.P' Nyemetei, who masterminded the Englishman's visit [Daily Graphic]


***

All of us – the players at Hearts - were eager to experience Sir Stanley in the flesh. We were so curious, so pumped up. We wanted to see, to observe, to learn. As you can imagine, there was so much we could imbibe from a legend such as Sir Stanley. He was a model professional: he neither drank nor smoked, and he had an unflinching commitment to personal training, fitness and healthy dieting. No wonder he was considered the best player in the world at the age of 41. Even more admirable was the fact that he had never been sent off on the pitch his entire career. He was a class act.

We certainly anticipated being star-struck. Intimidated, even. But when, for some bizarre reason, he turned up at our first training session wearing a leather boot that was worn out and thus had a nail protruding out the base, we felt that the god was human after all. He was just like one of us. Well, not quite, but you get the point, don’t you?

We helped him get the boots ready by using a stone to hit the nail back in its place. He was very amicable and the whole experience helped us feel at ease, allowing the butterflies to settle. We started bonding with him from that amusing start.

His impression after our first training session was that our methods were wizened. He described our warm- up and jogging routine as “outmoded”, further teaching us what he was used to back in England. It was a priceless learning curve.

The first game scheduled on his tour bill was against our rivals Asante Kotoko on May 26. The press dubbed the game “Match of the Century” – in their eyes, the biggest football match ever to be played in the country. They certainly weren’t overglorifying.

By this time, the whole of Ghana was yearning to see the man nicknamed worldwide as the “Wizard of the Dribble” in action on Ghanaian soil. Many fans, about 20,000 of them, crammed the Accra Sports Stadium to be a part of this grand slam. A good number of dignitaries convoyed their way to the venue too: the likes of Prime Minister Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Head of State Sir Arku Korsah, some cabinet Ministers and the U.K. High Commissioner.

We had feverishly prepared to accommodate Sir Stanley in our team. We shifted our regular outside right, Ofei Dodoo, to inside right in order to create a space in our lineup for the Englishman to slot in. Also, we had worked on perfecting long, through passes from the back to the right wing, in an attempt to make sure we were in a position to adequately feed him with the ball. Our forward line, too – led by myself and featuring Dodoo and Agyiri Fynn – worked tirelessly on sharpening our shooting. We did not want to embarrass ourselves by squandering Sir Stanley’s anticipated servicing.

Like us, our opponents from Kumasi were equally anxious to learn from the legend. My former teammate and good friend James Adjaye, who in those days was the peerless master of dribbling in Ghana, remarked: “It’s a good feeling to know you are going to learn more dribbling.”

***

[Daily Graphic]


For two minutes after the start of the game, Sir Stanley had not touched the ball. Because he was the center of attraction, the subject of traction, the anxiety to see the ball at his feet began to rise, filling the atmosphere with tension. The thousands gathered inside the stadium, their eyes fixated on him, couldn’t wait to see him do what he did best. They could not wait to see the burst of pace and the dribbling wizardry, the accurate passing and the immaculate crossing – attributes that they had seen at the cinema houses and were desperate to see in the flesh.

When the ball did find its way to him, his failure to trap it due to the uneven surface of the pitch meant the ball speedily rolled beneath his studs. It was an awkward moment, an anticlimax, but we knew better: that technical fault was due to the difficult terrain rather than a deficiency in skill on his part.

After that nervy start, he surveyed the pitch and became settled, finding his feet nicely. Soon, he began to exert his influence, sauntering his way about, flaunting his world-acclaimed skill-set, much to our entertainment and awe. The crowd loved it, meeting every touch of his with high pitched cheers.

The difference was clear, because the quality was there. Sir Stanley was a fine artist, emitting a rare majestic air that made the crowd stir. His ball instincts were distinct, his intelligence elegant. Watching him perform in a game situation was fusion of different feelings; on one hand you were a student at a football lecture, and on another, a first-hand witness of greatness. He controlled the ball with a serenity that allowed him to pass with very little faults. And those passes were well distilled too – some were simple, short and sharp, while others had a bit of distance, bearing a touch that was either vicious or visionary. The common theme running through his control and distribution, though, was how he kept the ball on the turf. This, notably, was in sharp contrast to our footballers’ addiction having balls high and in flight. Sir Stanley was a staunch advocate of keeping the ball low and simple, and he believed it allowed us to keep the ball in possession. He led by example anytime he dropped deep to to pick up the ball, with the intention of starting an attacking build-up. His direction of affairs offered us a practical opportunity to learn on the job.

