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Obligation versus Affection: England v Ghana

March 4, 2011

Its announcement was met with muted excitement. Now that the postman has been and I’m now in possession of the match tickets, my excitement now has volume. England friendly matches never excite me at the best of times. I may have been born and raised in the country of my heritage but I’ve never felt a personal affection or affiliation with the English national team. My interests have always been in far-off-lands with more beguiling cultures than that of my home nation. The England friendly announced officially on Monday 10th January to be played on Tuesday 29th March included a factor that made my heart rate elevate just enough to cause me to smile. England, for the 1st time ever at senior level, will play against “The Brazil of Africa”, Ghana.

My admiration of Ghana stems from a general liking for African nations which began courtesy of Ghana’s great rivals, Nigeria and their Olympic gold-medal winning team of 1996. This mild liking grew courtesy of the following World Cup, France 1998. For me, World Cup 1998 was my first World Cup as it was the first I understood (I was only 5 at the time of USA 1994). My favourite game of the tournament was a group phase encounter which pitted Nigeria against Spain. Nigeria were triumphant, winning 3-2, a result that unbeknownst to them, would set them up for progress into the knockout rounds. They would be the only African team to make the 2nd round and that was as far as they’d go as Denmark dismantled them 4-1. This ability to produce something special only to then end up with the mixed emotions of pride and disappointment had a fascinating quality to me. England would and indeed at senior level continue to disappoint though due to a mixture of somewhat unrealistic expectations and the perception of quality, it’s never with pride intact. Nigeria’s exploits in France though somewhat meagre in general perspective had an impact on my view of international football. Come the World Cup of 2002, fate had set me with a little bit of a quandary. Nigeria had been drawn in the tournaments group of death alongside Argentina, Sweden and most importantly England. At the time of the World Cup, a school friend asked me who I’d be supporting come the inevitable game between the two sides. My response to him was deemed by everyone there as controversial “I guess a draw would be okay but if Nigeria had to win to progress, then I guess I’d support them”. This support of Nigeria was strengthened primarily as a reaction to the wave of England hysteria that occurs every World Cup they qualify for. Call it my little way of rebellion. Luckily the match would end in a rather tedious 0-0 draw, though Nigeria’s tournament was over (it was the only point they collected from the group) and England prevailed to qualify for the knockout rounds. To many people’s surprise, Senegal were that World Cup’s starring nation, ending their participation at the quarter-final stage where an Ilhan Mansiz golden goal ended African hopes for another 4 years.

4 years passed and the World Cup of 2006 would cement my love of the African game. Where the Super Eagles had previously soared, alas they were elimianted at the qualifying stages and had entered a slump in fortunes both on the world and continental stage. For this World Cup, without the trappings of school, I devoted time to watch as many games as possible and rather than pick one nation to support, as they all happened to be World Cup Finals debutants, I opted to follow each representative of the African continent. From my club support, I was naturally drawn to Cote D’Ivoire with their particular talismanic front-man. Angola were somewhat unknowns to many but having been the side to have knocked out Nigeria in qualifying, I’d taken it upon myself to learn everything I possibly could about them. Togo while they had my support would ultimately highlight what could be argued as the negative side of African football: money, its power and (lack of) organisational skills. The team that really got me excited were Ghana. They were my pick to be the African team to make an impact as while in a difficult group they possessed more than enough potential more so than established ability to make progress possible. Ivory Coast were perhaps the strongest African nation there but they had had the horrible luck of being drawn in the tournaments group of death (Argentina, Holland and Serbia & Montenegro). My prediction proved correct with Ghana only dropping points to eventual tournament winners Italy and progressing at the expense of Czech Republic and USA (the latter would play a future role in the Ghana story). The 2nd round would be as far as they’d go though as at-the-time favourites Brazil beat them 3-0. That game was one of the first times my love of football was questioned. Ghana had worked so hard and had had some awful luck in the game (memory recalls some dubious officiating and woodwork denials) and a 3-0 defeat was cruel. Of course with hindsight, the class and calibre divide was evident but the feeling the result had given me also made me realise that I had inadvertently fallen in love with a country in which I have zero connection to.

From that point on, through editions of the African Cup Of Nations and then onto Africa’s very own hosting of the World Cup, I was a Ghana supporter. When it came to last year’s World Cup, my status as a Ghana supporter was to the chagrin of a fair few who couldn’t understand why I’d chosen Ghana and how I could support anyone other than England. Nigeria, the team I’d had a mild fondness for some years previous had managed to qualify for the Finals but had now been jilted in my affections by its West African rival. I genuinely allowed heart to overcome the mind as I made a bold prediction that Ghana would shock many and reach at least the Semi-Finals. Fuelled by the blindness of affection, I’d convinced myself that, with the emergence of the new wave of Ghanaian youngsters (they had of course won the under-20s World Cup in 2009), Ghana would have the correct blend of experience and youthful exuberance to make a significant impact on the global game in South Africa. I’d felt blessed after the group phase was over. Ghana had somewhat scraped through (narrow wins and low-scores are a Milovan Rajevac trademark) and had manage to avoid England in the 2nd round thanks to the goals-scored rule. Ghana would take on a familiar face on the biggest stage, the USA, who Ghana had disposed of in Germany 4 years ago. With this in mind, my belief in Ghana grew stronger and with my replica shirt on and flag in hand, I watched the match at a bemused friend’s house. My belief would get another boost early on as Ghana took an early-lead through Kevin Prince Boateng (I had called for his head some months previous following him injuring Michael Ballack and had jeered and laughed hysterically in hyena-fashion as he missed a spot-kick in the FA Cup Final). However, USA levelled in the 2nd half and extra time loomed. An early goal in extra time from one of the stars of the tournament, Asamoah Gyan, was enough to seal the West Africans place in the Quarter-Finals. The subsequent quarter-final tie with Uruguay has had more than enough coverage. What happened is known by most of the world so for me to go over it again would only cause hints of anger to seep into my words. Needless to say, it was the inevitable African story of naivety, pride and ultimately disappointment.

Now a little less than a year gone and finally I’ll be able to see the World Cup Final I dreamed of realised in 90 minutes. Only the setting won’t be Soccer City, instead it will be the self-proclaimed home of football, Wembley Stadium. Who will I be cheering on? Now that would be telling.

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