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24.09.2000 Feature Article

Feature: They're Ghana, but not forgotten

By Press
Feature: They're Ghana, but not forgotten
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Guardian/Observer by Simon Kuper For reasons too complex to explain, I have just spent a fortnight in Ghana. It proved an excellent place to watch two other West African countries, Cameroon and Nigeria, reach the quarter-finals of the Olympic tournament. Most Ghanaians support Nigeria and Cameroon, but not very passionately. There were no street celebrations, for instance, when the Super Eagles squeezed into the quarter-finals. Africans are becoming blasé about footballing triumphs. Nigeria took the gold in the last Olympics, and Ghana habitually win youth World Cups. Moreover, few Ghanaians have seen much of the Olympics. Even in Accra, the capital, only one home in four has a television set. Instead, radios announce that an Olympic vehicle has been hijacked by an escaped convict, or that a Nigerian athlete has been run over. Ghanaians empathise with Nigeria for the loss of Nwankwo Kanu, withheld by Arsenal. Every African country knows how that feels. Indeed, Ghanaians judge footballers largely on their willingness to come home to play for the national team 'to serve the country', as they put it. So Alex Nyarko, the Everton midfielder, is well regarded here. Nyarko even made it to the recent match in Lesotho, the mountain kingdom at the bottom of Africa. He left at half-time, flying off to play for Everton against Spurs, but Ghanaians appreciated the effort. As one ex-pro told me: 'Nyarko is not a player who comes driving up in a posh-posh car. When Abedi Pelé is in town, you know that he is here. When Tony Yeboah is here, also. With Nyarko, only when you meet him personally you know that he is in town.' Watching African players in Europe, with their Italian clothes and rap music, it can be hard to imagine how they grew up. Roger Milla, the great Cameroonian, was once a railway worker's son picking fights on the streets of Yaounde. Clemens Westerhof, the Dutchman who used to coach Nigeria, says he first noticed Kanu at a derelict ground in the middle of nowhere when out of a tiny team bus emerged a boy beanpole bent almost double. Abedi Pelé, it seems, grew up in a town in the far north of Ghana, where his many relatives traded across the Burkina Faso border in grain, currencies, sheep and goats. (Crucially, it seems, Ghanaian sheep and goats are slightly different to Burkinabe ones.) I was told by this by the son of a former chief of this town, who was wearing a T-shirt that said, 'Dennis Bergkamp: he's as cold as ice.' This man praised Pelé as a 'lavish giver', who has built dormitories at local schools so that students can board. One of the delights of West African football is the team names. Perhaps the best is the Ghanaian side Mysterious Dwarfs. The players aren't really dwarfs, unlike the minor Cameroonian side Ants of Salapoumbe, whose players really are pygmies. Rather, in Ghanaian folklore dwarfs possess mysterious powers. One man told me a story about a Muslim who had procured a bunch of dwarfs to come with him to collect some gold; but after he had bought them gin, the dwarfs made themselves invisible and 'beat him rough-rough'. Similarly, the Dwarfs club became the Mysterious Dwarfs because often, when they appeared beaten, they somehow won. 'But that is not helping them this year,' noted my informant. When it comes to corruption, Africans speak of Nigeria with a sort of awe. The watchdog Transparency International has adjudged Nigeria the world's most corrupt nation, a title previously held by Cameroon. Ghana, though straighter than both, is not entirely pure. Last Sunday I watched Accra's Hearts of Oak stumble their way towards the Ghanaian title. Hearts have been so poor recently that some say they are throwing matches. But on Sunday, against Okwawu United, the referee kept bailing them out. In the first half he disallowed two Okwawu goals, denied Okwawu a penalty, and refused to send off a Hearts player for flattening a striker who had only the keeper to beat. 'Referees are always lenient to Hearts,' confided my neighbour, a Hearts fan. Quite likely the referee was honest: he was even-handed in the second half, and the game ended 1-1. But whereas in Britain only tedious conspiracy theorists think referees support Manchester United, in Africa you don't have to be paranoid to suspect a fix. Ghana have won four African Nations Cups, but have never qualified for a World Cup, and its fans are reduced to supporting Cameroon and Nigeria. It is clear why Nigeria is better at football: there are 120 million Nigerians. But why does Cameroon outperform Ghana? As one of the few living humans to have visited both countries, I have a theory. Every lunchtime, evening and weekend, Yaounde, Cameroon's capital, turns into a vast football field. On every spare scrap of land there is a game. In Accra, however, the only footballs you are likely to see are those thrust at you by street vendors. In that way the city resembles London, where very few play but millions support.

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