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Sports News of Thursday, 27 December 2001


Opoku Nti Coaches African Football Club in Switzerland

The Zurich-based African Football Club is the first multicultural, Black African team to play in a European league. Football is of course important, but it is not as important as the values of Fair Play, tolerance and discipline.

When Samuel Opoku N'ti arrived in Switzerland 17 years ago, he stood out from the crowd. At the time, skilful African players were in the minority, with most of the foreign players in top level Swiss football being blond, and from Northern countries such as Germany, Sweden or Denmark.

PIC: The Zurich-based African Football Club before and during their historic first match. Player-coach Samuel Opoku N'ti with an attempt on goal.

Opoku N'ti's adventure began in Geneva, but he did not see eye-to-eye with the trainer, and soon left for Aarau, where Ottmar Hitzfeld, the current trainer of European Champions Bayern Munich, took him under his wing. In later years, he also wore the colours of Baden, Chur and D?bendorf, all three teams playing in the lower leagues of Swiss football. Today, Opoku N'ti earns a living as a taxi driver. But D?bendorf had promised him the opportunity to begin his coaching career. The opportunity never presented itself, and now, six years on, Opoku N'ti has finally taken his first steps as a coach, at the African Football Club in Zurich, the first multicultural, Black African football team to play in a European league.

Opoku N'ti is thriving on the challenge. He does not regard himself as just a coach, but also as a special kind of football missionary, charged with teaching highly talented players the basics required to play well within a team. As with all successful teams, long one-to-one talks with players are the only way for Opoku N'ti to guarantee success. He has to teach them the very basics of the game, and every single one of his players listens attentively, taking his advice on board. Even at the age of 39, the Ghanaian is still an integral part of the team. Indeed, it was Opoku N'ti who, at exactly 10.19am local time on 9 September 2001, scored the historic first goal for the African Club during their first ever league match, played against Stade Marocain at their Heerensch?rli home ground in Zurich. The game resulted in a 6-2 victory for the African Club.

The pride of the president It was a special moment in the club's history, as the preparations for the game had lasted longer than a year, in which time the African Club played over 30 friendly matches against teams in and around Zurich, losing just three. The club president, Sam Reden, proudly keeps the club's first trophy in his home, after the team triumphed at an indoor tournament for fourth and fifth division teams.

Reden admits that it was a long time in coming, and that they encountered many difficulties along the way, but the African Club had successfully completed their first ever match. It was especially gratifying for Reden, for it was he, along with Giorgio Keller, a registered FIFA players' agent specialising in unearthing African talent, who founded the club. As well as being the club president, Reden also sees himself in the role of "father figure, social worker, spiritual adviser and friend". "You cannot simply tell an African what to do," stressed Reden. "They have to be convinced. At the outset, players were coming and going as and when they liked." But the more those players realised that they were in good hands, the faster their commitment grew. And the greater the bond within the team, the greater their enthusiasm. There were 22 players at the final training session before the season started. Obviously, they could not all play in the first match.

Reden, a Nigerian businessman and resident in Switzerland for 25 years, is always smart, and watches the matches from the sideline in a suit and tie. He often looks as nervous as his players, of whom he is justifiably proud. He does not seem to put great importance on the seemingly unstoppable flow of wonderful goals scored by his team. He is more interested in other things – their behaviour on the pitch, Fair Play, respect for the opposition and discipline, the latter being the most important for Reden. Every player must turn up two hours before kick-off. Latecomers must watch from the sidelines, "even if he is the best player", as Reden says. But above all, the players are ordered to show the utmost respect to the referee. Even if play is brought back a dozen times for offside against the speedy strikers, and sometimes without good cause, the players must not appeal. Any player who is cautioned is substituted immediately.

Fair Play is central to the club's philosophy. The African Football Club is not just a football club, but also a project to improve integration in society. Football instead of a life on the streets, football instead of drugs. The game of football is not just for the privileged, but also for the underprivileged. It is a philosophy that has been welcomed with open arms. At the outset, only ten players registered with the club. Two months later, the ranks had swelled to 25. The number of players has continued to grow, to the extent that even Reden is now unsure about how many players are registered with the African Club. "Two or three new players arrive every week", says Reden. And there is no end in sight. Five thousand Africans live in Zurich, and at least some of them now have somewhere they can feel at home. Twenty-six nations are currently represented in the African Football Club, "a world record", according to Reden.

Financial problems

The 6-2 victory against their Moroccan opponents in their first game signalled the club's intention to climb the league ladder. There is simply too much talent there to think otherwise. Their work is taken seriously to say the least, and the team is already good enough to more than hold its own in the third amateur division. But Reden has other ideas too. He wants to set up a structure in which all Zurich-based Africans and minority groups can really feel at home, whether they be players, parents, relatives or friends. The door should not be closed to anybody – anybody who wants to play football should be able to do so. He wants to set up a network of teams – ideally for children, but also for women. "It breaks my heart when I have to turn away kids who want to play football," says Reden. And he also dreams of a pitch, complete with clubhouse - the sole property of the African Football Club. At the moment, the club is forced to rent a pitch for their training sessions, which take place only once a week.

The African Football Club needs money. But where from?

For players who live in a communal home, many of whom are unemployed or unable to work in Switzerland, even buying a tram ticket for the journey to training sessions in the Zurich district of Schwamendingen can be a problem. Reden cannot introduce the system of subscriptions so successfully used by every other club: "Only ten of my players would be able to afford it."

"A pitch in the grounds of a Zurich prison costs CHF 80,000 per year", claims Reden. He struggles to understand why nobody is willing to pay just a fraction of that amount to help ensure that those pitches remain empty. He has even approached the Social Services Department in Zurich, as he sees himself as a social worker too. They admit that Reden has a worthwhile project, but when it comes to releasing funds to help him? No thank you. Poor, poor Zurich.

He has also tried elsewhere to raise funds, but again, he has either been rejected, or told to wait. He has even written to the 100 richest Swiss, as a list is published each year in the economic magazine Bilanz. Reden has received two donations. He has yet to receive an answer from the others.