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THE DECLINE OF GHANAIAN FOOTBALL: HOW GREED AND CORRUPTION COMBINED TO SUFFOCATE THE PASSION OF THE NATION

Bribes, disinterested crowds and a flailing scene overall: we explore how corruption and greed worked hand-in-hand to suffocate Ghanaian football.

In 2005, Ghana finally qualified for a World Cup.

Carlos Alberto Parreira, the great Brazilian coach, wrote in an article for The Guardian prior to the Black Stars’ second-round encounter with Brazil that Ghana were one of the powerhouses of African football and that they should’ve been playing in a World Cup for several years. In the lead-up to the 2006 edition in Germany, Ghana overcame South Africa, Burkina Faso and Cape Verde to qualify for their first World Cup. 

“Ghana should have played their first World Cup a long time ago. They are one of the powers of Africa. Finally, justice has been done.” – Carlos Alberto Parreira

Parreira coached the national team in 1967. His reign, according to one of his players, the late Cecil Jones Attuquayefio, was partly responsible for Ghana’s one-touch football style which coined their nickname – the “Brazil of Africa”. The name also originates from the qualities of some of their players in bygone eras such as Edward Aggrey-Fynn, Karim Abdul Razak and Osei Kofi, who helped the national team dominate the African scene between the 1960s and 1980s.

There is nothing Brazilian about making a debut on the grandest stage in football in its 14th edition, but there is no denying that Ghana have been a prominent nation in football. They’ve won several trophies over the decades across various age groups, whilst also producing some of the most exciting players over the years that have contributed to trophies in the bigger European leagues. Their reputation in international football is strong, and it was only enhanced by the World Cup participation. 

Qualification was a huge boost for the country’s football association – and not just because they had the opportunity to play in the World Cup. The cash injection was huge, with reports suggesting that there was up to $8 million to be earned from qualifying alone. Obviously, with great money came huge promises, and the president of the Ghanaian FA was quick to suggest where the money would go.

“Whatever money we get from the World Cup will be invested back into the game to strengthen our youth football and the leagues to ensure continual flow of talents to the national team.” – the president of the Ghanaian FA, Kwesi Nyantakyi, to the BBC

The Christmas before the World Cup qualification was particularly colourful in Ghana.  The country’s two biggest football clubs, Asante Kotoko and Accra Hearts of Oak SC, joined the usual festivities of the season. Amidst the celebrations was a massive build-up to a continental cup final involving the two clubs.

The Hearts beat Cameroun’s Cotonsport FC to top spot in their four team group to qualify for the final. Their arch-rivals, on the other hand, narrowly edged out Enugu Rangers of Nigeria. The CAF Confederation Cup was in its maiden year after undergoing a remodeling. It was a fusion of the CAF Cup (introduced in 1992) and CAF Cup Winners’ Cup (introduced in 1975).

After a 1-1 stalemate in the first leg at the Ohene Djan Stadium, the Hearts’ home ground, the country was whipped into frenzy in the build-up to the second leg. And after another 1-1 draw, penalties decided the tie in Hearts’ favour. However, it was Ghanaian football that was the overall winner here – a one-nation final was a huge achievement in a positive period.

Between 1997 and Hearts’ triumph, Ghanaian teams had played the final of CAF club competitions on five occasions, with Hearts winning two titles. That was an impressive return given the stranglehold the better-resourced and better-organised North African teams had over club competitions. The season after Hearts of Oak’s triumph, Ghana Telecom increased their sponsorship of the league by a whopping 139%. The league that had produced the likes of Abedi Pele, Tony Yeboah and Michael Essien, amongst others, was on the up.

So when Ghana went to Germany in 2006 for the World Cup, football fans were generally positive about the direction football was heading in. Optimism was, however, in short supply after their loss to Italy in their first match.  Next up at Cologne’s Müngersdorfer Stadion was Czech Republic, at the time, one of the best footballing nations in the world. Given the talent they had in the side, it seemed certain that the European nation would win here and end Ghana’s hopes of progressing in the World Cup.

