From the perspective of someone with very little previous interaction with the sport of football and absolutely zero interaction with the Ghana Football Association, I did not know what to expect on my way to see my first professional match. Growing up in America we often hear about the passion for the sport of football internationally, yet most never get to experience the passion first-hand. Last Wednesday I was lucky enough to see my first professional match at the President’s Cup at Accra Stadium, and what I witnessed was truly something I will never forget.
I grew up playing American football, a sport with very few similarities to football here in Ghana and throughout the rest of the world. I thought it was a sport built on passionate fan bases, unbreakable bonds between communities and their favorite players and rivalries forged in historically heated contests. However, I can say after watching the President’s Cup, American football has nothing on football here in Ghana. The passion alone from fans was something hard to describe. I overheard a conversation between two of my colleagues at the GFA and one of the men stated, “I don’t just watch a match with my eyes, I watch it with my heart.” This perfectly sums up football here in Ghana, and especially a game like the President’s Cup between such bitter rivals. Fans not only know the names on the rosters, but their stories as well. Where they came from; their path to a professional career; even subtle nuances that can spark controversy if brought up in conversations. Where Americans might view ‘soccer’ as a sport with growing potential, football here in Ghana is the lifeblood of the culture.
As my colleague Ryan and I walked into Accra Stadium we could hear the roar of the fans as if we were walking into the Roman Coliseum to witness a clash of ancient gladiators. The raucous fans split into a sea of red for the Asante Kotoko Porcupines and a cloud of white for the Hearts of Oak, with both trying to be louder than the other. Horns blew to the beat of a local band playing in the stands to keep spirits high and the intensity at a fever pitch. With every movement of the ball there were screams from both fan bases calling for their team to push harder at the ball.
I walked up to the border of the pitch to take pictures with a few colleagues from my University of Oregon program, all of us in awe of just how incredibly lucky we were to gain such great access. It is one thing to experience a match of any sport from the stands, but an entirely different experience when you experience it close enough to see the sweat-soaked faces of the players grit their teeth on every attempt at the ball, or hear the screams of the coaches trying to command their players to be more effective.
Even the halftime of the match was something unique to me. The halftime entertainment was between two teams of dwarf players, and despite it only being an entertainment factor for the fans, the crowd remained avidly watching, hoping for goals from either side. This gave everyone a hearty laugh and kept the energy high as they built up to the second half of the match.
As the players came back out to begin playing again they were still locked at a 0-0 tie. With an even more physical 45 minutes of play, both squads continued to battle for supremacy over the ball, with momentum shifting from either side and neither one gaining the upper hand. As fatigue set in, players began dropping to the pitch, fighting off fierce muscle cramps and dehydration, which of course invited the crowd’s displeasure as they thought players were dropping under false pretenses to give their teammates time to rest. At the end of regulation, as well as five minutes of extra time, the score was still gridlocked at a 0-0 tie. But this is the President’s Cup, a match meant to give bragging rights to the ‘Best in Ghana’ for the next year between the two most prominent teams in the country.
A match of this proportion and importance can never end in a draw.
The teams prepared for penalty kicks. As both groups performed their rituals and gave their speeches to mentally prepare for the 1-v-1 showdowns about to take place I looked around and thought to myself: “How lucky am I?” Here I was watching my first professional football match, from just outside the pitch, and as if the stars had aligned, the match was going into PKs. What more could I possibly ask for from my first match?
With every kick the Hearts of Oak goalie gained confidence and the Asante Kotoko goalie began to realize he might not be victorious in a few short moments. He stared down the empty goal after his opponent walked out, and he knew if he allowed a goal now his team would lose. The knots in his stomach were not visible on his face as he confidently walked toward the goal, staring down the Heart of Oaks player who would be shooting against him for the win. The crowd grew louder and louder until at last, the ball hit the back of the net. Hearts of Oak had won and their sea of white-clad fans celebrated as if they had just won the world championship. Fans pressed up against the glass barrier surrounding the pitch, wishing they could rush the field to celebrate with their team.
After the teams came together to thank the fans and shake the hands of the winning team, the Vice President of Ghana congratulated the Hearts of Oak players and gave the players and coaches a gold medal for their victory. As the music blared from speakers and the crowd began filing out of the stadium, either in elation or disappointment, I looked around and realized how incredibly lucky I was to get to witness such an incredible match. For the next month I can only hope to grow to understand and embrace the Ghanaian passion for football, even if only a fraction.
For one of the most incredible experiences of my life thus far, I must say: