“Our coach once taught us a skill at training…”
This is Dogo Moro speaking, recalling an event from 1958: a Ghana national football team training session. It’s been over 60 years, but the man who Ghana’s foremost newspaper, Daily Graphic, once hailed as the country’s “greatest center half”, still remembers.
Now an octogenarian, Moro is one of the oldest surviving Ghana national team players, having represented the nation from 1958 till 1962.
“Even before he finished demonstrating that skill,” Moro, with an impressive photographic memory, continues, “…one of my teammates, Osman Seidu, had already done it. Our coach was pleasantly surprised. He couldn’t stop talking about how impressed he was. He told us that what Seidu had done was not only exactly what he had intended to teach us, but it was in a much better form.”
The student had out-demonstrated the teacher.
But there was no surprise there. Osman Seidu was an exceptional talent. So exceptional, in fact, that many have called him Ghana’s greatest ever footballer. You may think this is a leg puller because the name does not ring a bell.
Osman Seidu was the real name of a footballer whose performance moniker was “Baba Yara”.
Yara — who tragically died 50 years ago aged 33, and after whom Ghana’s largest stadium in Kumasi is named — was not an isolated case. He was a paradigm of the physiological make-up of footballers of that era.
Like most of his contemporaries, Yara was what Ohene Djan, one time Ghanaian FA President and later Director of Sport, described as a “natural footballer”.
“Yara abhorred orthodoxy,” Djan wrote. “He believed that a coach’s primary duty, like the music master, was to teach the student to read the notes and that the student’s own ingenuity and creativity should enable him to make melodious music.”
Make no mistake: Ghanaians have always had a thing for football. Like Djan noted in his book: A Short History of Ghana Football and the rise of the Black Star Group: “The habit of playing football is acquired by every young Ghanaian as a matter of course.” The average Ghanaian young boy, ever since the sport made an entry into the country in the early 1900s, seemed to know football even before the sport was introduced to him. The talent for the sport here perhaps even pre-dated the advent of it. As early as in 1951, a British coach named David Wall, after having observed Ghanaian footballers, remarked: “It is of no use teaching these fellows ball play.”
Not every footballer exhibited Yara’s level of genius, but the average player was great with the ball at his feet. The country had no problem with raw talent — it was an endowment by default, abundant in its vault, like its gold. Heard of Arthur Wharton, the world’s first black professional footballer? He was Ghanaian. Coincidence?
Writing in his famous column for the Daily Graphic in 1953, the great Ghanaian sports writer Kofi Badu, described this theory best, while referring to his compatriots as “a people who can do wonderful things with the least assistance — a people with the sort of innate abilities…”
“Any proof for this?” Badu asked. “Well, take our footballers. For years they have performed all on their own, without assistance, without coaching.”
Badu’s claim was truth, hard to dispute. From the early 1900s up until the late 1950s, Ghana neither had expert guidance nor enabling infrastructure to nurture footballing talent, yet the nation had been able to churn out great footballers, among them James Adjaye, Charles ‘Kumi ‘C.K’ Gyamfi and Chris Briandt.
How great were they? Well, not that they needed validation, but these performers received praise from the very inventors of the game themselves — the English.
In 1951, Ghana, then known as the Gold Coast, sent its national team, the Gold Coast XI, on a tour of the U.K. The team was without a coach. The players played barefoot. They ended up losing eight of their 10 games. Yet some of them made an indelible impression. James Adjaye was reportedly described by a British commentator as a player who “all things being equal could hold his own among the best inside forwards in England.” C.K Gyamfi, top scorer for the team during the tour, was so beloved for his “clever dribbling and body swerving” that Fleet Street sports reporters described him as the star of the team, nicknaming him “Cheeky Charlie”. Chris Briandt, who captained the team, would many years later be described by Sir Stanley Matthews, the Ballon d’Or’s first recipient, as “one of the greatest footballers and finest sportsmen I met on my West African tour”.
So yes, that great. As great as subsequent generations of Black Stars who shone in a different era and thus benefitted from TV exposure, the likes of Abedi Pele and Tony Yeboah, Michael Essien and Sammy Kuffour.
The fact that Ghanaian footballers were predominantly gifted was a given, but the gift was never going to guarantee success, though it was going to make it easier to achieve. The gift was not an end, but a means to it.
A gift, like a natural resource, is only valuable after it is refined. It is great to have it, but it has no power without being harnessed. This is what Ghanaian footballers needed — the raw talent had to be processed, the rare gift had to be converted to winning currency. “The inborn ability is there,” Badu wrote. “What is required is that bit of sandpapering in skill and we will be building a nation that will be the envy of millions as far as sports is concerned.”