[Daily Graphic]

Of course, at times, he did not spare some harmless show-boating. He nutmegged some of his markers with baffling ease, dribbling past others with sudden feints that validated his appellation ‘Soccer Saint’; with swerves that hardly served the reality that he was a 42-year old.

Another thing that was fascinating about our guest was his calm nerves. He seemed to display an aversion for aggression. In a game that can get so hectic and electric, racy and pacy, mazy and crazy, his knack for conserving energy, for preserving a balanced synergy between his effort and fatigue, was amazing. He avoided unnecessary physical duels and only run when he had to. His approach looked strategic, planned. You could see that every one of his moves was well- thought out, well-calculated. He barely extemporized, barely made impulsive decisions in the heat of the moment. There was no rush to his disposition at all. He looked like he knew what he was doing, exuding an entrancing aura of control.

---

This is my Story: The Autobiography of C.K Gyamfi [with Fiifi Anaman] is published late 2016.


Sunday, 5 June 2016

Nkrumah and the Nsoromma


Note:

The following is an excerpt from an upcoming book, published with permission.



Kwame Nkrumah [Far left] - Ghana's first indigenous leader, greeting his beloved Black Stars before a game. Players in the shot are [L-R] Captain E.J Aggrey-Fynn, Mohammed Salisu, C.A Odametey, E.O Oblitey and Addoquaye Laryea [Sourced from google images]


-----

It must have been sometime in 1964, if my memory serves me right. I, as national coach, and my boss, Ohene Djan, the Director of Sports, arrived at the Flagstaff House to honour an appointment with the President. When we got there, though, we were told, by his secretary, that Kwame Nkrumah was in a meeting. We had to wait.

While we were seated in the waiting area just outside of his office, we would see him occasionally file past us, flanked by some visitors, presumably because he was walking in and out of the meeting attending to other issues. Anytime he’d walk by, he would momentarily steal what looked like a deliberate, deadpanned glance at us.

A long hour and a half later, he returned to his office without any escorts, giving us the hint the meeting had ended. After being ushered in by his secretary, we found ourselves standing a few centimeters from his desk, staring at him as he busily scribbled in his diary.

We continued standing there, waiting for an order – or gesture – to enable us sit, but his head was so buried in his writing that he barely looked up at us. As his right hand danced with speed on the page, his face sporting the neurotic concentration of a sage, we stayed rooted to our spot, watching, the suspense unassuaged, anxiety throttling us.

Ten minutes later, after he had filled about two pages, we saw his head ascend slightly, his eyebrow rising concurrently. He stared back at us for a few seconds, as if lost in thoughts, then, afterwards, signaled us to have a seat.

When he spoke, his tone was stone cold. He conveyed a business-like mood too, his face still straight, missing his usual smile. Then, he showed us a graph with detailed records of our performances, pointing out with concern that we were on a downward curve. “Your standards are falling, you are losing matches,” he said, a statement shot through with crystal clarity.

Indeed, it was true. We had lost two consecutive matches and the public was on our necks, castigating us for allowing ourselves to surrender to a nose-dive in form. Football was serious business and we were the custodians of many emotional investments. At that point, we were seen to be mismanaging them. When we got the message that Nkrumah wanted to see us, we immediately knew that he was going to demand answers.

After those words, he went mute again, rebooting the prevalence of awkward silence, with all its asphyxiating mind games and psychological distress. Minutes later, though, he broke the quietude when he spoke to Djan: asking him to come to him if he needed extra funds to fix the situation.

Then, he turned to me. He took out a piece of paper and wrote down a number. “Call on me personally if you need anything you are not getting,” he said. “It means a lot to me that we’ve entrusted our football fortunes in your hands.”

