- The dream was on
- Or was it?
In 1981, the Black Stars of Ghana launched a campaign to qualify for the 13th edition Africa Cup of Nations tournament to be staged in Libya.
The Stars were then the most successful nation in the 25-year history of the competition: they had won three titles – first at home in 1963, defending it away in Tunisia two years later, and winning it again 12 years after that back at home. Aside from this, they had finished runners-up on two occasions – 1968 and 1970.
Except for the home victory in 1978, the 1970s had been a largely underwhelming decade for the Black Stars.
After placing second in the 1970 edition held in Sudan, they failed to qualify for three consecutive tournaments 1972, 1974, and 1976.
The 1980 edition, held in Nigeria, had ended in humiliation: as defending champions, they were swept out in the Group Stage.
Libya 1982 was a chance at redemption for the team, and the football authorities did not want to waste it.
Measures were put in place: tried and tested expertise was brought back in the name of the legendary coach Charles Kumi ‘CK’ Gyamfi, who had won the country’s first two titles in 63’ and 65’.
Gyamfi was lured back into the job from his lucrative contract at Ghanaian topflight side GIHOC Stars to head the Black Stars’ technical bench.
And that wasn’t all: the 52-year-old was even sponsored on an educational trip to Brazil so he would have all the skills and no excuse at all to recapture Ghana’s place atop the African football chain.
Assisting Gyamfi was his younger colleagues; Emmanuel Kwasi ‘E.K’ Afranie – in charge of fitness – and Fred Osam Doudu, who had coached the country to the 1978 triumph, in charge of tactics.
The Stars went into the qualifiers all buoyant – and a tad lucky – narrowly seeing off the two Congos – Congo Brazzaville 2-1 on aggregate and DR Congo (then known as Zaire) 4-3 on aggregate to pick up a ticket as one of eight nations that were to fight for the Africa Unity Trophy in Libya.
The Ghana government, then helmed by President Hilla Limann – in power since 1979 – decided to boycott participation in the tournament due to strained diplomatic relations with the hosts, whose leader Muammar Gaddafi was as controversial as he was polarizing.
Operation Libya was thus shut down, handing a heavy setback to Ghana’s football ambitions.
In an interview with Kwasi Appiah, who was part of the team but could not play a role due to knee injury and now coach of Black the stars, he said “Every football player or fan was disappointed after struggling to qualify. “
Despite the disappointment expressed by football stakeholders, Limann was emphatic: he wanted Ghana to play no part in the tournament, to stay away from any association with the Libyans, but destiny had other plans.
Indeed, Limann himself did not last long enough in power to see his decision enforced.
On December 31, 1981, his government was overthrown.
One man – Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings – had pulled off a smooth second-coming. In June 1979, the young and charismatic Rawlings, a relative junior in Ghana’s air force, had shocked the nation with a coup that overthrew a military government that had been in power since 1972. After a tension-filled three months in power, Rawlings handed over to Limann, whose People’s National Party had won the General Elections.
Two years down the line, however, the radical, no-nonsense Rawlings, who had been keeping close tabs on Limann from the side-lines, unimpressed with the standard of governance, decided enough was enough. The democracy thing wasn’t helping, and so he decided to take matters into his own hands.
Ghanaians heard the booming voice of this energetic, light-skinned military firebrand over the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation radio, announcing a military takeover – at the time Ghana’s fourth since independence.
Rawlings regained the reins of government with a sense of ease and nonchalance that had never been seen in Ghana’s history, notoriously refusing to call his unconstitutional seizure of power as a coup but rather a ‘Holy War’ and a ‘Revolution’. He formed a new government with his crew and christened it the Provisional National Defence Council – PNDC.
‘Provisional’? Not quite: the military junta would be in power for the next 11 years.
More crucially, in the wake of the political shake-up, Rawlings, an admirer of Gaddafi, immediately reversed Limman’s Libya boycott, ordering the Black Stars to go and compete.
“We are going to Libya to prove to the world that Ghanaians can take decisions for themselves,” said Zaya Yeebo, the PNDC’s Secretary for Youth and Sports.
“Rawlings actually brought smiles on our faces when he promised us participation. ” Kwasi Appiah
It was a subtle dig at Limann, whom the Rawlings administration saw as a puppet of the United States of America, the world’s superpower whose well-documented grudge with Libya had inspired allies and foes alike.