That “sandpapering” eventually came in many ways. In 1957, Sir Stanley Matthews was invited by Ghanaian club giants Hearts of Oak to tour the nation, and he ended up having a lot of exhibition sessions and clinics to hone talent across the many municipalities he visited.
Before Sir Stanley left, he prescribed more sandpapering. He advised that the Ghanaian football authorities bring in an English “league player of merit” like himself, or one nearing retirement, to develop football talent.
So, in March 1958, the Ghana Amateur Football Association (GAFA), as the country’s FA was then known, helmed by Ohene Djan, took steps to realize that advice.
Sir Stanley had been modest. Perhaps he had suggested a player because that was what he felt a nascent nation like Ghana could afford.
But Djan and his men had other ideas.
A player? Why not a proper professional coach?
Remember the coach Dogo Moro referred to at the start? That was George Edward Ainsley, the first-ever professional coach hired by Ghana. Hired by Djan and his men.
He was imported from England, with the help of one Mr. E.F.K Epton, an official at the Ghanaian High Commission in London. Epton served as an international football “representative” of sort for GAFA, looking out for Ghanaian football interests abroad.
Ainsley, then 42, had come in highly recommended. He had spent close to 20 years as a footballer, playing for the likes of Sunderland, Bolton Wanderers and Leeds United.
After acquiring his coaching badges, he rose to become a ‘chief FA staff coach’, a respected role owing not only to the fact that these senior officials coached and examined other coaches but also because there were only six of such officials in the world.
Another added advantage — and a bragging right — was that Ainsley had trained another coach called Les Courtier, who was then in charge of Nigeria, Ghana’s traditional arch-rivals against whom they played the annual “Jalco Cup”.
Ghana had struck gold. They had secured a man who, according to former FA and FIFA President Sir Stanley Rous, was “the most experienced coach in Britain.”
The GAFA going for the best coaching talent from the home of football showed the character of the person who had taken charge of the country’s football governing body. Ohene Djan was a man who had taken it upon himself to transform Ghana football, to turn talent into trophies. Ambition was his very nature.
Djan had risen to power as a young firebrand usurping an old order in September 1957. He was a key architect of a torrential dissent that swept away the administration of Richard “Lion Heart” Akwei, the Gold Coast’s most powerful football politician since 1930. Djan was 33 and exuded exuberance so strong that it led to him labelling his regime “the reformation”.
Ghana football pre-Djan was not well regarded. The 1951 UK tour — masterminded by Akwei — had been the only major watershed. The minuses far outweighed the plusses. There were no coaches. Players played without boots. There was no national league. The various regional football associations were at odds with each other, and with the national administration. Indeed, Kojo Botsio, who chaired the GAFA from 1960 till 1966, claimed that prior to the reformation, “any claim to systematic organization of football in this country was mere pretence.”
To be fair, the Akwei years — though described by some, including the anti-establishment Kofi Badu as “jumbled, messy, chaotic and unsymmetrical” — still saw some progress because, again, Ghanaians had a thing for football. Botsio believed that though the period was “haphazard for football organization, only enthusiasm and natural talent maintained the game of association football in this country for the first half-century of its introduction.”
This ‘enthusiasm’ — the passion, the zest — was a by-product of the talent. Ghana was so famed for football enthusiasm that Ainsley, long after he had left, remarked that there was nowhere in the world where the game of football was played with such enthusiasm as in Ghana.
Football in colonial Ghana essentially relied on natural talent and enthusiasm, but these two were not strong enough to carry the load of potential within the sector. A lot of work needed to be done — work in development, work in modernization — but there were challenges. The country, especially in the 50s, had been preoccupied with the struggle between natives and colonial masters for political independence, pushing football down the pecking order of attention.
Akwei thus had his work cut out for him and deserved acknowledgment for doing his bit. Indeed, though football under him suffered from a lack of sophistication, Djan believed that ‘Lion Heart’ had to be “given credit for being, as the Akans vividly put it, ‘the native doctor who at least, managed to sustain the life of the patient before the successful operation was conducted by the new doctor.”
Djan, the ‘new doctor’, knew that this “operation” Ghana football needed had to be an intense procedure. He had accused Akwei’s administration of being “incapable of maintaining the international prestige of Ghana soccer.” He had to walk the talk. He had to be different.
Besides, there was a lot at stake: Ghana, in March 1957, became the first Sub-Sahara African nation to attain independence, and so it was important for the nation to live up to its responsibility of leading the way in all spheres. And there was no more potent sphere than football — the world’s number one sport.