He dismissed us soon afterwards. I had never been in such a tension packed meeting in my life.

***

C.K Gyamfi - during his time as captain of the Black Stars - being greeted by Kwame Nkrumah before a game [Sourced from google images]


You may have already discerned throughout my recollections that Nkrumah loved football and saw it as a major tool for his famous belief in Pan Africanism.

There is an endless list of exhibits.

Indeed, it was Nkrumah who brought about the West Africa Football Championship in 1959, donating a Gold Cup to be competed for. It was Nkrumah who set up the iconic Central Organization for Sport (C.O.S) in 1960 and put Djan in charge with the mission of accelerating the development of Ghanaian sports. It was Nkrumah who mooted the idea for the formation of Real Republikans – a controversial but effective club that proved critical to the success of the Black Stars in the 60s.
It was Nkrumah, who together with Djan, lobbied to bring the African Cup to Ghana in 1963, charging us to win it - which we did. It was Nkrumah who, again in 1963, bought and donated a trophy to be competed for by Africa’s champion league clubs – something that evolved into a competition you now know as the CAF Champions League. And, when FIFA’s white-dominated elite decided to pursue racist policies such as entertaining Apartheid South Africa and refusing Africa an independent World Cup slot, it was Nkrumah who was the most vocal of a legion of African leaders who criticized football’s governing body and sparked an African boycott of the 1966 World Cup.

But this is all just to give you a taste of how involved he was with football and what it meant to him and his cause.

The particular reason I recalled that meeting, though, was to show how deeply he valorized the Black Stars. I won’t exaggerate: he didn’t make it to all our games, but he attended whenever he could. As for meetings with him, they were fairly frequent. He did his best to familiarize himself with the team.

He kept close tabs on us, on our progress, and gave us a lot of push – in resources and in motivational words. He saw us as ambassadors for black potential, black power, black might. A major part of the reason why we attained prominence was because as patron, he gave the Djan-led C.O.S all the support needed to make us a football force. He backed Djan’s foresight-laden ideas: from the hiring of experienced professional coaches, to giving coaching scholarships to local footballers, through to inviting top European teams into the country for tours. He did so because he wanted the Black Stars to be world class. We used to say in those days: “As it is in Europe and South America, so shall it be in Ghana.”

So profound was his interest that when Real Madrid came to town in 1962, their captain Alfredo Di Stefano remarked that he knew of no other President in the world who took his national football team as serious.

I think the sense of nationalism and patriotism that his personality evinced robbed off the Stars through constant contact. His ace phrase, “Go and come back on the shield”, spoken to us before games, was a stimulant like no other. Whenever we went out to play matches, we played our hearts out, because we wanted to – as he always admonished us – “bring honour to Ghana.” The possibility of losing was so difficult to fathom because of the fear of betraying his peculiar belief and interest in us.

Ei, you want to lose a game? How would you face the Osagyefo? How would you explain?

***

There was one time, December 1965, when Kenya invited the Black Stars for a game. They wanted Africa’s most respected team in Nairobi for their second independence anniversary celebrations. It was clear that the Kenyans, whom we had played and beaten twice before, were being motivated by the prospect of gaining a reputation by causing a sensation.

We had nothing to gain by playing them, but, due to the premium Nkrumah placed on African sister-nation relations, we honoured their invitation. Besides, for Nkrumah, an avid campaigner of Black liberation, the sound of independence was always music to his ears, and so there was no hesitation on his part in flying us out to go grace the occasion.

We were fresh from being crowned African champions for a second time and so were in the form of our lives. We ended up shredding the Kenyans into pieces.

We beat them 13-2.

Nkrumah got in touch with us after the game and to our surprise, wasn’t amused by our show of class. “I did not send you to go murder them. It’s a celebration. Go easy on them, give them a fair chance.”

We adhered to this brief from our Commander in Chief. Two days later, we met the Kenyans in the second leg and allowed them some happiness, drawing 3-3.

------


'THIS IS MY STORY: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF C.K GYAMFI' (with Fiifi Anaman) is published late 2016.

