‘If we win today nobody goes to work tomorrow.
And if we lose today nobody goes to work tomorrow.’

Spectator Emmanuel Clinton on the Ghana vs. Nigeria match 3-0

3 February 2008

Sometimes being an outsider at an African football match is better than being an insider. It’s not about the ticket price or the public profiling or even watching the game. Watching the match from outside the stadium is about the maelstrom of feeling: the pre-game tension, the collective concentration, the unleashed euphoria of the life force that is African football and the world surrounding it. It is a hazing, to be sure: an initiation into the cult of the authentic. It’s something comparable to taking up ranks with an underground league of nations – a joint reserved strictly for the ‘outsider’ insiders.

Palm wine drunks, pickpockets, pimps, a band of Togolese chefs on exodus from Lomé, a posse of Nigerian rude bwoys from the backstreets of Lagos all come together in a mash-up of culture, religion and tribe. But the shared obsession is football. You wade into this sea of the new familiar. You participate in this rite of passage that is specific to place (Accra, Ghana), event (the African Cup) and subject (football). As one sportscaster put it: ‘I never watch a match without my heart medicine close at hand.’ It’s a kind of metaphysical, multinational, transcultural workout that leaves you stripped down to the bare essence of heartbreak, jubilation and reckless abandon once – and if – you make it out the other end.

The fans are everywhere. They are en route to the stadium on motorcycle, bicycle, taxi, rollerblade, horseback and foot. They are selling T-shirts, tricolored wigs, national flags, a sundry assortment of beers and wooden instruments. No one is a stranger in this atmosphere of anticipation. No one is immune to the mood of espoir verging on joy undisciplined.

Already you’ve made six new friends, including the man who tells you that Ghana has become ‘more democratic’ than the United States of late. Black Rasta, the premier DJ from Joy FM, has been paying tribute to Barack Obama on the airwaves ever since your arrival in Accra. There is even a dub song dedicated to the American president that you’ve heard echoing from the roadside food stands that serve as impromptu street delis.

The man buys you a Star beer and, as you sit on a ledge watching a group of teenagers bound past carrying a Ghanaian flag like they’ve just given birth to a new nation, you begin to wonder if he’s right.

The current president has enjoyed eight years of peaceful democracy. There hasn’t been a coup since the 1972 bloodless overthrow of the then Prime Minister, Dr Kofi Busia, preceded only by the more heated ousting of the Pan-Africanist President Kwame Nkrumah in 1966. The Ghanaian cedi is almost equal in value to the American dollar, the rate is roughly US$1 to Gh¢ 0.93. Citizens from Africa and beyond have been hammering the catchphrase ‘Ghana is the one to watch’ ever since you set foot on local soil.

There are more beers to be drunk and more scenes to be taken in: two young boys wearing 1970s Puma T-shirts are kicking a handcrafted, duct-taped football in a drain way; a trio of sparsely dressed men, painted from head to foot in chalky white with ‘Ghana Forever’ scrawled in black across their chests, are cruising the main strip; a group of about 200 spectators are poised for what appears to be a family portrait until you realise, upon closer examination, that they are gathered around a small TV set powered by a generator.

You wander through the crowd and think you’re imagining the guy pedalling by on a bicycle with a live TV monitor balanced precariously on his head. You take in the colours – red, black, gold and green – the sounds – bells, whistles, horns, cheers, cries, laughter. You start to think it’s like Mardi Gras in Paris meets Carnival in Rio meets the West Indian Day parade in Brooklyn meets a universal frenzy of infectious, riotous infatuation completely distinct unto itself; the sheer pageantry is on another level. Then you remind yourself that Africans have been playing football since the early 1900s. They’ve had more than a century to perfect the experience of sport simulating the upshot of a seven-chakra awakening.

The original Hearts of Oak team from Accra was formed in 1911. Asante Kotoko, their great competitors from Kumasi, whose fans have a reputation for staging spontaneous hunger strikes when their team loses, was founded in 1935.