Unlike his predecessor, Rawlings immediately established cordial, even cozy relations with the Libyans. El Mandi Aboelkhirt, a member of the organizing committee for Libya 82’, traveled to Ghana on February 12, 1982, to extend a formal invitation to Ghana and also thank Rawlings for his decision to rescind the boycott. A week later, Rawlings sent a 21-member contingent to Tripoli, Libya’s capital, to assure Gaddafi of Ghana’s support in the fight against ‘imperialism and racism’.
“We in Ghana regard you as an example to be emulated in being brave and strong in facing Africa’s enemies,” Rawlings wrote in a statement. “We will stand together against all these enemies and we will work together to develop our relations in various fields because consolidation of relations between Ghanaians and Libyans would give Africa a solid force.”
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi had risen to power through a coup d’etat on September 1, 1969, wrestling control from the country’s Senussi Muslim monarchy headed by King Idris: an authoritative order which had grown unpopular on accusations that it had personalized the new-found oil wealth.
This watershed takeover became known as the Al Fateh Revolution.
Rawlings had been inspired by Gaddafi and his ideals, also shared by other revolutionaries such as Fidel Castro (Cuba), Desi Bouterse (Suriname), and Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua).
The values entailed holding power to account by taking over in the name of giving it back to the people, as well as the opposition to Western (mainly U.S) imperialism.
After Rawlings’ second ascent to power in December 1981, many whispered rumors held that Gaddafi, who was known to fund other revolutions, helped Rawlings out with funds and equipment to usurp Limann. Thus Rawlings’ rather hasty move to align the September and December revolutions of Libya and Ghana in 1982 came as no surprise.
Apart from Rawlings overturning the boycott because of a desire to establish and maintain an affiliation with his ‘comrade’ Gaddafi, the whole exercise was also a strategic means of getting Ghanaians to buy into the theme of patriotism and national consciousness that he had sold his revolution by.
The military leader sought success by using football, the country’s biggest passion, and the Black Stars, easily the country’s most popular brand, as tools to justify and enhance his revolution.
A writer in the Ghanaian Times, Eric Yankah, explained this dynamic best. “Our participation would create and reinforce a ‘togetherness’, evoke feelings of patriotism and demonstrate to all peoples (at home and abroad) how happy and carefree life would be under the revolution,” he wrote.
“In this way, football, the most popular sporting activity would become one of the effective means of linking members of the country with politics, the revolution, and of course, with their own aspirations.”
Indeed, the actors of the revolution themselves didn’t hide this intention. Zaya Yeebo said that the success of the Black Stars in Libya would “mean so much” to the success of the revolution. “The Black Stars are therefore the most important group of people in the promotion of the sport at the moment. Our major preoccupation is to get them prepared,” he claimed.
The Daily Graphic even referred to the national team as “soccer ambassadors of the revolution.”
Meanwhile, football stakeholders didn’t care about the political underpinnings. They were delighted with the news.
The Daily Graphic called Rawlings’ Libya U-turn as “the best news to come the way of sportsmen since the launching of the revolution.”
“One shudders to think of the damaging and demoralizing consequences that Ghana soccer would have suffered if the original decision by the Limann administration to boycott the finals had been allowed to stay,” it said.
It was January 1982, and the tournament was scheduled for March. The team had to be revived from its inactivity. Funds needed to be raised to fuel Operation Libya.
Things were sparked into motion amid a frantic, crazy whirl of preparations. On January 13, 51 days to the tournament, the Black Stars were immediately reconstituted, camped at the Kaneshie Sports Complex, and later at the then serene, secluded Mendskrom, around the McCarthy Hills area outside of Accra.
Zaya Yeebo immediately got to work, calling on civil society and corporate bodies to donate funds towards financing the team’s Libya ambition. Support came in thick and fast – sums of money, equipment, the whole nine yards.
Interestingly, a group known as the Ghana-Libya Friendship Association were among the organizations that donated money to the team – with theirs being a specific sum of 1,500 cedis. Another group named the Ghana-Libya-Iran Friendship Association forked out 1000 cedis.