Football inevitably became important. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first Prime Minister and President (and also, patron of GAFA) charged Djan and his reformers “to come out with bold schemes to make Ghana soccer a showpiece on the continent of Africa.”
The Djan administration thus began industrializing the sector, because they needed finished products to achieve greatness on the international stage.
Raw talent wasn’t going to cut it. It was a diamond in the rough that needed cutting.
Ohene Djan and Kwame Nkrumah constituted a duo who shared friendship and chemistry. A young Djan had held a position in Prime Minister Nkrumah’s cabinet in the early 50s. It was unsurprising that Djan also shared Nkrumah’s well-documented affinity for ambition and the adoption of radical methods to realize it.
“Always remember that organization decides everything,” Nkrumah had told Djan as he began his GAFA reign. “You have my personal support and that of my government.”
Djan was thus properly empowered to bring in Ainsley and contract him with a handsome salary (£2000 per annum tax-free). Ainsley, who arrived in March 1958, was also given a car and an annual outfit allowance of £70.
There was also the added perk of a furnished bungalow in Accra; but he hardly stayed put, because Djan put him to work, sending him all over the country to scout the best talent and train them for the national team.
“A new phase is about to be opened,” wrote sportswriter J.K Addo Twum. “Ainsley has come to Ghana filled with determination to train the best men that Ghana can find.”
Ainsley was an invited guest at the country’s first-ever FA Cup final, played between arch-rivals Asante Kotoko and Hearts of Oak at the Accra stadium. After seeing the game, which Kotoko won 4–2, the Englishman made his assessment.
“The potential standard of Ghana soccer is tremendous,” he began. “But much work remains to be done in learning the major techniques and skills of football craft in general play.”
The focus of the Ainsley tenure became clear: sharpening the skills and technique of the footballers he trained.
As he crisscrossed the country, his presence further heightening the enthusiasm, he noticed that most players exhibited a natural potential for shooting, heading, passing, ball control et al, and so his job was to put the gloss on it and make those skills lethal.
Ghanaians became fond of their maiden national coach, accepting his teachings; the most distinct of which was an insistence on keeping the ball on the ground, because, as he later coined into a catchphrase, “remember, angels don’t play football”.
“The West African student of soccer is proving an apt pupil and learning to keep the ball on the ground,” Ainsley would later observe long after he was gone.
Hewas gone pretty early too: Ainsley signed for 18 months, but lasted for barely eight. In October 1958, on the eve of a crucial Jalco Cup clash, Ainsley resigned after falling out with the notoriously demanding and difficult Djan, over what the latter insinuated was salary increase issues.
His eyes firmly on the prize, the GAFA boss didn’t take long in finding Ainsley’s replacement: Swedish coach Erik Andreas Sjoberg.
A former footballer and Ski Jumper, Sjoberg was athletic looking, a physique gave an insight into his philosophy. He was a specialist in fitness and stamina. In an interview with J.K Addo Twum, Sjoberg, after months of observing Ghanaian footballers, assessed that they possessed world-class skill, but this skill needed to be combined with stamina in order to “sustain them through a full 90-minute international match.”
How was he going to build this stamina?
“To be able to stand the strain,” Sjoberg said. “I feel a regulated training period of about 8 to 10 weeks is extremely necessary to develop the heart and the respiratory organs. It must be noted that player performances are controlled by a proper functioning of these organs.”
In that interview, which appeared in the Daily Graphic, the Swede noticeably evaded the subject of tactics and formations. It was clear: Addo Twum even tried to feel him out without success. He asked Sjoberg about what was supposedly called the “W formation”. He asked about a tactic called the “Third Back System” and whether he would use it.
Sjoberg’s response, mildly dismissive, was telling as to his lack of interest — and perhaps, a lack of authority too — in that area. “If we have a team which possesses players with skill and stamina and can combine well, then of course, we can think of the third back game.”
There was subtle worry in Addo Twum’s tone in the concluding paragraph of the interview. “The national coach, however, did not disclose the formation he will teach our boys when they are camped,” he wrote. This, it seemed, was a disappointing detail for both Addo Twum and the Ghanaian football fandom, who were by then obsessed with formations and tactics; components which defined what they called “scientific football”.
In the next issue of the Daily Graphic, Sjoberg issued a disclaimer which saw him clarifying his comments with a lecture: what Addo Twum had called the “M formation” was actually the “WM formation”, he said. He talked about how he was in favour of using it, and how he even planned on modifying it especially for the Ghana national team.
Addo Twum’s response to the disclaimer was a sigh of relief: “I am pleased Mr. Sjoberg has now given us his views on formations.”