As you are watching the match with the group that is gathered around the generator-powered television set, barely able to make out the small screen but getting a live feed from a young Ghanaian dressed in a white Muslim robe who is holding a transistor radio to one ear, something erupts. A swarm of bodies race past, jogging high-kneed, yelling, pummelling the dusty night air. You panic slightly but then the human herd moves ahead in the distance, the whisk of their momentum enveloping you like a shadow. The young commentator informs you that Ghana has scored its first goal against Nigeria. Looking over your shoulder, you watch the ecstasy of fans draped in Black Stars regalia. The gospel-inflected call and response of ‘Black Stars, Black Stars, Black Stars’ begins to run together so that it sounds more like ‘Blasters, Blasters, Blasters’. Police on mopeds perform a crowd-teasing ‘swerve by’ and part the crowd momentarily. A riderless horse follows in their wake.

Who would want to be inside on a night like this? Who wouldn’t want to join in this fabric of the instinctive high? The scene is a huge street party now. You try to do the maths, 100,000 in the stadium, at least as many outside. You start to notice the finer details: a young woman selling kebabs is quietly praying for another goal; a young man is having his lips, nose and cheeks painted with the Black Stars logo; two older Nigerian men dressed in pinstriped suits and fedoras have lowered their sunglasses to conceal expressions of cool defeat. ‘It’s not a match between countries,’ you overheard a waiter in the hotel dining room comment the night before. ‘It’s a war between countries.’

There is a bigger eruption once the next goal is scored – Ghana is leading two-nil – and the exultation verges on overkill. You remember watching Guinea versus Morocco a few days earlier when a Senegalese fan commented, ‘La pilule est difficile à avaler,’ and realise that the Nigerian ‘Ghana must go! Ghana must go! Ghana must go!’ chorus is being countered by the Ghanaian rehash of the well-known Naija refrain ‘Nigeria jagajaga, everything scatter, scatter.’ (At the airport the following morning, you see a long funeral-like procession of dispirited fans queuing up for the flight back to Lagos.) Some people are doing the level-palmed Black Stars ‘kangaroo’ dance, a ritual made popular by the hiplife provocateur Tic Tac. Some are mimicking Stephen Appiah’s signature ‘head-scratching’ patter, which is rumoured to signify him scolding the ref for making an uneven call.

You think of the opening day match against Guinea when the Black Stars team all wore Appiah’s number 10 during the warm-up in homage to their missing captain, whose untimely knee surgery propelled the ‘Rock of Gibraltar’ John Mensah into the post of leadership. On yesterday’s evening news, Appiah had seemed, for a moment, existentially stupefied: ‘If I’m not on the pitch, I don’t know what I’m doing.’ You paid a visit to John Mensah’s house today and met his mother, wafting in an aura of the majestic, and his two young sons. You were shown Mensah’s packed trophy case, a museum-quality testament to a career of uncommon achievement.

Now you notice that everyone is wearing the players’ jerseys – Appiah, Mensah, Muntari, Agogo, Essien. They are calling out to their brothers – to Michael Essien the quixotic midfielder, and to Mensah the unerring spine of the team – begging them to win, to settle, once and for all, the score. The sun is beginning to set behind the tempest of bodies in motion, the escalating surge. You think back to the pick-up game you watched at Labadi Beach last Sunday and remember how one of the players, covered in sand from head to foot, called to mind a young Titan heading into an Olympian flux.

When the third and final goal has been scored there is a moment of mayhem as people rush for the stadium doors. The floodgates have been opened and everyone is granted free entry. You join in the sweep – it is impossible not to. It feels as if something biblical is about to unfold. You pause to take in the vast manicured pitch of green, the players circling like ant-sized winged chariots, the ocean of spectators uniformly adorned in red, black and gold so that they form a human map of Africa.  

A witch doctor dressed like a high priest stalks past grasping two freckled guineafowl and momentarily blocks your view.

‘So this is African football,’ you think, a sensory implosion of emotion and adrenalin pumping the brain to maximum capacity. This is that new elixir you’ve not yet tasted but are already addicted to.

You get lost in the crowd in the fast descending night. Once you’ve made it to the edge, you decide to take a moto-taxi. It’s a bit riskier but anyway it’s cheaper, faster – certainly more local. You hold onto the driver. Someone on a motorcycle ahead of yours has draped a Ghanaian flag around his shoulders. The wind catches its edges. You imagine flight.

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