At a point, the PNDC ordered about 11 friendlies to be played amongst clubs across the country, purposefully to harvest proceeds that would aid the Stars’ campaign. Among these games were two of the nation’s biggest local derbies – Asante Kotoko v Cornerstone in Kumasi and Hearts of Oak v Great Olympics in Accra, both of which fetched close to 200,000 cedis. Over in the Western Regional derby, Hasaacas and Eleven Wise raised close to 35,000 cedis.
The story of Ghana’s journey to Libya was characterized by a strong sense of serendipity, as you may have noticed by now.
All the pieces were coming together, against the odds.
During the qualifiers, the team needed unfancied, hitherto labeled ‘impossible’ away wins to outwit both Congo Brazaville and Zaire after home draws. The team had also needed a Coup d’etat to even get the green light to participate in the tournament.
And, when under the pressure of time inadequacy, the team was wondering how they would find top opponents to play in preparation for the tournament, there was the Supreme Council of Sports in Africa (SCSA)’s Zone Three Football competition to save them.
Organized from February 14-21, this competition was the football edition – the other sports being boxing and cycling – of a wider sports games scheme put together by the SCSA. Eight West African nations were to compete for a trophy named after Benin President Mathieu Kerekou: Hosts Benin was being joined by Nigeria, Togo, Ivory Coast, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Niger, and Sierra Leone. Ghana had initially planned to send its Under 23 team to this tournament, but with the Libya boycott U-turn necessitating the need for immediate preparatory games, the Black Stars asked to represent the nation.
Before departing for Benin, the national team had played friendlies against a Ghana Commercial Bank team as well as Accra Great Olympics, putting up performances that the press considered ‘unimpressive’.
It was to be expected.
The team had been put together hurriedly and things were yet to take form. But the fear was that the time might not be enough for the team to fully jell and grow ahead of Libya.
In Benin, the team continued to struggle to find their rhythm. Their opening fixture against the Ivory Coast was an astonishing 5-5 draw, a result Daily Graphic sportswriter Joe Aggrey, who traveled to cover the tournament, described as ‘basketball score’.
“This might sound incredible, but it is very true,” Aggrey wrote. “For the Black Stars, it was a nightmarish experience. Indeed, they escaped defeat by the skin of their teeth.”
Yet another draw followed. And it was similarly high-scoring: 2-2, against Niger. The team was scoring, but it was conceding heavily too.
Progress wasn’t being made.
“The Black Stars arrived in Cotonou as one of the favorites,” Aggrey observed after the Niger draw.
“But now they are not too sure to reach even the semi-finals.”
He was being honest. The team was still underperforming. “Frankly, the Stars have been disappointing particularly the defense which has conceded very lousy goals,” he added.
Aggrey further observed that through those two “depressing draws”, the team played “as if nothing was at stake”.
And so, in their last Group game against hosts Benin, Ghana Sports Council chairman Henry Nyemetei told the boys to “go and die a little for mother Ghana”.
“The players responded with an authoritative 4-0 walloping of Benin,” Aggrey reported.
“And in the process dispelled the growing doubts about their battle readiness for Libya.”
The semi-final that everyone wasn’t sure the team would reach had become a reality.
And, once there, the team did the business: a narrow 1-0 win against Upper Volta.
They had set up a final against Togo.
“Now that the Mathieu Kerekou Cup is within our grasp, there is nothing or nobody to stop us from taking it to Ghana,” captain Emmanuel Quarshie declared on the eve of the final.
It was a bold vow he and his teammates would fulfill. They beat Togo 2-1 to secure the trophy, as well as mini-trophies for Fair Play and Participation.
“All is well, they say, that ends well,” concluded Aggrey, who went on to say that the trophy win had “erased sad memories of their earlier uninspiring performance in the competition”.
Suddenly, the positives of the team became more visible. Everyone realized that this uninspiring team had just won a tournament. That they had done so by going unbeaten. And even better, by scoring an incredible 14 goals in 6 games.
Confidence was back.
As Aggrey wrote, people began to believe that C.K Gyamfi and his boys were now capable of “defending the flag of Ghana in Libya.”
The Ghanaian Times shared this optimism. “Team spirit appears very high and with so much enthusiasm in them, the Black Stars are likely to cause a stir in Libya,” wrote Sammy Aduagyei, one of the paper’s sports hacks.
Over in Tripoli, it was not the best of starts.
