A first-hand look at the African Cup of Nations

This is not a stock photo. This man features in the story to follow.

The excitement surrounding the start of this year’s African Cup of Nations (CAN) has been tempered somewhat by the tragic events surrounding the national team from Togo. It is right, of course, to ask questions about player security when a large tournament is taking place, but some discussion I’ve seen has wrongly focused on the fact that it is Africa’s competition, as if violent attacks such as this are emblematic of the CAN — or the continent — in general.

To help counteract this belief, we’re glad to bring you some first-hand recollections from the last African Cup of Nations, held in Ghana, which a friend of ours happened to attend. She, much like another friend of ours, is a newcomer to the beautiful game, and her experience in 2008 helped open her eyes to the vibrant excitement of soccer, of Africa, and of the magical moments when those two worlds intersect. We really think you’ll enjoy it.

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Please, readers, I ask your forgiveness in advance; I am not a soccer person. Your faithful bloggers here at Some Canadian Guys can attest to the fact that I am, rather, a fan of the sedentary arts. Music. Sandwiches. Naps.

However, I did have the good fortune to be living and working in Ghana during the 2008 African Cup of Nations (or CAN 2008). The enormity of the event was clear as I watched the mounting hysteria of my Ghanaian colleagues and friends, foreigners I met from other African countries and the UK who had made the trek to Ghana specifically for the event, as well as friends abroad who seethed with envy. Along with my two roommates, who I will refer to here as “Zee” and “Sofia”, I decided it would be only proper to do like the locals and throw myself into the celebrations with as much abandon as any footie-illiterate person possibly could.

The first task was familiarizing myself with the key players. I had heard a bit about Michael Essien from my Chelsea-loving colleagues at the radio station I was volunteering at. I asked the sports reporter, Ernest, if he could give me a brief primer on the CAN 2008 Ghana team, Professor Henry Higgins-style. “All you need to know is Essien is king,” my colleague said as his fingers frantically flew across his laptop keyboard. (Ernest seemed to be forever on a deadline even after he had presented his last segment of the day.) “He’s handsome, too. The most handsome player. You’ll love him.”

Ernest abruptly stood and bolted down the hall, sports jacket in hand. I chased after him. “That’s fine, Ernest,” I yelled, “but what does he do exactly? Isn’t he a wingback or something?”

“He’s handsome!” came the reply from the lower stairwell. “Listen to my reports. You’ll understand then.”

I never understood. But that was all right. Sofia and I watched the Ghana Black Stars face off against Guinea on a tiny, grainy TV at a local drinking hole named after its proprietress, Veronica: a large, impassive Ghanaian woman with a predilection for whiskey, Coke and Rothman’s cigarettes. Between grunts, Veronica pointed out a few key players, whose names rang off her tongue to my untrained ear as melodiously as song lyrics. “Junior Agogo,” she said. “Sulley Muntari.” Another patron pointed out that although all these men were good, the one to watch was Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o. And indeed, as Eto’o increasingly killed it game after game, sinking goal after goal, we began shouting the refrain, “Eto’d!” (As one might suspect, most Ghanaians around us were nonplussed.)

Despite our relative ignorance of the game, it was impossible not to become wholly consumed by the atmosphere surrounding CAN 2008. I know it’s cheesy to talk about the “infectious” nature of a sports vibe, but the word means something different in Ghana when you’re watching a soccer game. Soon football was all we talked about. Our biggest outings became the ritual of heading down to drinking spots to watch the games on the big screens amidst a room packed with local sports fans. And everyone seemed to show their ardor with their own personal twist. One evening at Veronica’s, our neighbour — and resolute heterosexual — Thomas sashayed in, dressed in full Black Star drag, replete with lipstick, a team tank top stuffed in the right places and a red, yellow and green head wrap. He was trailed by a crowd of children and walked around the area all evening. Each time Ghana scored, we heard his girlish crows echo over the rooftops. After having spent six months in an almost aggressively homophobic culture, it was fairly intriguing to see a cross-dressing tribute to sport elicit basically no reaction. That’s a moment we like to call “Only In Ghana.”

During the Ghana/Nigeria game at another sports bar off of Accra’s main tourist strip, Oxford Street, I watched a pumped-up Rasta and another drunken man get into a fistfight and tumble down a tall flight of stairs during an argument over a ref’s call. For five minutes, the crowd left the TV and surrounded the men, chiding them in the Ghanaian fashion: “Eh! Eh! Why? Quit that!” As the men were escorted outside, uninjured, their scuffle was just as quickly forgotten, and soon the air was once again thick with tension as everyone focused on the drama onscreen.

When Muntari scored the second of two goals in as many minutes in the second half, a man behind me grabbed my shoulders and shook me so hard I felt my teeth rattling in my head.

Some real-life "jubilating"

The pinnacle of our CAN 2008 immersion was, of course, when ever-resourceful Zee managed to secure us tickets to a real, live game at Ohene Djan stadium in central Accra. In honor of the great event, Black Star headbands, t-shirts, wristbands and flags were purchased. As we strode down to the main street to catch a taxi, people gaped and giggled at the dorky obrunis (“white folks”) clad in their country’s sporting regalia. Our cab driver (clad, like Thomas, in a Black Star gender-bending skirt) was delighted. “You girls are real Ghanaians now,” he said.