Sjoberg executed his predilection for endurance building by adopting a boot-camp approach. He regularly took the players through mountain and marathon expeditions. He worked them hard, military-style.
“Sjoberg?!” Moro laughs. “You had to sweat and pant. It was intense.”
The stamina, over time, was built. And it yielded results. Tangible results. Take for instance, a match between the Black Stars and the Pharaohs of Egypt in December 1959. Though the Egyptians totally outplayed the Ghanaians — much to the displeasure of Kwame Nkrumah, who had watched the game at the Accra Stadium with his Egyptian spouse Fathia — they ended up losing 2–0.
It was a strange result, but there was a reason. Due to what Addo Twum called “sheer stamina”, the Ghanaians had outlasted the Egyptians, scoring two late goals five minutes from time. Ohene Djan diagnosed that the Egyptians, after all their “technical excellence”, had “melted in the dying minutes”.
“Stamina is our weapon,” read the title of one of Addo Twum’s columns. Sjoberg’s men had become immune to fatigue. They were just too fit.
Being fit was essential, but it was not sufficient: it needed to be complemented by tactical intelligence.
This need became glaring in December 1959, when the biggest, most successful club in Czechoslovakia, Slovan Bratislava, toured Ghana.
The tour idea was another Djan administration initiative; to invite top European teams into the country to mentor Ghanaian footballers through exhibition games. In Djan’s own words, the touring teams — the likes of Blackpool, Austria Vienna, Dynamo Moscow, and Real Madrid — were brought in “to enable our players to see, appreciate and copy in a practical manner, the salient facets of modern soccer.”
Bratislava, who arrived in Ghana as defending champions of their league, opened their tour with a 2–0 win over a Southern Ghana Representative team, before going on to thrash an Ashanti Representative side 5–2. In their final game, against the Ghana national team, they completed a three-peat, running away with a 1–0 victory.
Assessing the Ghanaians, a Bratislava official praised their “amazing stamina.”
“…if Ghana footballers hope to attain international recognition in the field of football, they must concentrate on their positional play, which was faulty.”
There was more revealing feedback from German club Fortuna Dusseldorf, who in August 1959, had preceded Bratislava in touring Ghana. Fortuna trainer, Herr Herman Lindemann, said the Black Stars had “great technical abilities.”
“…everyone does what he wants to do. Everyone plays for himself. These flexible, enthusiastic lads must still learn that football is a team sport.”
Sjoberg’s narrowed focus on fitness was at the expense of strategy, confirming the fears of Addo Twum. While Ghana could now boast of footballers in top-notch physical condition, when they took to the pitch, there was a conspicuous lack of harmony and coordination. Teamwork was feint. Tactical patterns were non-existent.
So non-existent, in fact, that it had frustrated another Daily Graphic sportswriter, Sam Boohene, into declaring that the national team “lacks tactics!”, after a match against an Accra Representative Team in January 1960.
That match was a friendly in preparation for the first-ever West Africa “Nkrumah” Gold Cup — a West African regional tournament founded by Djan and funded (trophy-wise) by Nkrumah — the first edition of which was to take place later that month.
Despite winning 6–3, Sjoberg’s team, per Boohene, played like “an orchestra without a conductor”. “For 90 minutes, they moved about on the field like a herd of cattle frightened by the sound of a gunshot. It was disappointing.”
The team never “exhibited anything which could be called tactical”, Boohene further complained. “Their passes were inaccurate, their moves faulty, and their shots in front of goal erratic.”
Boohene desperately wanted “something practical” to be done about “the moves of our boys.”
Things had to change.
Change came as a Hungarian named Josef Ember, Sjoberg’s successor as Ghana national football coach.
Ember arrived in April 1960, signing an 18-month contract to build on the work of Sjoberg and Ainsley — to build on technique and stamina.
To understand why the experienced 57-year-old was brought in and what he was bringing to the table, you need to understand the backstory to his appointment.
Ember was poached.
Slovan Bratislava. The same team that had beaten all Ghanaian opposition on tour and criticized their “faulty” tactics.
Djan, in another display of his famed ambition, had boldly approached Ember while Bratislava was in Ghana and offered him the job.
The Hungarian was respected. He held the “master certificate” — the highest coaching certification in Hungary.
You might be thinking: Hungary? Who cares about a certificate from Hungary?
Hungary was football royalty in that era. In the early to mid-1950s, they emerged as the world’s leading football nation, conquering all that stood in their path. Coached by the innovative Gustav Sebes, the team, known as the “Mighty Magyars” lost only a single game in 50 matches from 1950 to 1956. That single game was the 1954 World Cup final against Germany in Switzerland.