According to Ken Bediako, the Graphic’s sports editor who traveled with the team, Joseph Carr, the team’s first-choice goalkeeper, dubiously claimed to be unwell to avoid playing in the team’s opening game against hosts Libya.
Carr’s teammates speculated that it might have been because he wasn’t in form and so wanted to avoid featuring to swerve possible humiliation.
Joe Carr had been a divisive figure from the start. Along with Opoku ‘Bayie’ Afriyie, the whiz kid striker, top-scorer of the 1981 Ghana league with 21 goals, and highly rated defender Ofei Ansah, all of Kotoko, Carr had been initially left out of the squad called to camp ahead of the tournament back in January.
Carr, a key member of Ghana’s Africa Cup-winning class of 1978, had been the nation’s – and indeed Africa’s – top goalkeeper in his prime, but in 1981, after having left Ghana to play in Nigeria and returned to train with Kotoko, he was off form and off-color.
Bayie (his nickname, which was Twi for ‘wizardry’), on the other hand, had a reputation as one of the most difficult players in the country to deal with, a player whose abundance of talent was tainted by his behavioral issues. The man who scored both goals as Ghana beat Uganda 2-0 to win the 1978 Africa Cup had a negative non-conformist image, an albatross of indiscipline that hung around his neck everywhere he went.
Coach C.K Gyamfi had avoided Carr for his questionable form and Bayie for the fear of his indiscipline spreading like a virus throughout the team. But former Kotoko chairman, Simms K Mensah, lashed out at Gyamfi and the Ghana Football Association, saying the omission of Carr was “preposterous” and that as Ghana’s “number one goalkeeper”, he should be “invited into the Black Stars camp unconditionally”.
On Bayie, Mensah – who had steered Asante Kotoko to their first Africa Cup triumph in 1970 – admitted that he was a “dare-devil-jack”, but insisted that “like George Best of Ireland, (Bayie) cannot be dispensed with despite his rudeness and indiscipline”.
Mensah went on to say that Ofei Ansah was “Ghana’s most seasoned defense player”, and so his omission was a “big question mark”.
“The GFA should re-examine its decisions and place the interest of the nation above the petty personal feelings of its members,” he concluded.
Coach Gyamfi responded to these accusations with a strongly-worded statement.
“Players were selected on the basis of discipline, performance, and current form and not on any other considerations,” he explained.
On Carr: “There can be no doubt that before he left for Nigeria, Carr was the nation’s number one goalkeeper. But in view of the problems he had in Nigeria, where he was inactive for one whole season, it would have been only too preposterous to invite him to camp on the basis of his rating as one of the top goalkeepers in Africa two seasons ago. I wish to assure all soccer-loving fans that Carr is being watched but can only be invited to camp when we are sure he is still in form and not before that; there can be nothing like an unconditional invitation to any player in the country or elsewhere.”
On Bayie: “One is definitely not being petty when common sense dictates that if your best player is undisciplined, it is better to avoid him like the plague than to allow him to infect others with his disease. I once again assure the whole nation that so long as I remain head of the team, indiscipline will never be tolerated in the Black Stars. I will be the first to recommend to the authorities to scrap the entire squad if we cannot have players prepared to strict discipline and training.”
Gyamfi, though, upon later monitoring and consideration, eventually okayed the invitation of Carr and Bayie.
Perhaps the Carr decision wasn’t such a good idea. The goalkeeper’s form proved to be badly compromised, his year of inactivity in Nigeria – true to Gyamfi’s prediction – evidently taking a toll on his performance.
During the ‘Zone Three’ tournament in Benin, he let in five goals in the first game. After being benched in the second, he returned to man the posts for the third game, keeping a clean sheet until the final where he needlessly gave away a goal in the last minute against Togo when the Stars could have won 2-0.
His strange demeanor in the camp when the Stars arrived in Tripoli was thus merely a continuation of an existing saga of controversy and mystery.
The Daily Graphic’s match report of Ghana’s 2-2 opening game draw hosts against Libya had a headline that placed a negative spotlight on a player who did not even feature: “Carr is a nuisance.”
Ken Bediako wrote that Carr had “capped a strange attitude to training” – including keeping to himself while avoiding his teammates even during team meals – “by feigning injury at the last minute.”
