Wednesday, March 05, 2008

CAN 2008 – African Cup of Nations - Part I

As soon as we alighted from the plane I was bombarded with posters, flags, and banners screaming AKWABA (welcome) to all visitors attending the African Cup of Nations, which were hosted in Ghana this year. The nationalistic colors, red, gold, green, and black were splashed across almost every available surface in the airport and even the ground staff wore badges supporting their team. The patriotism on display was overwhelming. Outside the airport the frenzy was even more intense. It was the afternoon of the big match, the quarter finals between arch rivals Ghana and Nigeria. Kick off was in 2 hours and all cars left on the streets were either finding their way to the stadium or towards the closest TV set, all of them baring a barrage of Ghanaian flags and stickers. People were hanging out of car windows screaming and the people who did not own cars just ran through the streets singing anthems. The atmosphere was festive. My buddy Doc showed up at the airport with a personalized jersey for me and tickets to the match.

There was no time to go home and wash off from the 10 hour flight I had just taken, there was barely time to change into a pair of shorts in the parking lot and make our way to the stadium. Not to mention I had only 120 minutes to catch up on all the drinking I had missed out on. We did not drive far before finding that all roads leading to the stadium were choka-block with traffic. There was no way we were going to make it there on wheels so we hit the pavement running. In every direction people were celebrating, drinking local spirits and getting all riled up for the match. I thought the energy heading into the Maracana at Brazil was something; this took pregame to a whole new level.

It is so crazy to think that only hours ago I was creeping through musty nightclubs in Dubai, and lonely days ago I was freezing my ass off in China. Yet there I was in a crowd of hundreds of people, sweating, drinking cold Star Beers, and eating Tsitsinga. It is fucking awesome to be home. The sights, sounds, and smells were intoxicating, not to mention the fine Ghanaian women on the scene. I could not have asked for more in terms of a welcome home party.

Although the stadium is nowhere as large as the Maracana in Rio, but the atmosphere was equally passionate. And I felt included in the frenzy because there was a personal connection for me. I WANTED Ghana to win, desperately. Nigeria is force to be reckoned with and I knew there was serious pressure on the Black Stars to win. There was small fights breaking out in the crowds between Nigerian and Ghanaian supporters, but fortunately nothing got out of hand. Mostly the scuffles ended with some heckling. Both sides were cheering wildly as players moved the ball around the pitch until Nigeria scored the first goal. Then there was pin drop silence. The Ghanaian supporters were deflated. We were only 30 minutes into the game but people were behaving as though we were in the last minute. All around me I heard people making discouraging comments about the Black Stars. I was astonished how little faith the Ghanaian people had in their own players and how quickly they were turning against the players they were only moments ago rejoicing for. I myself knew in my heart that we were going to win today and in the last minute of the first half Ghana equalized.

The jesting and teasing continued between supporters of both sides and eventually when Ghana overtook Nigeria scoring a second goal the hopes of the Nigerian camp were completely dashed. It was actually quite shameful the way Ghanaian fans jeered the Nigerians and even went as far as to splash them with water and call them foul names. Many of the women and proud men were forced to leave the game before it ended to avoid the constant harassment. But I will add that the disapproving behavior was only conducted by small groups of people and the majority of Ghanaians in the crowd were equally displeased by their actions. But I guess at the end of the day this is the clear difference between playing matches home and away.

The atmosphere leaving the stadium after the Ghana vs. Nigeria match can only be likened to carnival in Brazil. For at least 3 kilometers in every direction people were exulted. Using a car was not an option because people were dancing in the streets and they just would not move. Cars on the road merely served as stages for people to dance on. There were parties breaking out on every street corner, people getting into heated discussions about the details of the match. I had never seen such a scene in Ghana before.

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