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Sports Features of Monday, 23 January 2023

Source: Yaw Ofosu Larbi

Bernard Morrison: The misunderstood genius?

Bernard Morrison Bernard Morrison

August 13, 2022; it is Community Shield day in Tanzania, a game that precedes the opening day of the league season. The two teams in action; Young Africans Sports Club (Yanga) and Simba Sports Club (the two biggest teams in the country).

A game that divides Dar es Salaam. On days like this one, the city is separated by battle lines, longitudes and latitudes that are invisibly drawn by fans of the two clubs. The game that has become mostly known as the Kariakoo Derby.

The Benjamin Mkapa Stadium is filled to the rafters. A great deal of Yanga fans line the east wing of the stadium while the Simba fans in their garishly clad red shirts have filled the west wing with much of their numbers pouring into the mid-range where the centre circle can be seen. The boisterous atmosphere makes for a brilliant match day experience and the chants from the stadium can be heard from a mile away.

The game ebbed and flowed for a quarter of an hour until Simba opened the scoring through Pape Osman Sakho. As Sakho wheeled away in delight, the Simba fans poured from the stands – a form of celebration much like what the Boca fans do at La Bombonera in the heart of Buenos Aires. The noise was deafening. It was 1-0 to Simba and there was no way the Yanga fans were having it.

Yanga coach, Nasreddine Nabi had to do something really fast. He looked at his bench half-heartedly and signalled them to begin a warmup session. The players rose and began to jog up and down the line. Moments later, bottles, plastic cups flew from the stands. They were raining heavily onto the area allocated for the Yanga players to warm up. The Simba fans who sat right in the area did not like the sight of one man. A man who served them for two years before crossing the marked city lines into enemy territory; his name, Bernard Morrison. By crossing the divide, Morrison was considered a traitor by the Simba fans.

“I remember I was on the bench so I had to go and warm up and we were sitting right in front of the Simba fans so I had to train right there. The game had to stop because they did not want to see me there. The started throwing bottles at me and wanted me out of the place until the president of the club spoke to them.” He said.

When the assistant referee’s substitution board came up and his number was up in the air, a loud roar rang through the stadium. A sound so deafening it could trump the one that rung through many African homes the day the continent won the bid to host the World Cup in 2010. Morrison strolled onto the field with all the swagger of a player who knows his stuff. “….Guess what, we were down by a goal, so when I entered, we had to change things and we beat them 2-1 to win the community shield. It was really interesting because I changed the game for YANGA and it was hard for the Simba fans to take because they consider me as their own.” Morrison said with an unrepentant smirk on his face.

In Dar Es Salaam, Morrison has largely divided the city. He divides public opinion of himself everywhere in the suburbs and has in many ways become a part of their lives. “He has a larger-than-life personality. Not a week seems to go by when he hasn’t done something newsworthy or content-generating. Tanzanians have warmed up to him…. from a purely entertainment perspective, he has been a hit.” Sports journalist, Salim Masoud Said who covers the Tanzanian league every week told me in one of our incredibly random conversations.

He understands the rivalry very well too. “Even if God comes down to play for Yanga, Simba fans will hate Him and vice versa”. He uttered. “….This is my life. This is all I have lived for so if people will think it is not safe or not right to be moving from this club to the rival, for me, I do not think about it. I just do what I feel is right”

When you think of crazy transfers in football worldwide, there is a possibility you’d think of Mo Johnston – a Catholic and a former Celtic man who inscrutably crossed Glasgow’s sectarian divide to sign for Rangers in 1989, Sol Campbell who left Spurs to play for the old enemy up the road, Arsenal and Luis Figo – the man whose famous transfer from Barcelona to Real Madrid has been crammed together into a 104 minute Netflix documentary so no one would forget. All of these created massive controversy in the world of football, heightened excitement levels of the game, provided journalists with unending bouts of news bulletins/analysis and furrowed brows of the many fans who belonged to the side that did not win in the transfer market.

Morrison’s is unprecedented though. He was a Yanga player in 2020, then he joined Simba in August that year, played for two years and has now gone back to play for Yanga. “It is business..” he says. You have to agree with the man. Players can be offloaded once they have recurring injuries or a plummet in form but they cannot move to another club when they are a hot shot and the other club is giving them more money for their talent? These days, loyalty cuts both ways and it is a modern player’s prerogative to change his mind.

That transfer from Yanga to Simba in 2020 was convoluted. It had started out as a rumour. One that brewed for days. They believed that his love for Yanga would keep him at the club but business is easier to do when love breaks down. The morning when the mohawked Ghanaian was pictured on Simba’s social media feeds putting pen to paper, Yanga had released a statement to insist that he was still their player. It was a transfer that stretched beyond East African football’s simple boundaries. The transfer squabble led the two teams to the Court of Arbitration for Sport where Yanga lost. The Young Africans had sought the court’s intervention after the Tanzania Football Federation’s Legal, Ethics and Player status committee had ruled that Morrison was a Boseman freebie who was at liberty under the law to sign for anyone. When Simba finally got their man, razzmatazz entered the football word-stock. That year, the red half of Dar probably stood at the centre of the East African Football universe.