Carr’s bizarre behavior turned out to be a blessing-in-disguise for third choice goalie Michael Owusu Mensah, who would go on to emerge as an unlikely hero.
Chosen ahead of second choice goalie John Baker, who was understood to be struggling with fitness, Mensah, according to Bediako, went on to make at “least six point-blank saves” to save Ghana – suffocated by the intimidating pressure emanating from a charged home crowd – from a loss.
Mensah turned out to be “the man who stood between Libya and victory”, according to the Ghanaian Times’ Oheneba Charles, who also traveled with the team.
They had only played one game, but coach C.K Gyamfi was already having headaches.
The bitingly cold weather of Tripoli saw most of his players struggle with fitness and form. There were long term injuries to Hearts’ Hesse Odamtten – whose uncle Charles Addo Odamtey had captained Ghana to the Africa Cup triumph of 1965 – and young James Kwesi Appiah of Mine Stars, who three decades later would coach the team.
Furthermore, there were short term injuries to the likes of Kotoko duo John Bannerman and Opoku Afriyie, as well as right-winger John ‘Zion Train’ Essien (Ghana’s Footballer of the Year for 1981).
Then, of course, there was the rather curious Carr issue. Not to mention the added difficulty of equipment challenges as well as the difficulty of players having to adapt to the unfamiliar artificial pitches that were being used for the tournament.
Things looked tough.
But he still had a wealth of quality to rely on: the likes of Isaac Paha (Ghana’s Defender of the Year for 1981), Emmanuel Quarshie, the experienced captain of the team; Opoku Nti, Kotoko’s young playmaker who would go on to inspire the Porcupine Warriors to an African Cup triumph a year later to earn the distinction as runner-up in Africa’s Player of the Year Award; young strikers Ben Kayede and Abedi ‘Pele’ Ayew (then 17 years old, and who would later go on to become what many agree is Ghana’s greatest ever player, winning the Africa Player of the Year award three times and also winning the UEFA Champions League with Marseille); the target-man and goal machine George Alhassan (who would finish the tournament as the top-scorer with four goals); goal-scoring right full-back Sampson ‘Gaddafi’ Lamptey, as well as tenacious midfielders Kofi Abbrey and Albert Asaase.
All hope wasn’t lost: not even after a 0-0 draw against Cameroon in the next game.
The great goalkeeper Thomas N’Kono – later in 1982 awarded the African Footballer of the Year prize – made sure the Ghanaians couldn’t hit the back of the net in that game, putting the team on the verge of elimination.
The last game against Tunisia was a must-win, and it helped that Ghana could at least cling on to the hope of history repeating itself: they had never lost to the Tunisians, having beaten them twice on their way to two of their Africa Cup titles – in the final of 1965 in Tunis and the semi-final of 1978 in Accra.
History did repeat itself. Ghana won by a goal to nil, with John Essien slightly recovering from injury to head in the decisive goal.
The Black Stars were in the semi-final.
Their opponents? An Algeria side that was considered by pundits as a shoo-in for the title owing to their sheer strength, as well as the fact that they had qualified for the 1982 FIFA World Cup.
In their fold were some of Africa’s best footballers, spearheaded by Lakhdar Belloumi, African Footballer of the Year for 1981, and Salah Assad, who would that year (1982) be named Africa’s second-best footballer. Then there was inspirational captain Al Fergani, who had finished third in the Africa Footballer of the Year race for 1981.
Ghana had no reason to be intimidated, though. They had some positives of their own. Some squad members were performing so well that scouts had even started circling. There were reports that Don Revie, a former coach of Leeds United and England, who was then managing Al Nasr in Saudi Arabia, had expressed interest in signing as many as five Ghana players: Owusu Mensah, Sampson Lamptey, Abedi Pele, Kofi Abbrey, and Albert Asaase.
It was going to be a high profile semi at the 28th March Stadium in Benghazi, and the popular view on the ground, according to the Times’ Oheneba Charles, was simple: the winner of the Ghana-Algeria semi-final was “likely to become winners of the tournament.”
How right this projection turned out to be.
Ghana captain Emmanuel Quarshie knew his team had come too far to back down in the face of the Algerian threat.
Besides, everything that had happened since the qualifiers – all the fortuitous events – was pointing to the ultimate. Quarshie could see the signs. He knew.
