“Safe trip home Nigeria fans! Don’t worry, we are still friends! Thank you for coming!”.
It’s easy to be magnanimous in victory and my Ghanaian friend, Dan, was being extremely magnanimous to Nigeria’s travelling support as they sat, looking thoroughly glum, in the traffic of Accra facing a long trip through the night across several borders and back home.
Myself and my friend Dave had thought a trip to Ghana, as they hosted the 2008 AFCON, would be better than another winter in the UK and we were to be proved correct from the first minute to the last. Landing in the heat of Accra, after leaving a wet and cold London in January, was just what the doctor ordered. Four weeks of football, safari, beaches and the best fufu known to humankind. We could only wonder why more people weren’t doing this.
Dan had good reason for being so exuberant. We had just spilled out of the packed national stadium having witnessed a truly epic match of football with Ghana coming back from being a goal down to win 2-1, made even more heroic as they had played the last half an hour with ten men. I’ve been to a lot of football matches but I’ve never seen scenes quite like it when Junior Agogo scored the winner with just 5 minutes left on the clock. “Limbs” doesn’t begin to describe it and I worried that the medics would need to get the smelling salts out to resuscitate sections of the crowd that looked like they were on the verge of passing out with excitement.
And this wasn’t just any match. This was the biggest derby in (West) African football, in the knockout stages, and with Ghana hosting the tournament they needed to get the win. The party had started hours before; full of light, colour and sound, as fans congregated outside the stadium. As with any footballing-mad nation the pressure and expectation has been building for months and the Ghanaian public were desperate to reclaim a title they had last won in 1982 (26 years of hurt, if you will). Along with home advantage this Ghanaian squad was one peppered with stars from Michael Essien to Asamoah Gyan to Sulley Muntari along with a young Andre Ayew. Additionally they had Claude Le Roy managing from the sidelines, one of the most feted managers in AFCON history.
Dave and I had based our travels around following the football and after we had recovered from a night of heavy celebrations in the bars of Accra we headed north to go on safari in Mole and then back to Kumasi to watch Côte d’Ivoire v Egypt in one semi-final. If things went our way then the Black Stars would beat Cameroon in the other and we would rush back to Accra to try and get our hands on the hottest tickets in African football, see Ghana crowned winners and drink as many Star beers as we could handle.
Unfortunately the football gods had other plans and both semi-finals threw up surprise results.
Confusion reigned about the time of the kick-off for the match we were attending and we arrived at the ground about 4 hours before kick-off. “It’s a bit quiet isn’t it?” we wondered as we walked in to an empty stadium. The bonus for us was that we could watch the Ghana match on the big screen. The bonus for the food hawkers was that we would need a steady supply of rich tea biscuits and minerals to get us through the evening.
I can’t really remember the details of the Ghanaian game but the 1-0 defeat was gutting. A personal comparison would be Euro ’96 where I was nothing but convinced England were going to win it. Defeat didn’t seem like an option and everyone we bumped in to just seemed thoroughly deflated. The feeling of ‘what could have been’ wouldn’t budge and, for many, the tournament ended there and then.
Cote d’Ivoire could have learnt a lesson from this upset but they seemed equally sure that the stars had aligned for them to take home the trophy. This arrogance extended to Didier Drogba making a lap of honour, by himself, before the game kicked off. The other ten players offered little resistance to an Egyptian team who, whilst lacking in star names, were prepared to ride their luck and run through a brick wall to get the win.
Whilst the game was good, we were a little distracted as we threw ourselves in to the ‘dance section’ of the crowd. If you were in this part of the stadium you had to follow the lead from a guy at the front doing the dance moves. If you went rogue or just took your seat then one of his assistants would be come and tell you off. It was brilliant and we gave it nothing less than 100%.
With both Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire out of the tournament getting a ticket for the final wasn’t a problem. In truth it was a fairly dour match, lacking opportunities. A late goal consigned the Indomitable Lions to defeat and Egypt held on to their AFCON crown.
Despite the tournament finishing with a fizzle rather than a bang, it was a truly special month. Nothing compares to the atmosphere of a country hosting an international tournament and we had the chance to explore north, south, east and west of Ghana which cemented our love affair with the place. It might be too difficult to get to Cameroon this time but keep an eye on the flights out to Cote d’Ivoire, who host the 2023 edition.
(Some additional non-football highlights)