More information on the book here: http://fiifianaman.blogspot.com/2015/12/on-ck-gyamfi-rare-honour.html

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Book Review: Heysel - The truth

Francesco Caremani (R) after handing me a copy of his book

Before I met Francesco Caremani, I already knew that he brimmed with humanity.

The Italian journalist had sent me a Facebook request, accompanied by a warm message on my wall, upon learning that we had both been named finalists in the same category at the inaugural Sport Media Pearl Awards. Later, as I gradually became Facebook friends with most of the actors who were to play a role at the awards, I discovered that Mr Caremani had been to almost all of their walls to drop messages of gratitude for their acceptance. ‘See you in Abu Dhabi,’ he’d added to the messages, always signing off with a happy-faced smiley. It wasn’t much to go on, admittedly, but I cannot deny that he immediately struck me as someone who cares about people.

I met the man at the vast lobby of the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers Hotel, on the second day of the awards programme, just before an Abu Dhabi City tour planned for all finalists. He was all smiles and good wishes, emitting an aura of positivity that was contagious. Later, he engaged me in a conversation about how passionate he is about his club, Juventus, and how proud he thought I must feel as a Ghanaian regarding the impact Kwadwo Asamoah has had at the club.

The next day, Mr Caremani surprised me at a conference organized on sport journalism. He approached me, reached into his bag and pulled out a book. He smiled at me as he handed it over. “This is my present to you as a fellow finalist,” he said. “I learnt I’m the oldest finalist in our category and I feel a responsibility as a big brother be good to you and Johannes (Johannes Nedo from Germany). Have it, please. It is a new edition of book I wrote about my club. I hope you like it and at least will give you something to remember me by.”

L-R: Anaman, CaremanI and Nedo - the three nominees for 'Writing - Best Column' at the 2015 Sport Media Pearl Awards in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E


I was taken aback. Touched? Absolutely, I was – but I also felt a sudden rush of guilt. I hadn’t thought of bringing anyone any presents – it had barely crossed my mind. And I felt bad. I apologized that I couldn’t return his gesture. “Don’t worry at all,” he said. “Occasions like this is about friendship and celebration, and so it’s the least I could do. I’m glad to have met you and everyone. I wish you the very best at the awards tonight too, whatever happens. We are all winners.”

The book, titled Heysel: The True Story, puts under the microscope, the infamous disorder that burst to life among spectators just before the 1985 European Cup final between Juventus and Liverpool at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium. Indeed, what happened that day, 31 years ago - the 29th of May, 1985 – was a tragic blot on the integrity of the sport, a mad, bad and sad sequence that proved ultimately fatal, terminating the innocent lives of people whose only crime had been to love the sport so much as to turn up in a stadium to cheer their beloved club on. “What happened was avoidable. It could have been avoided. It should have been avoided,” Mr Caremani’s colleague, Roberto Beccantini, writes aptly in the foreword.

As a Liverpool fan, I was fairly familiar with the dark events of Heysel, just as I was acquainted with that of Hillsborough which occurred four years afterwards, but I admit that unlike Hillsborough (which is understandably always viewed from Liverpool's perspective due to the 96 victims being fans of the club), Heysel was always bit of a haze for me. Perhaps my knowledge of that tragic event was vague because its devastating effects swayed more towards Juve than Liverpool. And so it was an opportunity for me to learn. And boy, did I learn - and more.

What makes the book so rich in content is not only the enormity of the research and insight that under-girds the story, or the way Mr Caremani’s humanity is embedded in every opinion expressed, but also how he tells the tale with a sense of genuine care that can only come from someone who has a first-hand association with the tragedy. Among the people who lost their lives that day, two of them – Robert Lorrentini and Giuseppina Conti – were natives of Arezzo, the town where Mr Caremani was born and bred. The misfortune was close. And it was felt.

Indeed, Roberto was a close associate of Mr Caremani. He was a loved one, a friend of his family.
But for the unusual luck of a failed school exam (and his parents grounding him for it), Mr Caremani - then still a teenager madly in love with Juventus– admits that he would have been in Brussels that night. Unfortunately, Roberto managed to make the trip – and it eventually turned out to be the proverbial ‘journey of no return’ for a 30-year-old man who had his whole life ahead of him, one who had to leave behind a wife (Arianna), two sons (Andrea and Stefano) and a loving father (Otello Lorrentini, who later later founded and spearheaded the Association for the families of Brussels victims).