However, after seventy seconds, Ghana was ahead. Asamoah Gyan latched on to a brilliant pass by captain Stephen Appiah to score Ghana’s first goal in a World Cup. Led by Michael Essien and Juventus’ Appiah, the Stars displayed brilliance, flair and naivety in equal measure. Czech Republic were on the back foot for the most part, beaten on possession, shots and struggling to carve out chances in front of goal. Ghanaians love their football with lots of dribbling, short passes and sometimes over indulgent display of skills, what some call agoro (loosely translated as “play” or “game”).

In Jonathan Wilson’s authoritative book on football tactics: Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, Tom Vernon, an owner of a football academy in Ghana and a former Manchester United scout, attempts to explain the Ghanaian’s predilection for the ideals of agoro.

“Vernon believes the way the game is first experienced by children – at least in Ghana – has a tendency to shape them as central midfielders. ‘Look at how kids play’, he said. ‘They have a pitch maybe twenty or thirty yards long, set up two stones off a couple of feet apart at either end, often with gutters or ditches marking the boundaries at the sides. So it’s a tiny area. The game becomes all about receiving the ball, turning and driving through the middle”

Agoro had yielded little reward for Ghana’s senior team in over two decades. But given a global stage, not even the tactical conservatism of Ratomir Dujkovic – the coach of the national team – was going to restrain agoro. A lot of neat passing and skills characterized the style of the Ghanaians. Ghana won the match 2-0 and leaving the world in shock. Qualification for the second round was sealed with a 2-1 win over the USA and although they were knocked out by Brazil, the German adventure gave Ghanaian football the recognition it deserved.

THE 2006 EDITION WAS GHANA’S FIRST PARTICIPATION IN THE WORLD CUP FINALS

From 2006 to 2016, Ghana made at least the semifinals of each of the five African Cup of Nations tournaments. On two occasions, they were finalists. In the fourteen year period prior, the Black Stars only made the semi-finals twice.  They were back for the World Cups in 2010 and 2014, with the 2010 participation being particularly impressive. After decent displays, Ghana was denied a historic place in the semifinals by the devilish act of Luis Suárez. All seemed well with the national team. But the successive World Cup qualifications and decent performances at several AFCON editions only highlighted the neglect other aspects of Ghana football was facing.

After the CAF Cup final in 2005, no Ghanaian club has gone further than a quarter-final. Ghana’s league dropped 10 places and eight points on CAF’s coefficient between the 2004/05 season and the 2018/19 season. In the most recent league fixture between the two clubs, the stadium was not even half full. This situation has been running for a few seasons now. In August 2013, Alhaji Karim Grusah, owner of King Faisal Babies, told local radio station XYZ about the issues facing the league

“Last season the highest amount we received from gate proceeds was 7,000 cedis ($3,350) and that was after the game against Kotoko. The one against Hearts of Oak also gave us about 6,000 cedis ($2,880) but as for the rest; the least said about them the better”.  

These issues paint a picture of the poor domestic football scene in Ghana. Neither the team’s World Cup heroics, nor the success of the U20s in their World Cups could make that picture any prettier. Kwesi Nyantakyi, though, was adamant. He had turned a blind eye on Ghana’s recent shortcomings. 

“In the area of the league, it’s not been as bad as some people want us to believe. It is one of the best organized and most competitive leagues in Africa,” he told ghanasoccernet.com in an interview in January 2018. This was despite the fact that the league had gone two seasons without sponsorship. Dwindling crowds, poor officiating and organization were also holding the game back. Cases of points being won in board rooms also did not help raise enthusiasm in the league. Arbitrariness also reigned supreme. Matches were cancelled and rescheduled on short notices and for all sorts of flimsy reasons.

With sponsors tightening their purse strings and fans not coming through the turnstiles, club finances were hit big time. Club owners resorted to selling their brightest talents to leagues as obscure as those in Sudan and Vietnam. More fans stayed at home as the few players that excited them were sold. A vicious cycle was created.