“We are determined to reach the finals and recapture the Cup,” he promised.
The midfielder was looking to emulate the achievements of Edward Jonah Aggrey Fynn (1963), Charles Addo Odametey (1965), and Awuley Quaye (1978), captains of Ghana to lift an Africa Cup trophy.
“Nobody can stop us. Victory is our battle-cry. We cannot afford to fail the nation.”
They didn’t, true to the captain’s words.
Ghana emerged winners in a grueling game – described by Charles as “a dress rehearsal of a real Cup final” – that had to be decided in extra time after a 2-2 draw.
George Alhassan, who had scored in the opening game against Libya, bagged a brace – the first as the game’s opening goal and the second winning it for Ghana in extra time.
Over at the Daily Graphic, Ken Bediako was so moved by Alhassan’s savior heroics that he titled his match report “George’s Africa Cup.” Alhassan, nicknamed Jairzinho, after the Brazilian legend who made history by scoring in every game of the 1970 World Cup, would go on to score again in the final, vindicating Bediako’s emotional declaration.
Meanwhile, the Algerians, who had their captain Fergani sent off as they went on to throw away a 2-1 lead in the 89th minute of the game, wept at the blast of the final whistle, inconsolable as they watched their Ghanaian counterparts running amok in jubilation.
The Black Stars of Ghana, African football’s most respected team, had made it into a record sixth Africa Cup final. And they had only played in eight tournaments. Ruthless.
Ghana stood on the cusp of history, and the entire nation waited with bated breath.
Messages flooded into their camp from back home.
“The whole nation will be solidly behind you,” the GFA said.
“We hope you will strive to bring home the coveted cup,” said the Asantehene (King of Ashantis), Otumfuor Opoku Ware II.
But the most touching message of all, though, came from Flt Lt Jerry John Rawlings himself.
“Ghana for the moment has nothing,” the leader wrote. “All we have is you.”
It was a bold vote of confidence, a sacred responsibility bestowed in the most moving way.
And it did the trick.
The rest, they say, is history.
The OAU lounge of the Kotoko International Airport was vibrating with anticipation and activity, filled with hundreds of fans.
It was Tuesday March 23, 1982.
Then at 5.53pm, it happened.
The flight carrying the heroes from the Conquest of Libya touched down on the tarmac.
And, when completed its landing protocol and it was time for passengers to disembark, the joy heightened. By the time captain Quarshie descended the gangway with the giant Africa Unity Trophy, Ghanaians felt their sense of pride and happiness approaching a crescendo.
“Your great achievement in winning the African Cup has lifted us all in Ghana,” Rawlings had written when the team won the trophy, the visible words read, the intangible pride felt.
Later, upon orders by the PNDC, the trophy was put on a show across all of Ghana’s major cities, because Rawlings insisted that the victory was for “the people”.
Of course, the victory was always going to be linked with the revolution. It was inevitable.
Rawlings led the crusade: “What you have won without expectation of any promised material reward is a tribute to your revolutionary strength. The revolution thrives on women and men who fight without any expectation of reward but for the glory of their people.”
Sergeant Alolga Akate Pore, a member of the PNDC who met the team at the airport, added that the victory was one for the revolution. “It was also a victory for the African revolution because Ghana and Libya met in the final,” he observed.
The state-owned Daily Graphic, clearly pipers playing a tune called by the PNDC added its voice to the discussion: “The spirit with which our revolutionary soccer ambassadors – the Black Stars – regained the Africa Cup must mean a lot to all Ghanaians,” the paper wrote. “When the PNP (Limann) government swore never to go to Libya, it was this national spirit that they were killing. They destroyed our sense of pride and helped to draw swords into African Unity.”
Amid all this craze to reduce the victory to the revolution alone, though, was a bigger-picture anecdote told by the Times’ Oheneba Charles, containing a truth that was profound and heart-warming:
“When we first arrived in Libya, Ghana was one country the average Libyan had not heard of. We were either taken for Guyana or Nigeria. But at the end of the contest, Ghana’s name was on the lips of Libyans. And that’s the effect and magic of sports.
“In this funny world where nations strive for power and identity, the Black Stars have done it for us.”
The Black Stars, unfortunately, have since not done it for us again.