There were slings and arrows, effigies and disgust from the Yanga fans. “I feared for my life a bit” he admitted. “…. But I figured it out that it is only on social media because the threats and the abusive words were only happening on there. Those same people who threaten your life and do all these things, as soon as they see you, they take pictures with you, they give you gifts and say nice words to you. I realized that it is part of the game so I took it in good faith.” It was a saga he handled really well though. According to Salim Said, he smoothly reconstructed what was a burnt bridge in a large part with how he communicated. He handled his exits from the two clubs really well – a lot more professional than many thought he would.

Morrison’s all action style and ostentatious brand of football charmed the Simba fans. He was so much of what was positive about the club. If he was big in his first few months in Tanzania at Yanga, Simba made him bigger. He became the talk of the league. The poster boy. A star player in his own right and the man who lived in a goldfish bowl. Simba became an all-efficient side with him. He won trophies and when he meandered his way to score two goals against Sudanese side, Al Hilal in the CAF Confederations cup that season to win 4-1, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Bernard Morrison is not new to all of this. In his early years, he was the star of his neighbourhood. He was one of the few players many knew would hit some good heights. Morrison grew up in Effiakuma, the vibrant suburb of Ghana’s twin city, Sekondi-Takoradi. It is one of the most popular areas in the country; a name that rings loud and true in the ears of many who live in Ghana’s Western region.

Effiakuma holds significant importance to everyone who grew up walking its streets. There is a telling similarity however between that where Morrison grew up and Soweto in South Africa or Kariobangi in Kenya. “Effiakuma means everything to me because this is where I grew up. For me, I have lived all my life in Effiakuma and I have got people who love me out there so whenever I come home, I just go and have fun with the family and friends that I left behind. Effiakuma has been so good to me that I do not think I will ever leave it behind.” He said as his eyes lit up behind his phone on the zoom call we had been on for almost 27 minutes.

As a boy, he had his secondary education at the Takoradi Senior High School and unlike many of his mates who needed to be as good in the classroom as they were on the field to be allowed a chance to wear the school’s jersey, he did not have to worry too much about that. Nobody cared what he did in the classroom as long as he was hitting the right notes on matchdays and he never let them down. His coaches have always liked him. His talent meant he had to be managed properly. By this, he always had a leeway – a leeway the coaches gave him to accommodate the excesses having a player like him comes with. He has been accused of cajoling coaches into giving him preferential treatment in camps but when you have a player as good as Morrison who recovers so easily from physical exertion and conditioning, something has to give.

He started his professional football career with the Heart of lions football Club in Kpando.

It was here that his career really began to take off under the watchful eye of one of Ghana’s most respected coaches, Orlando Wellington. From Lions he moved to Ashanti Gold where he won the Ghana league quite comfortably under Bashir Hayford.

Enroute to the league title that year, he scored 9 times and was instrumental in bringing the trophy to the Obuasi club for the first time in 19 years. The trophy win propelled a move to Congolese club, AS Vita. He played there for a while before he moved to Orlando Pirates in South Africa and then back to Congo with Daring Club Motema Pembe. He may have trekked the mineral-rich, Central Africa through to the ritzy parts of South Africa but he has found a home in Tanzania. “Since I left Ashanti Gold in 2015, I have played in South Africa, the DRC, Qatar and Tanzania but I think Tanzania has really done a lot for me – as in finances and in exposure.

Tanzania has given me the attention that is needed for a footballer to move on. .” He said. So I asked “Would you say Tanzania saved your football career?” to which he answered, “to an extent, yes”.

BM3 or BM33 as he has on the back of his Yanga shirt has since become a brand. A brand he has held on to for years and one he is not letting anytime soon. “I have always loved Asamoah Gyan. He is the reason why I wear the number 3 and get BM3 as an identity.” Having Africa’s top scorer at the World Cup as his role model explains a lot. The controversy around his off-field life, the swagger with which he plays and the spectacular goals he scores when he is in the mood. Much of his life mirrors that of his role model in many ways.

Besides all the experience on the continent in the game, Morrison has never played for the Black Stars. He has been close on a few occasions only to be ignored later on. “I am a Ghanaian and I am willing to fight and represent my country so if the chance hasn’t been given to you, there is nothing you can do. You just have to keep fighting. For now I am focusing on my club.” He said.

Ghana and Tanzania have had a long-standing relationship since the 1960s. Both countries' first presidents Dr. Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere were very good friends who shared similar political ideologies. Nkrumah was arguably the most popular Ghanaian in the east African country.

Half a century later, it is fair to say that that baton has been handed to Bernard Morrison. One man in the midst of two Tanzanian clubs with a great deal of history, you never quite see that often.