They went about battering every country into submission with their ethereal football, based on a tactical blueprint that became iconic, and a group of players — the core being Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis, Nándor Hidegkuti, Zoltán Czibor, József Bozsik, and Gyula Grosics — who were insanely talented. They became Olympic gold medallists in Helsinki in 1952, and a year later won the Central European International Cup.
Perhaps the most recognizable feat associated with them was their 6–3 humbling of the inventors of the modern game, England, in 1963. That game, which saw the Queen’s nation lose for the first ever time on home soil, later became known as the “Match of the Century”.
The Hungarians went on to add more salt to English wounds with a 7–1 annihilation back in Budapest a year later.
Here’s where it gets interesting: Most of the players that made up the Mighty Magyars had been coached by Ember at youth level. Most notable amongst them was a man named Ferenc Puskas, who at his peak, playing at Real Madrid, was one of the world’s best footballers. Thee Puskas of the ‘FIFA Puskas Award fame’.
InEmber, Djan had found a man who would infuse Hungarian genes into Ghana’s footballing DNA.
And these genes were in hot demand — especially in Africa, a continent which was experiencing the emergence of fledgling football nations hungry to succeed. Ember’s pal, Pal Tikos, also a Hungarian coach, had been snapped up by Egypt and had successfully implemented the Hungarian model with success, winning the Africa Cup of Nations in 1959, as well as qualifying them for the 1960 Olympics.
Ghana wanted in on such success, and the timing was great too.
After years of ceremonial friendlies under Akwei, Djan decided it was time for the national team to venture into the world of competitive football. He sorted out CAF and FIFA affiliation by 1958, and in 1959, set out to qualify for the Olympic Games (Rome 1960). In those years, the Olympics featured the senior teams of countries and was considered in some quarters to be as prestigious as the World Cup.
Shortly before the qualifiers for the Olympics were scheduled to start, Fortuna Dusseldorf touched down to touch lives. Except theirs was a harsh touch: on August 9, 1959, the Germans lashed the Southern Ghana Representative team — then a quasi-national team — by six goals to one, a result the Daily Graphic called a “real massacre”.
With Olympic qualifiers on the horizon, a worried Djan was provoked by the humiliating defeat to dismantle and reconstitute the national team under a new identity. The team had evolved under two names — it was Gold Coast XI until it became Ghana XI upon the attainment of independence in 1957.
But a new era beckoned, Djan reckoned. He wanted a name that would be symbolic of Ghana’s identity, one that would make the country stand out, the same way “Mighty Magyars” had carried Hungarian dominance around the world.
Eventually, the name “Black Stars” was settled on, because, according to Djan, “in the center of the national flag of Ghana is superimposed a Black Star, symbolic of the rising spirit of black Africa.”
And so eight days after the Fortuna massacre, Djan announced the establishment of the “Black Star Group”. The team was convened in Nsawam, just outside Accra — where Djan lived — with Andreas Sjoberg in charge.
“Only your best will be good enough for the Black Star Group,” Djan told the players. “And that means you must rededicate yourselves to the task of making Ghana a soccer force worthy of the greatest respect.”
High standards were set — player performances were put under constant review, with underperforming players standing the risk of expulsion, to be replaced by eager talent on the fringes. Djan said the Black Stars was built on “discipline, dedication, and devotion,” and was “the highest group of distinction to which the best players in Ghana could aspire.”
The team, not least because of their name, soon became the poster boys of Kwame Nkrumah’s narrative of a rising Africa.
Sjoberg, the Black Stars’ first coach (and Ghana’s second overall), failed to qualify for Rome 1960, falling short in a group containing Nigeria and Egypt. He however did manage to win the first Nkrumah Gold Cup in January 1960, before leaving the job shortly afterwards.
During his 12 months on the job, Ghanaian football fans had essentially seen Sjoberg as a “physical instructor” and not a football coach. J.K Addo Twum described Sjoberg as a “lucky coach”, because the Black Stars had managed to “achieve wonders beyond the real capabilities of Sjoberg.”
“He has not been successful in building up a skillful national team, but what he lacked in science was amply compensated for in strength,” wrote Addo Twum, who admitted that Sjoberg had indeed made Ghanaian footballers “durable”.
Four months later, Josef Ember was in town to make that durability count. He had come to transform the Black Stars into a team that would rule the continent and be known globally. “I realized that the Ghana side was a potential force,” he said while explaining why he accepted the Ghana challenge. “And in talks with the energetic Association chairman Mr. Ohene Djan, I promised to come to this new nation and do my best to develop football in Ghana and at least bring Ghana soccer to a first class standard.”
