Thursday, January 17, 2008

DOWN MEMORY LANE ...Reflections of Joe Aggrey, former Editor of Graphic Sports & former Dep Sports Minister

BY Joe Aggrey

ASK any sports journalist what his most enduring moments have been and he would most certainly rate coverage of major events, both local and international, very high on the list. My career spanned a period of almost four decades and it will be an understatement of major proportions to say I saw and covered quite a few of the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.
From tennis and athletics through boxing to football, my pen and notebook have taken me to almost all corners of the globe, while I've watched the high and the low perform. After four Olympics, three World Cups, several Africa Cup of Nations tournaments, some world title fights, with a couple of African games thrown in for good measure, I can say with all modesty that there is very little that is worth talking about that I haven't seen.
I could fill several volumes with my experiences, but that is for another time, another occasion. Since this is Nations Cup time, perhaps it would be worth reflecting on the continental fiesta and share some of the hilarious and glorious aspects, as well as the truly horrendous and even painful ones.
Once I was deported, then I suffered a shoulder dislocation as I raised my right hand to celebrate a great goal by Abedi Pele while covering the CAN '92 in Senegal. That was after I had lost my luggage and had to survive on borrowed robes until I could buy a few new ones for myself. There could be more in this vein but this will suffice for the moment.
My first real contact with anything CAN was in 1963 when Ghana first hosted the event. I was then a young reporter with the Ghanaian Times and I played no more than a supporting role in the coverage of the tournament.
But I was close enough to notice that the man at the helm of Ghana sports then, Ohene Djan, had a long-term plan for the country to host and win the continental prize. The plan was as controversial as it was revolutionary and it was based on the formation of a model club, dubbed Real Republikans. The idea, inspired by Real Madrid of Spain, which up to today has the tradition of putting together superstars, was to have a team of the nation's top players under one banner, ready at any given time to go to battle on the soccer front in defence of the flag of Ghana.
This was implemented by fiat by the all-powerful Ohene Djan in 1961, two years before the 1963 tournament. Without as much as a word with the clubs concerned, the director of sports, who doubled as the executive secretary of the GFA, unilaterally announced the formation of Republikans with two players drawn from each of the then existing first division clubs.
In spite of fierce opposition and open hostility from the affected clubs, led by Kumasi Asante Kotoko, the model club survived to form the nucleus of the Black Stars when Ghana was called upon to host the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time.
They say the end justifies the means and that autocratic step certainly paid off when, with Republikans providing 10 out of the !8-man squad, the Black Stars, led by the late Aggrey-Fynn, annexed the continental trophy with a 3-0 trouncing of Sudan in the final amidst hilarious scenes at the Accra Sports Stadium. It was to be the first of three CAN victories under the direction of Ghana's most successful coach, C.K. Gyamfi.
The success story of the Republikans-led Black Stars did not end with the Nations Cup victory as they went on to become the first African team, south of the Sahara, to qualify for the Olympic soccer tournament in Tokyo the following year. However, that campaign did not go according to plan. Despite a promising start, the Stars failed to reach the medal zone.
One of the most graphic portrayals of the Tokyo aftermath was a front page picture in the Ghanaian Times which caught the leader of the delegation, Ohene Djan, clutching a bag of hard liquor as he descended the gangway of the aircraft that brought the team back home. The headline was: BACK FROM TOKYO WITH WHISKY.
The Black Stars had become victims of their own success and the public reacted so strongly to the Tokyo failure that Ohene Djan had to respond quickly by overhauling the team. He then brought on board some members of the junior team, dubbed the New Horizon, who were waiting in the wings to take over from the ageing Black Stars.
Notable survivors from the Tokyo squad were Addo Odametey, who took over the captaincy from Aggrey-Fynn, Kofi Pare, Ben Acheampong, Agyeman Gyau, Osei Kofi and goalkeeper Dodoo Ankrah. In came Frank Odoi, Ben Kusi, Jones Attuquayefio, Ganiyu Salami, Sam Acquah, John Naawu, Oman Mensah and Willie Evans, among others.
It was this combination of old and young stars which successfully defended the cup in Tunisia in 1965, beating the hosts 3-2 after extra time in the final. That achievement was truly remarkable, as it turned out to be the first time in the history of the competition that a host nation had failed to win the cup.
That tournament marked the emergence of Osei Kofi and Frank Odoi as the new stars of the national team. Their brilliance, speed and dribbling wizardly dazzled opposing teams and carried Ghana to a second African Cup triumph.
Thereafter, the Black Stars were the beaten finalists in two subsequent tournaments in 1968 and 1970. Congo Kinshasa (Congo DR) stopped Ghana from a hat-trick of victories when they won the 1968 final played in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia by a lone goal. The irony was that Ghana had earlier beaten the Congolese 2-0 in the preliminaries. Two years later, Sudan beat the Black Stars, also by a 1-0 margin, at home in Khartoum to record their sole continental success to date.