Otello Lorrentini plays a huge role in the book: his accounts, materials and activism guides its narrative, and as Beccantini writes, he serves as "a sort of Virgil who accompanied the author into the underworld both during and after the tragedy." Mr Caremani's gratitude and admiration of Otello is visible throughout the book. The author is inspired that a man can overcome and transcend his own colloquial pain to devote his life to seeking justice and meaning to the lives of others. "This is my life," the late Otello told the author. Mr Caremani is also awed that Otello managed to "raise his two grandchildren (Stefano and Andrea) with heart and soccer - nothing special for many of us, but extraordinary for someone who lost his only child on a stadium terrace."

Mr Caremani, who received the news of Roberto’s death with tears and fears the morning after, says a part of him died with his friend, and it sparked a lot of emotion that has endured till today. "The funeral service was attended by the entire city of Arezzo," he remembers. "The sorrow disfigured people's faces."

Along with 38 other people, Roberto was cruelly slaughtered at the altar of football. Together, they all paid a heavy price for their passion at the dreaded Block Z area at Heysel – and even more unfortunate was the fact that their lives were made to seem insignificant in the aftermath of the game, as many Juventini insensitively celebrated a subsequent win made possible by a penalty converted by the great French play-maker Michel Platini, an act Mr Caremani equated to "virtually stepping over the bodies" of the people who had died at the game. Mr Caremani agrees that it was "essential" that the match was played to avoid further carnage, but argues that cheering was wrong on the back of what happened. To him, the victory was meaningless, the celebrations shameful. He wants the victory erased from the records of the Bianconeri and the cup returned back to UEFA. He detests the mocking of the dead, the celebration of the win, and the trivialization of the tragedy. His stance is non-negotiable, exposing an essential truth: life is larger than football, and it can never be vice versa. Human life can and should never be sacrificed in the name of the sport.

Mr Caremani exhaustively investigates the saga through interviews exploring harrowing personal accounts, analysis examining public accounts, as well as a chronicling of the inquiry process, the legal actions, the punishments, and the wide spectrum of events that characterized the ensuing years in the tragedy’s wake. And this is done with a tone that takes no prisoners with the truth, a voice that fails corruption and hails morality. The probe is deep and honest, without pretence and without partisan protection. What Mr Caremani has managed is the creation of an easily accessible one-stop library of information on the tragedy; and as a Ghanaian, this feat made me embarrassed about the absence of a similar piece of work for our own tragedy: the May 9, 2001 disaster at the Accra Sports Stadium which saw 127 people perishing in the wake of crowd commotion and police irresponsibility, during a clash between arch rivals Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko, Ghana's two biggest clubs.

The book is sprawled out upon a difficult canvas. The details are cold, requiring a bold person to get the story told, and Mr Caremani lives up to this billing with bravery, achieving a touching ode to the victims of Heysel. It is an emotional, engrossing read, one that highlights the futility of valuing football ahead of human life, one that expresses a relentless search for justice, responsibility and due procedure within a global sport that is supposed to be a force of happiness and hope and not of doom and gloom. There are lessons, reflections and realizations, through the pain of people slain and through the mistakes of stakeholders. The predominant hope that courses through the narrative is simple: never again.

There is a beautiful paradox at the end: the book manages to zoom in on the events of Heysel, but in the process, it also simultaneously manages to zoom out on the same subject to reveal a bigger picture: the fundamental sacrosanctity of humanity.

"That is why this book has its purpose, as memory confers dignity on the grief, whereas oblivion destroys and rage shrivels it and what is around it. I do understand that the Heysel disaster (over 30 years on) is now far from people's hearts and minds, but such dramatic events should never be forgotten, as behind every drama there is a real person who deserves to be respected for having been alive, a human being with loved ones, with dreams and with hopes, who walked the earth." --- Francesco Caremani


CLICK HERE TO GET THE BOOK ON AMAZON