And he had come well equipped. The Hungarian style has been considered by many to be the precursor of the “Total Football” system, employed by the legendary Dutch coach Rinus Michels in stints with Ajax and the Netherlands in the 1970s and 80s. Like Total Football, the Hungary way was based on attack-mindedness and hinged on players not necessarily being tied down to one position but interchanging in a fluid manner. It was, more importantly, very cerebral. “The essence of modern football is to rely more on brain than brawn; move with precision and understanding; keep the ball on the ground and make the maximum use of empty spaces,” Ember explained.
Let’s get acquainted with the Hungarian football philosophy through an article that appeared in the Daily Graphic in May 1960. Titled “Secret Weapon of the Hungarian Soccer team”, the piece offered interesting insight, though it examined a Hungarian national side that had sprung up after the decline of the Mighty Magyars (who broke up following the Hungarian revolution in October 1956).
This new breed of Hungarians that the article examined were preparing to partake in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, but they were guided by the same rich ideals that had come to be admired the world over; the same ideals that defined the Magyars’ greatness.
Addressing their beliefs, the Hungarian coach, 53-year-old Bela Volentik, revealed in the article that the entire team was taught to switch instantly, as one man, from attack to defence as soon as the opponents gain possession of the ball. “But the emphasis is on attack, attack, attack. Always attack,” Volentik said.
That Hungarian team performed brilliantly in Rome, topping their group with a 100% record. They, however, lost to Denmark in the semi-final, but ended up consoling themselves with a finish on the podium, beating Italy 2–1 to claim bronze medals.
Well, congratulations to them, but Ghanaians were not interested in their result per se. It was their philosophy, tried and tested, that Ghanaians craved. And it is what they expected with the arrival of Ember.
Even before Ember flew in, Djan had tasked Mr. Epton — the same man who had helped sign Ainsley — with flying into Bucharest to sign up two more Hungarian coaches to work with Ember. One of them was Tibor Kemeney, a former Hungarian international.
These coaches, later joined by Italian Rino Martini and German Otto Westphal, were to be unveiled to launch what the GAFA called a “five-year development plan” for football. This plan, starting from 1960, was to transform Ghana football into “an attractive and effective machinery.”
Those were exciting times. Ghanaians expected a revolution of their football with the arrival of coaches from the Mighty Magyars school of thought.
It was a revolution that would happen.
Ember’s first game was a trial match against the school team of Presbyterian Training College in Akropong. The Black Stars team won 5–1, but the schoolboys, though talented, weren’t a good enough test for the national team. The students were “playing under the handicap of inferiority complex”, as Sam Boohene succinctly summarized.
Ember’s imprint on the team would begin to show soon. A few weeks later, Ghana travelled to Lome, the capital of Togoland (now Togo) to play the national team of the Francophone country as part of their independence celebrations. In what was a closely fought encounter, the Black Stars emerged victorious, edging the Togolese by a goal in a five-goal thriller.
“A critical analysis of the game itself indicates that our boys are now beginning to play real football,” Boohene assessed. “For once, I saw them play according to specific patterns. The way they used the open spaces in particular was very good. I saw marked improvement.”
Boohene’s conclusion proved prophetic: “I hope under coach Josef Ember, the Black Stars will soon hit the headlines in world soccer.”
The Black Stars did indeed hit the headlines: in May 1960, they beat Blackpool — a highly rated team earlier made popular by Stanley Matthews — 5–1 in a game in Accra. Two years later, they drew 3–3 with the great Real Madrid, a five-time European Cup-winning team featuring Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas.
Blackpool captain Hugh Kelly admitted that he knew of no West African team as polished as the Black Stars, further claiming that the Ghana boys were “unequalled” in tactics, speed, and accurate shooting. Alfredo Di Stefano claimed that the Black Stars were “too advanced.” “They compared favourably with most of the leading teams we’ve played against,” he said.
This was in the 1960s when Sub-Saharan Africa was still a terrain of nations yet to gain independence, yet the Black Stars were so far advanced with exploits that was getting them acclaim from connoisseurs. He may have been blowing his own trumpet, but Djan aptly believed that the rise of the Black Stars was a “phenomenon unique in the history of football development.” This rise, Djan wrote, had “compelled the soccer world to pause and acknowledge the fact that a new soccer force has arisen along the West coast of Africa.”