Normally, one would have expected Sudan to have been big-hearted enough after that victory which should have atoned somehow for the humiliation they suffered in the 1963 final in Accra. Instead, they rubbed salt into the Black Stars wounded pride by sending the entire contingent, including this writer, packing from the team's hotel well after midnight.
The Black Stars had obviously slighted the Sudanese Military Head of State, Gen. El Nimeiri, by walking away without receiving the silver medals during the presentation ceremony. Fact is, the ceremony had been turned upside down with the over-excited Sudanese officials rushing to crown their team first before remembering to look for the runners-up. By then, the Black Stars were on their way to the hotel.
That is how the Black Stars and the rest of us with the team received that midnight knock, which was virtually a deportation order by angry Sudanese authorities.
Co-incidentally, the fortunes of the Black Stars began to sink after this, to the extent that they failed to qualify for three consecutive finals until Ghana hosted the tournament for the second time in 1978. That was seen as a unique opportunity to kill two birds with one stone — stop the cup drought that had hit the nation and even more important, win the trophy for the third time and for keeps.
To the credit of the Gen. Kutu Acheampong’s regime, no expense or effort was considered too much to ensure the realisation of those goals. For instance, the government sent the Black Stars to Brazil, not once but twice, to get the team the best possible build-up. That investment proved invaluable as the Black Stars, coached by Fred Osam Duodu, swept everything before them to achieve the double objective. A 2-0 defeat of the Cranes of Uganda made sure of this, with two unanswered goals from the feet of the diminutive Opoku Afriyie doing the damage.
As a reward for their brilliant efforts, the Black Stars were promised houses to be built at places of their choice. However, that promise was scuttled when Acheampong was removed in a palace coup and was never fulfilled thereafter. The immediate consequence was that the team was totally demoralised. This was despite desperate attempts to appease the players with an insignificant gesture of cash in envelopes at the airport as the team prepared to fly to Nigeria to defend their title as African champions.
The die was cast even before the Black Stars boarded the aircraft and it was not surprising that they were bundled out after the group matches in what was then the worst performance by Ghana at the continental soccer fiesta.
An interesting twist to this story is that Morocco, who pushed the Stars out, unaware of the problems in the Ghana camp, had packed their baggage into the team’s bus as they left for the stadium in Ibadan where the group was based. Ostensibly, they had given up all hopes of surviving the first round against the defending champions and had plans to fly back home soon after the match. In the event, the Moroccans beat a dispirited team of Ghanaians, had to unpack amidst delirious scenes back at the hotel.
Host nation Nigeria eventually annexed the new trophy at stake with an emphatic 3-0 victory against Algeria in the final. Meanwhile, the Black Stars were long back home, licking their wounds. How time heals anger was amply demonstrated when two years later, the Black Stars dramatically bounced back to win the competition for the unprecedented fourth time, beating the hosts, Libya 7-6 on penalties, after extra time produced a one-all drawn result in the final.
This was an achievement that was nearly aborted at conception. The Limann administration, for unexplained reasons, had decided that Ghana would withdraw from the finals, despite having qualified for the finals. But after the coup, the military regime of PNDC quickly changed that decision and the team was hurriedly brought together under the technical direction of renowned coach C.K. Gyamfi assisted by Osam Duodu and E.K. Afranie.
Libya saw the emergence of a 17-year-old prodigy, Abedi Ayew Pele, on the big stage. He would later become a superstar who would win the African footballer of the year award on three occasions.
After a disastrous defence of the new cup in Cote d'Ivoire in 1984 petered out at the group stage in what has become known as the Bouake Debacle, the Stars failed to qualify for three consecutive finals. The turning point came when the controversial German coach Burkhard Ziese was hired to halt the drought. Even though he was able to fulfil the assignment, his contract was not renewed and the duty of leading the team to Senegal '92 was given to his countryman Otto Pfister.
That was not the only controversy that dogged the team. Before they left for Senegal, a bizarre decision was taken to appoint Abedi Pele as captain in place of Kwasi Appiah, who had led the side to qualify. The flimsy excuse was that the former skipper did not speak French, which is the official language of the host nation. Not unexpectedly, that singular decision and some strange moves to sideline some players caused a serious division in the team. Things were not helped when it was again decided that Tony Baffoe who was a newcomer, be made captain when Abedi was suspended from playing in the final.
On hindsight, it was remarkable that in the midst of all that the Black Stars were able to reach the final where they only lost to Cote d'Ivoire 11-10 on penalties after 120 minutes of football failed to produce a goal.
However, the problems created in Senegal followed the team to the next tournaments in Tunisia (1994), South Africa (1996) and Burkina Faso (1998). Somehow, it is a sad case of history that at the time a nation blessed with two world-class players, like Abedi and Tony Yeboah, could not add to the tally of four continental championship during that period.
Perhaps, the present generation of players, whose major forte is their unity of purpose, would break that barrier as they host the rest of Africa from Sunday.

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