As we drove down through neighbourhood side streets, passing drinking spots and open-fronted convenience shacks selling everything from toilet paper to Essien calendars, herds of soccer fans marched past us on their way to the stadium, whooping and hollering. We arrived at Ohene Djan and were confronted with a mass of humanity — everywhere there were ticket and merch sellers, cops, and people without tickets just looking to soak in the atmosphere (and possibly sneak into the gates). Zee and I immediately purchased half-cups of palm wine for a dollar from a street vendor and tipped the foul-smelling, strong liquid down our gullets. Then we braved the crowd. Immediately we were accosted by vendors and opportunistic young men. “Let’s get married,” one man said immediately to Zee. “Then you can take me to the game!”

A guy in a straw hat, green, yellow and red face paint and “Lareya” painted on one cheek (in honour of Ghanaian right-winger Larry Kingston) asked me to paint my phone number on his arm from the inkwell he was holding. As I obliged him, someone snatched my ticket from its conspicuous spot in my back pocket. Oh, stupid obruni! I freaked.

“Just go in without me,” I told my roommates. “I hate my life. Fuck ‘football.’” As I sat on a garbage can and lamented, my two charming roommates managed to sweet-talk a ticket scalper into selling them a ticket at regular cost. After a security pat-down, I sidled past the ticketless mob into the stadium with my friends.

The first thing I heard was the roaring, and it was a noise that continued throughout the game. When Canadians are at a large sporting event, generally people quiet down as the game proceeds. In Ghana, the noise continues throughout — as does the dancing, the cheering, noisemaking, flag-waving and (for some) drinking. As we took our seats, we watched a parade of 20 people circle the field, singing the Ghana national anthem and shouting at the top of their lungs — for the game’s entire duration.

I have to admit I wasn’t really paying attention to what Ghana or Guinea’s teams were doing. The surroundings were too intense, too pervasively alive, and I was constantly distracted. I couldn’t stop watching the pretty young woman in front of me who leapt off her seat every time Ghana came close to scoring, shaking her butt and waving the Black Star flag she had tied around her waist, or the tall, quiet man in a Dr. Seuss-style Black Star top hat who erupted in roars whenever Guinea’s net was breached. In Ghana, they call this kind of enthusiasm “jubilating,” and it’s a term that makes its way into conversation, radio reports and newspapers. It’s unadulterated joy, completely lacking in self-consciousness and totally focused on the drama unfolding on the field.

I was never really moved by sports in Canada — I appreciated them for the brief diversion they provided, but that was it. Here, I realized for the first time what it felt like to be completely swept up in the unified emotional investment around me. I saw people celebrating and bemoaning the smallest triumph or loss with the kind of abandon most Canadians can only express after a beer or seven. Despite the fact I watched as an outsider, it was inspiring and, at the risk of hopeless sentimentality, I felt my heart was a part of something entirely larger than itself.

And then I had to leave. My boyfriend was set to arrive at the airport that night after a three-day delay and I had to meet him. I kissed my roommates goodbye, slipped out of the stadium and headed towards the main gates. A female guard stepped in front of me.

“Excuse me, but you can’t leave yet,” she said. Perplexed, I asked her why. It turns out that so many people attempt to rush the stadium and break through the gates during CAN games that security have to keep them closed and locked until the game was over. Effectively, I was trapped.

I sighed and headed over to the security gate, thinking I could try my luck and plead my case with another guard. As I approached the main desk, I saw a man being dragged by three guards into a holding cell. He was obviously shitfaced, yelling, “Bless our homeland, Ghana!” at the top of his lungs, along with a few other colourful phrases. I realized there were quite a few others locked into the cells — apparently, it is possible to take your jubilating too far at CAN. The man continued to struggle, and to my dismay, one of the guards reached out and zapped him with what appeared to be a taser. He collapsed and they dragged him into the cell. I blanched and looked around. No one seemed to be paying any attention. (Later, when I brought the incident up at an editorial meeting, the staff told me that guards are allowed to use tasers as they deem it necessary.)

I had seen enough. I saw a gap in the gate where a large group of tourists were being let out, escorted to a bus. I snuck out with them, rushing out into the street to hail a cab to the airport. I ran smack into my friend with the facepaint. The LAREYA on his right cheek had turned into a white smudge. He grabbed my arm.

“My sister,” he said. “Where you going? The game’s not finished.”

“I have to go see my friend,” I told him. “It’s important.”

“More important than seeing Ghana win?”

The cab pulled up to the curb. I looked at him and my eyes darted over to the stadium, where the roar continued.

“Yes,” I said finally. “It’s more important.”

My friend nodded, looking deflated. I realize now he probably didn’t even have his own ticket to get into the stadium. As the taxi pulled away, he pulled off his hat and waved it at me. I pulled the tiny, stupid Ghana flag out of my hair and waved it back at him from the window until he was nothing but a blur in the darkness, falling heavy over the bright, roaring city.

Want to read more about our dear friend’s experience in West Africa? Head over to Welcome to Accrapolis, or check up on her current exploits at Read n’ Bleed.

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