Ember’s tenure brought impact. He lost just 6 of his 31 games in charge. He won the second Nkrumah Gold Cup in October 1960, with a famous 3–0 defeat of hosts Nigeria, He almost qualified Ghana for the 1962 World Cup, falling at a last-but-one hurdle to Morocco. He led the team to a successful tour of Europe in 1961, which saw the team win eight of 12 matches against opposition from the USSR, East, and West Germany, as well as Czechoslovakia.
“This man from Hungary, the home of scientific soccer, has within a short space of time transformed the face of Ghana soccer,” Boohene praised.
Ember had promised to work to the best of his ability to make the Ghana national team “a star in African soccer”. “Provided the players are willing and the association co-operative,” he had said.
The players had proved willing. The association had been co-operative. Ghana had become a star in African soccer. Ember had delivered.
More importantly, he had done so while instituting the tactical sophistication many observed had been a missing ingredient under Sjoberg. “I understand he has thirty different methods of attack and defense for our boys,” Boohene speculated.
Ember had been the anchor leg man of what Ohene Djan described as a Ghanaian “relay of coaching” between foreign experts. “George Ainsley whipped up interest and enthusiasm, Andreas Sjoberg built up stamina and physical condition, and Ember polished our footballers in technique and tactics,” Djan opined.
It was time to pass on the baton. But to whom?
The irony of Ghana gaining independence in 1957, and appointing three consecutive foreigners as national coaches from 1958 to 1962 was glaring.
But this was a well-calculated irony.
The plan by Djan had been to use foreign expertise to lay the foundations while building local capacity for eventual take-over.
The capacity building started in 1958, almost concurrently as Ainsley’s arrival. While the Englishman was touching down, two Ghanaian footballing greats from the 50s — James Adjaye and Chris Briandt — were also flying out to Germany to learn coaching.
In 1959, a third great from that era, C.K Gyamfi, was also flown out to Germany to train as a professional coach. Germany was an ideal destination not only because the Ghanaian government had gotten scholarships from there (Briandt-Adjaye), or that Fortuna Dusseldorf facilitated the opportunity (Gyamfi), but also because the Germans — 1954 world champions — treated football with a seriousness that Ghana could use in addition to the Hungarian influence.
In 1961, 10 more Ghanaian footballers were shipped out to Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1961 for four-month coaching courses, returning to be deployed into the various regions.
Adjaye and Briandt, meanwhile, had returned in 1959 and posted into the hinterlands of Ghana — the North and the East — where football was underdeveloped. They also worked under Sjoberg as assistant national coaches but never reached the pinnacle. None of them became the Ghana national coach.
It was C.K Gyamfi who got that momentous honour. He had returned from Germany late in 1960 and had understudied Josef Ember before eventually being chosen for the take-over: the man who led Ghana’s independence from foreign coaches.
Gyamfi was the ideal candidate. He was a veteran of the national team: an influential striker since 1951, captain since 1958, and even player-coach for the gap months between George Ainsley’s resignation and Andreas Sjoberg’s arrival. He knew the team inside out.
More significantly, Gyamfi was a man who everyone praised for exhibiting a rare understanding of the game, and an even rarer ability to communicate this understanding. He was what Djan described as a “natural coach.” The training and exposure in abroad— which saw him become the first-ever black professional footballer in Germany while playing for Fortuna Dusseldorf — had been the ‘sandpapering’ he needed to become the top coach Djan envisioned he would be.
And so in January 1962, it began. Ember was promoted to Technical Advisor, while Gyamfi was made national coach at the age of 33. An African coach — a qualified one at that — handling an African national team, in the 1960s, was unheard of. A novelty.
Gyamfi had been well prepared for the role: Djan had posted him to serve in various capacities within the Ghanaian football system since his return from training. It was an attempt by Djan, who had then left his role as GAFA boss to become Ghana’s overall Director of Sports, to test and spread the knowledge Gyamfi had acquired while combining coaching education with professional football in Germany.
In 1963, a year after operating under Ember’s technical guidance, Gyamfi was put in full charge by Djan, because, as Kwame Nkrumah famously advocated in his independence speech, “the black man is capable of managing his own affairs.”
Djan and his reformers had had a clear vision of where they wanted to take the country’s football and had made things happen to that effect. Those “things” were either policies or institutions. The policies were many: like hiring expertise in coaching, training local footballers as coaches, inviting top teams from abroad for local tours.
While the Black Stars can be argued as the Reformation regime’s biggest institution, there were others set up to feed the Black Stars set-up. These were what Djan described as the “essential cogs”. There was the Academicals — a junior national team made up of players scouted from secondary schools. There was the New Horizons — a national team ‘B’. There was the FA Cup and national league, set up in 1958 to “provide a constant flow of material for international assignments”.
