Africa Cup of Nations
Africa Cup of Nations

Kick-off

Monday January 21 — Lawson Naidoo

The city of Accra exploded into colour and cacophony this weekend in anticipation of the start of the Africa Cup of Nations tournament being staged in this dynamic, robust and bustling metropolis. Most cars, taxis, buses, bicycles and wheelchairs on the streets of the capital were adorned with the national flag, as were most of the people on the streets — even the many European tourists here were swept away in the national fervour that has engulfed this proud and mighty country. The parties started in earnest last night as nightspots across the city prepared for an eagerly anticipated carnival of football.

Several hours before the start of the game, the crowds around the Accra National Stadium were in high spirits — the seeming chaos as people marched towards the stadium in throngs from different directions developed into raucous harmony as the singing and dancing increased in intensity. The throngs became one huge mass, even encompassing the Guinea supporters — not that they were easy to distinguish; both countries share a red, yellow and green livery. While the stadium was patrolled by the Ghana police, their polite and helpful demeanour belied their intimidating yet impressive uniforms.

The opening ceremony was an energetic, percussion-driven showcase of the diversity of West African culture. Whether this had any effect on the pitch at the national stadium is unlikely, but Claude le Roy, the coach of the Black Stars, later lambasted the pitch as “unacceptable” for a game of this stature and the “worst I have seen in my 20-year career in African football”. It was a hard surface with a balloon-like bounce, yet the long, thick grass served to slow down balls that were played along the ground, which helps explain why the first half contained so many unforced errors. Le Roy labelled it a “very complicated game” underlining the nervousness demonstrated by his team and the huge levels of expectation placed on these Black Stars.

It certainly resulted in a rather scrappy match with the ball spending a great deal of time airborne, and negating the expressive one-touch game of the Ghanaians. Ghana dominated the opening exchanges, setting the pattern for the remainder of the game. Chances were created by the home team but, remarkably, three well-crafted efforts came back off the uprights, and one spectacular overhead shot went narrowly wide. Nevertheless, one sensed that this was a below-par home team that went in at half-time.

They began the second half with greater vigour through a midfield driven by Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari and an expectant, if increasingly nervous, home crowd. Muntari was playing alongside Essien in a more central role than he is accustomed to. A goal came via the penalty spot after Manuel “Junior” Agogo was brought down in the area by Oumar Kalabane as he collected a sharp through ball. The penalty was converted by the Udinese striker Asamoah Gyan. The crowd believed that proper order had been restored, but their anxiety was piqued a few minutes later when slack defending from a Guinea corner resulted in Oumar Kalabane making amends for his earlier misdemeanour, forcing the ball over the goal line.

A Ghanaian substation on the hour mark almost reaped instant rewards as the son of Ghana legend Abedi Pele, Adre Ayew, almost scored with his first touch following a sweeping move down the right, only to be denied by a superb save from the Guinea ‘keeper.

Ghana finished the stronger of the two sides and just as the crowd seemed ready to accept the consolation of a draw, Portsmouth midfielder Sulley Muntari had the final word via his left boot, a succulent shot of the sort that he has been knocking in for Portsmouth in the English Premiership all season. He had displayed his eagerness to shoot on sight throughout the game and finally found his range with an unstoppable drive from 30 yards in the last moments of the game.

The crowd and the Ghanaian people were spared an empty celebration last night. Regardless of results on the pitch, they will definitely revel in the beautiful game on this beautiful continent for the next three weeks.