The following is an extract from the unpublished autobiography of Ghanaian football legend Charles Kumi ‘C.K’ Gyamfi. Here, he recounts the impact Ghana’s founder and first President, Kwame Nkrumah, had on the national team, the Black Stars.
While we were seated in the waiting area just outside of his office, we would see him occasionally file past us, flanked by some visitors, presumably because he was walking in and out of the meeting attending to other issues. Anytime he’d walk by, he would momentarily steal what looked like a deliberate, deadpanned glance at us.
A long hour and a half later, he returned to his office without any escorts, giving us the hint the meeting had ended. After being ushered in by his secretary, we found ourselves standing a few centimeters from his desk, staring at him as he busily scribbled in his diary.
We continued standing there, waiting for an order – or gesture – to enable us sit, but his head was so buried in his writing that he barely looked up at us. As his right hand danced with speed on the page, his face sporting the neurotic concentration of a sage, we stayed rooted to our spot, watching, the suspense unassuaged, anxiety ageing.
Ten minutes later, after he had filled about two pages, we saw his head ascend slightly, his eyebrow rising concurrently. He stared back at us for a few seconds, as if lost in thoughts, then, afterwards, signaled us to have a seat.
When he spoke, his tone was stone cold. He conveyed a business-like mood too, his face still straight, missing his usual smile. Then, he showed us a graph with detailed records of our performances, pointing out with concern that we were on a downward curve. “Your standards are falling, you are losing matches,” he said, a statement shot through with crystal clarity.
Indeed, it was true. We had lost two consecutive matches and the public was on our necks, castigating us for allowing ourselves to surrender to a nose-dive in form. Football was serious business and we were the custodians of many emotional investments. At that point, we were seen to be mismanaging them. When we got the message that Nkrumah wanted to see us, we immediately knew that he was going to demand answers.
After those words, he went mute again, rebooting the prevalence of awkward silence, with all its asphyxiating mind games and psychological distress. Minutes later, though, he broke the quietude when he spoke to Djan: asking him to come to him if he needed extra funds to fix the situation.
Then, he turned to me. He took out a piece of paper and wrote down a number. “Call on me personally if you need anything you are not getting,” he said. “It means a lot to me that we’ve entrusted our football fortunes in your hands.”
He dismissed us soon afterwards. I had never been in such a tension packed meeting in my life.
You may have already discerned throughout my recollections that Nkrumah loved football and saw it as a major tool for his famous belief in Pan Africanism.
There is an endless list of exhibits.
Indeed, it was Nkrumah who brought about the West Africa Football Championship in 1959, donating a Gold Cup to be competed for. It was Nkrumah who set up the iconic Central Organization for Sport (C.O.S) in 1960 and put Djan in charge with the mission of accelerating the development of Ghanaian sports. It was Nkrumah who mooted the idea for the formation of Real Republikans – a controversial but effective club that proved critical to the success of the Black Stars in the 60s.
It was Nkrumah, who together with Djan, lobbied to bring the African Cup to Ghana in 1963, charging us to win it - which we did. It was Nkrumah who, again in 1963, bought and donated a trophy to be competed for by Africa’s champion league clubs – something that evolved into a competition you now know as the CAF Champions League. And, when FIFA’s white-dominated elite decided to pursue racist policies such as entertaining Apartheid South Africa and refusing Africa an independent World Cup slot, it was Nkrumah who was the most vocal of a legion of African leaders who criticized football’s governing body and sparked an African boycott of the 1966 World Cup.
But this is all just to give you a taste of how involved he was with football and what it meant to him and his cause.
The particular reason I recalled that meeting, though, was to show how deeply he valorized the Black Stars. I won’t exaggerate: he didn’t make it to all our games, but he attended whenever he could. As for meetings with him, they were fairly frequent. He did his best to familiarize himself with the team.
He kept close tabs on us, on our progress, and gave us a lot of push – in resources and in motivational words. He saw us as ambassadors for black potential, black power, black might. A major part of the reason why we attained prominence was because as patron, he gave the Djan-led C.O.S all the support needed to make us a football force. He backed Djan’s foresight-laden ideas: from the hiring of experienced professional coaches, to giving coaching scholarships to local footballers, through to inviting top European teams into the country for tours. He did so because he wanted the Black Stars to be world class. We used to say in those days: “As it is in Europe and South America, so shall it be in Ghana.
So profound was his interest that when Real Madrid came to town in 1962, their captain Alfredo Di Stefano remarked that he knew of no other President in the world who took his national football team as serious.
I think the sense of nationalism and patriotism that his personality evinced robbed off the Stars through constant contact. His ace phrase, “Go and come back on the shield”, spoken to us before games, was a stimulant like no other. Whenever we went out to play matches, we played our hearts out, because we wanted to – as he always admonished us – “bring honour to Ghana.” The possibility of losing was so difficult to fathom because of the fear of betraying his peculiar belief and interest in us.
Ei, you want to lose a game? How would you face the Osagyefo? How would you explain?
There was one time, December 1965, when Kenya invited the Black Stars for a game. They wanted Africa’s most respected team in Nairobi for their second independence anniversary celebrations. It was clear that the Kenyans, whom we had played and beaten twice before, were being motivated by the prospect of gaining a reputation by causing a sensation.
We had nothing to gain by playing them, but, due to the premium Nkrumah placed on African sister-nation relations, we honoured their invitation. Besides, for Nkrumah, an avid campaigner of Black liberation, the sound of independence was always music to his ears, and so there was no hesitation on his part in flying us out to go grace the occasion.
We were fresh from being crowned African champions for a second time and so were in the form of our lives. We ended up shredding the Kenyans into pieces.
We beat them 13-2.
Nkrumah got in touch with us after the game and to our surprise, wasn’t amused by our show of class. “I did not send you to go murder them. It’s a celebration. Go easy on them, give them a fair chance.”
We adhered to this brief from our Commander in Chief. Two days later, we met the Kenyans in the second leg and allowed them some happiness, drawing 3-3.