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Opinions of Friday, 6 November 2015

Columnist: Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng

Could football woes tell us something more? (2)

Opinion Opinion

All countries in the world wish to host a major sports event. There are two major reasons for this wish; one is possibly to win the event and the other is to gain prestige among the comity of nations.

There could be a third reason, which probably applies only to Qatar and the 2022 World Cup – to spend money because it is there.

The dream of hosting important events comes with an ever-increasing price tag which is why for most countries it remains just a dream.

Just to boggle the mind, think about the enormous amounts needed to stage, say a World Cup. It cost Brazil $11.3 billion, which is roughly 60 per cent of its annual education budget, while the total cost of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was roughly $2 billion.

This kind of money, to be spent on a single sports event despite its obvious advantages, is beyond the imagination of most countries. Of course, with good management, such events can even be financially rewarding.

Germany netted 65 million Euros profit after staging the 2006 World Cup but that was a rare feat in an adventure that brings more loss than financial gain.
Most Ghanaians today would find it difficult to believe that at one time in our history we took it for granted that Ghana would be the first African country to host the World Cup, and perhaps the Olympics as well.

As for winning the World Cup we knew it was an article of faith merely waiting on patience to deliver. Even the great Pele said Ghana would win the World Cup…
The idea that sporting prowess somehow expresses a nation’s “greatness” is not new.

We know from classical tales from all over the world, including Africa, that nations invested as much in war as in sports to conquer and impress their neighbours.

In all Ghanaian cultures, wrestling matches were common forms of contests between the youth in neighbouring communities. The link between war and sporting games has long been established.

Writing on Sport and War: Combative Societies and Combative Sports in a recent issue of the SGI Magazine, Professor J.A. Mangan, one of the world’s foremost sports historians had this to say on the relationship of sports and war: “In history war has served sport and sport has served war.

To concentrate on one without the other is to be guilty of an incomplete entry in an incomplete ledger--the association is that strong. Military activities have become community recreations, and community recreations have become military activities. The one has reinforced the other.”

Patriotic aggression
Both sport and war are examples of what Professor Mangan calls “patriotic aggression”, and both are outlets for “letting off steam” for a purpose.

The Nkrumah government understood the need to shore up the psychological defences of the newly independent nation and Ghana’s relative sporting prowess did wonders for the self-image of Ghanaians at home and abroad.

Such was Ghana’s self-confidence and self-belief that our government was ready to challenge the rest of the world if Ghana felt cheated in sports.

The best example comes from the 1964 featherweight boxing match between our local champion, Floyd Robertson and the Cuban American WBC champion, Sugar Ramos.

Floyd Robertson was judged by most people at the Accra Sports Stadium that May evening to have won the match. However, two judges scored it in favour of the American by an identical scorecard that raised eyebrows. In short, the Ghanaian was robbed of victory.

Give it to God
The Ghana Boxing Commission immediately denounced the result and declared it a no contest. Eventually, the Ghanaian boxing board changed the result and declared Floyd the winner.

Of course, this had no practical effect as the WBC and the rest of the world continued to recognise Ramos as the champion but the Ghanaian authorities had made their point. They did not “give it to God”, nor did they think of international repercussions.

Ghana’s first government predicted that the self-confidence gleaned from good sports performance would rub off on our performances in other areas of life such as education, diplomacy, health and trade. This was undoubtedly true as Ghanaians excelled in almost every field.

Can you imagine bringing Ronaldo or Messi to play exhibition matches in Ghana today? The mere thought of it sounds too quixotic to hold in the head for more than a couple of minutes. But it happened.

Sir Stanley Matthews, who was the Ronaldo and Messi rolled into one of his time, visited Ghana in May 1957 and played a number of exhibition matches in the colours of Accra Hearts of Oak.

To give you a flavour of the man’s character, for several years he gave up his summer holidays to coach in developing countries, especially in Africa. Top that if you can Mr Ronaldo!

Stamp of approval
The visit of Stanley Matthews was seen by many football and sports people as the ultimate stamp of approval. It showed the intention of the new nation to aspire to higher levels while having the confidence to learn from the best. That was no time to wring our hands and consider ourselves as beggars without choice.

Today we are not able to play our friendly international matches in our own country to entertain our own people. In fact, FIFA friendly international days see Ghanaian visa applicants turned down because embassies do not believe that people looking for visas are really paying thousands of dollars just to watch the Black Stars play.

Far from being a marginal activity, sports tells us a lot about ourselves. About 30 years ago “colts football”, featuring preteen teams, was the rage in the country.

It was organised by volunteers in communities across the country. Most of these volunteers may have played youth football themselves and wanted to pass on their passion to a new generation. Others just wanted to organise the youth in their communities.

These volunteers were drawn from all sections of society and included farmers, traders, teachers, religious leaders and fitness fanatics. They just gathered young boys to play football at weekends.

Making money was far from their minds as indeed most of them provided footballs, playing kit and water from their own pockets. Today, such altruism is dead. In its place is money and nothing.

For the first time ever, Ghana did not send a team to this year’s World Athletics championships in Beijing. It is clearly understood that this was not the government’s fault but the authorities cannot treat the Athletics Association as if it is an autonomous republic.

Similarly, we seem to have forgotten about the Brazil shambles which has caused us so much pain and shame.

A few years ago, I heard an interview with the coach of Russia’s national football team on the BBC. He was asked how he prepared his team on the final day of an international match. His answer was deadpan: I tell them about Russian history.

There is no chance of that in Ghana if the coach is from Serbia, Montenegro or Israel. The loss of confidence in our own coaches is part of a complex story that probably tells us a lot more about ourselves and nation than any amount of statistics from the World Bank.

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