Saturday, 8 January 2011

Celebrating football in Ghana

First published in Sons View, 08 January 2011, Dumbarton -v- Forfar Athletic.

It wouldn't exactly be true to say that the Sons of the Rock are big in Ghana, but during my travels in West Africa, over Christmas and the New Year, I've been doing my best to spread the Dumbarton flame, as the eventual photographic evidence will show.

Football is everywhere in Ghana, from the big towns and rural areas through to the Cape Coast. Local teams and training centres advertise on the roadsides, kids kick balls in the street or through the dust, Milo high energy drinks emblemize celebrating goal scorers, Michael Essien smiles from posters, beer firms promote 'text and win' soccer challenges on bottles and cans... and of course the ubiquitous English Premier League 'big four' shirts are displayed on the backs of some of the local enthusiasts, plus a smattering of Barca and AC Milan kits, too.

One of our main hosts here, Dawn Zaney, works as an attorney for Standard Chartered Bank, which now sponsors Liverpool, so he has loyally added the Reds to his existing Chelsea allegiance. That should make for an interesting end of season! (The Real Madrid brand is the one that is most noticable by its virtual abscence, incidentally).

Of course, the 2010 South African World Cup has made a massive difference to the popularity and profile of the game, already very sizeable, on the Gulf of Guinea. Ghana's high performing 'Black Stars' became symbolic of the rapid expansion of football, against great financial and logistical odds, across this magnificent, sun-drenched continent.

Equally, Ghana had become just about everybody else's favoured World Cup 'second team' by week two of the competition, with the country's red, gold and green flags festooning bars across the globe. My own work poll put the Black Stars only just behind Brazil and fractionally ahead of 'Anybody But England' in the popularity stakes.

In Ghana itself, the progress of the national team, not least in vanquishing the USA and coming so agonisingly close to reaching the final stages of the tournament (denied only on penalties after a blatant last-minute Uruguayan handball and the subsequent spot-kick miss by erstwhile hero Asamoah Gyan) caught the imagination of the whole country.

Endearingly, there is much more pride in Ghana's considerable achievement than there is bitterness about the eventual outcome. Those two historic matches are still highlighted on TV here, where it seems you can find a full-length EPL match - or one from the Bundesliga, Serie A, the French league or the premier divisions in Kenya, Zambia and Ghana itself (excerpted) - at almost any time of day or night. Just as South African trade, along with oil discoveries, has reshaped the economic fortunes of the country since the darker days of the 1990s, so Super Sports TV has made global football part of the fabric of the national culture.

There are upsides and downsides to this globalising influence, of course. Unlike the situation in much of Britain, saturation TV sport seems to act more as a spur than a preventive to actual participation. And while there is a shortage of good quality facilities outside Accra, local youth football clubs are busily raising funds and support, not least from visitors, to pave the way for tomorrow's generation.

Overall football standards are improving at all levels of the game. The real difficulty is that worldwide attention has substantially increased the flow of scouts from the big European leagues, tempting emerging and developed stars away from Ghanaian football, lured by astronomic wages and the promise (not necessarily fulfillable) of glory and silverware on foreign shores.

But it is the vibrancy of the game at the grassroots level, sustained by many thousands of keen and aspiring youngsters across the country, which will determine Ghana's future role and status in the world football constellation. And on the (admittedly limited) evidence I have seen on my visit, this enthusiasm and commitment is not about to drain away. The real challenge is consistency and the ability to maintain football development in a country which is as stable and prosperous as it has ever been - but which still faces major problems of poverty, inequality and climate change.

Support for Ghanaian football from its growing band of international friends will continue to be important over the next decade or so, too. I'm hoping to develop some links for those who might be interested in Dumbarton. Who knows, we might even have our own Gyam one day - minus the crucial penalty miss in our moment of impending glory, hopefully!


Jack Deighton said...

You chose the right few weeks to go to Africa.
You didn't miss many Sons games, that's for sure.

Simon Barrow said...

Two to be precise. Not to much of a blemish on my record ;)