And there was the infamous but impactful Real Republikans.
Like the Black Stars after the Mighty Magyars, Real Republikans was a club modelled after Real Madrid, the most dominant club of that generation.
The idea to form Republikans was born out of an order from the very top: Kwame Nkrumah. “My interest in soccer is so great that I propose, in the near future, to encourage the formation of a model club which will offer leadership and inspiration to clubs in the country,” Nkrumah, who had then made a transition from Prime Minister to President, said in June 1960.
That near future came as early as 1961 when Nkrumah’s proposal gave Djan the impetus to raid Ghana’s top clubs for their two best players to form Real Republikans, a club later nicknamed OOC — Osagyefo’s Own Club, after Nkrumah’s nickname of “Osagyefo”.
Republikans inspired hatred all around, because not only were Ghana’s top clubs forced to give up their best players for its formation, it was also seen as a political project, the pet club of a President who had his enemies. But that did not prevent them from winning four FA Cup titles and a league title, also reaching the semi-final of the inaugural Africa Champion Clubs Cup (CAF Champions League) in 1964.
Republikans, though, had not been established to succeed on its own. It was conceived to aid another institution. Essentially, Republikans was a shadow Black Stars team. The idea was to have Ghana’s elite footballers play together regularly for the purposes of forming telepathy — telepathy that could be replicated while these same players played for the Black Stars.
A great team needs its players to be around each other for a long time, but could that time be afforded by international football’s tight calendar? Republikans was the answer.
Djan’s analogy to explain what he called “The Republikan experiment” was that while the Black Stars had “pumped fresh blood into the arteries of Ghana football”, OOC had “sustained the orderly circulation of the national soccer blood.”
This was part of the Hungarian ideology, further evidence of the influence of Josef Ember. Bela Volentik, remember him? He explained: “An international side should be like a club XI, only better. A real international team should be drawn from about 25 players who have been together at least a year and are taught the same style of football. They should play at least six international matches together each season.”
Real Republikans was a polarizing project. It almost collapsed the club football system in Ghana, with Asante Kotoko leading a fierce resistance. But it was a reformation masterstroke that propelled the Black Stars into global prominence.
Alf Bond, a respected English football referee who had been brought into Ghana by Djan to train Ghanaian referees, wrote an article on his departure in 1961. Ghana, he felt, would be one of the world’s leading football nations “in five years”.
Call that an accurate prediction or a true prophesy, because, the Black Stars, spurred on by the Republikans — and its youth team, the ‘Real Ghana Group’ — evolved with frightening speed from 1961 to 1966.
Under C.K Gyamfi, they went on a successful East African tour in 1962, won a third Nkrumah Gold Cup, went on to win back to back Africa Nations Cup titles in 1963 and 1965 — a continental record at the time.
In 1964, the team became the first African nation south of the Sahara to play at the Olympics, in Tokyo. They reached the quarter-final and were later ranked 7th out of 14 teams. But for an African boycott of England 1966, the Black Stars could have — maybe even would have— become the first Black African nation to play at the World Cup.
It had taken Djan and the reformers under a decade to take Ghana football from the beginnings of “undirected enthusiasm” to the dizzying heights of Africa Cup dominance and Olympics impact.
Real Republikans, by the way, collapsed as a consequence of the February 1966 coup d’etat that toppled Nkrumah.
Tellingly, it would take Ghana 12 years wandering in the wilderness of trophylessness before encountering another major title.
The modern era has seen the Black Stars stripped off the reputation of being Africa’s most successful team. They have not won an Afcon title since their fourth in 1982, and have since been overtaken by Cameroon (5) and Egypt (7).
But the team, arguably, continues to command respect as the continent’s most popular and most powerful football name.
The 2010 World Cup in South Africa offers an interestingly case-study for this assertion. Perhaps the zenith of the Black Stars’ popularity in its 60-year existence, that Mundial iconized the team.
Almost the entire globe threw its support behind them as they came within a whisker of becoming Africa’s first-ever World Cup semi-finalists. The team not only worked its way into the league of the world’s best national teams, it earned a spotlight that put the country on the map, as close to a billion people saw that World Cup.
What most watching didn’t know, however, was that the Black Stars’ weren’t just emerging — they were, as we have learnt, Africa’s first true superstar football nation, ruling the roost in the early to mid-60s.
What most didn’t know, was that it took a group of visionary ‘reformers’ years of meticulous planning and hard labour to create a system that birthed and aided the rise of the Black Stars.
What most didn’t know, was that the foundations of the beloved brand were laid, as a portion of the Ghana national pledge reads, “through the blood and toil of our fathers.”