A third straight World Cup qualification in 2014 offered another chance for the country’s football administrators to mask the ailing football system. The local league was run down, junior national teams were failing to qualify for tournaments and the female national teams lacked resources.  Fans were staying away from the stadiums but their frustrations were very much in the media. “Fire for Fire”, a program anchored by a presenter, Countryman Songo, who had turned a stoic campaigner against the FA and its president provided a voice for frustrated fans.

It was on that programme that the President of the FA made a boastful claim that only he can decide when he was to be replaced.

That was just one of many unnecessary and incessant claims. When disagreements over budget for World Cup preparation with the sports ministry spilled into the media, he justified the outrageous budget by claiming that the preparations he envisaged was more elaborate than those of the top European national teams. The sense of impudence and disrespect for fans was palpable. Claims of corruption were answered with typical arrogance: provide evidence.

Instead of striving to progress even further, good showings on the world stage over the last few years only fueled the egos of the men in power.

Their participation in the World Cup of 2014 ended in vast disappointment. A first round elimination was bad enough, and on top of that, they had to face the embarrassment of the world learning about the farce within the squad that was related to bonuses given to players. This only left the fans even more incensed. The anger of the fans was crucial in the government’s decision to have a look at the happenings of the FA while in Brazil. 

The structure of the FA and Nyantakyi’s high, seemingly-invincible place in the FA meant that getting rid of him would be difficult. He had systematically purged the FA of some of the men of power and reconstructed it to his benefit. One such example of this came when he made himself the chairman of the country’s management committee for the 2014 World Cup, cutting out the man who had done so well with the team four years prior.

When the inquiring committee started its work, Ghanaians were angered at the revelations of corruption withing the football administration. The FA officials paid themselves the same appearance fees as the players, and even “paid” a former executive who had passed away two years prior. Those payments are unashamedly termed as “co-efficient” by Nyantakyi (a term which would later become synonymous in this exposé) 

The committee also found the FA to have embezzled $3.5 million – sums which came from sponsors of the national team and FIFA for organizing friendlies before the World Cup. What angered the general public the most was that nothing was done to Nyantakyi or the FA despite these findings. Nyantakyi’s sphere of power in the game grew, and made the report invaluable. He would later rise to become the Vice President of CAF and an executive committee member of FIFA.  

However, in June 2018, an investigative video would change the landscape of football in Ghana. This video was produced by the BBC and carried out by one of Ghana’s top investigative journalists, Anas Aremeyaw Anas, as part of a wider investigation into corruption in African football. It was apt that this was revealed on the eve of the World Cup in Russia – a tournament Ghana had failed to qualify for. This time, there was no World Cup for the FA to save their face. Almost immediately after the revelations came out, an arrest of Nyantakyi was issued on charges of defrauding by false pretenses.

ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS, THE FAMOUS GHANAIAN INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST, HERE AT HIS TED TALK

His cabal remained staunchly devoted to him and put up massive fight to resist the tide that was threatening to sweep them away. The anger of football fans coalesced into a huge nationwide outcry when finally the public airing was done. From the president to match officials – no area of Ghana football was left untouched. Match commissioners and referees were caught flagrantly pocketing bribes to influence the outcomes of matches. Officials were taking bribes to influence selection into national teams. The President of the FA was caught suggesting to a phantom prospective sponsor of the league to set up an agency with him to take up 15% of the sponsorship fee. 

The sheer weight of public outcry meant government inaction was not an option this time. They wished to liquidate the FA, while Nyantakyi was forced to resign. Football activities around the nation were brought to a halt, while Fire for Fire offered a platform for fans to voice their concern even further. This time, however, it seemed more positive as the show was vindicated. A case of defamation against it was taken off, while they succeeded in their objective.

Support for the government’s radical actions were overwhelming. The opportunity to clean up the FA’s mess was too fascinating, and was voraciously supported by a nation that passionately follows the sport. 

The government, however, had to back down to settle on a compromised solution with FIFA: the formation of a normalization committee to run Ghana football for an interim period whilst setting in motion a process for reforms.

Meanwhile, Kwesi Nyantakyi received a hefty ban and fine from FIFA in November 2018, extinguishing any hope his followers had of a comeback. This is a volatile period for football in Ghana and one can only hope they come out of it positively.

BY ATO COULON