This extract is from the personal memoirs of C.K Gyamfi,the late coach of the Black Stars who led the team to 3 AFCON titles. He narrates the tumultuous path the Black Stars navigated before winning in Tripoli.
"We arrived late at the Tripoli airport, where, amid chilly weather, members of the tournament’s Organizing Committee welcomed us. We were taken to the Bab El Medina – a plush, top rank hotel in the capital. Also at the hotel were the contingents of Tunisia, Libya and Cameroon, including other officials of ‘Group A’. The other group, ‘B’, consisted of Nigeria, Ethiopia, Zambia and Algeria. They were based miles away in Bengharzi.
Before we left for the tournament, we had received an assurance that the team would be equipped by German sports-wear manufacturing giants PUMA. We were told that the PUMA merchandise would arrive in Tripoli once we got there. They never did until after the tournament ended.
But we were smart. Some of us had been through equipment inadequacies many times in the past and so were wise enough to ensure there were no more deja-vus. To avoid potential disappointment and embarrassment, we went to the tournament with our own, albeit inferior, sets of kits. There were five sets of jerseys and one set of track suits.
Our innovation did not solve the problem fully, though. We still faced many trials when we got there. The numbers at the back of the jerseys faded fast after every laundry session, making the jersey unusable beyond a single game, while the players had to make do with only one tracksuit serving as official apparel as well as training kit.
The discomfort this situation bred, worsened by the delay in the arrival of the PUMA goods, made the camp twitch with anxiety, disturbing our focus. We really had to work hard on protecting the team from the prowling possibility of despair.
We had more to deal with. For the first time in the tournament’s history, matches were going to be played on artificial turfs. This meant that all players had to be well geared with regards to the appropriate footwear in order to cope with the novelty. These boots were distinct, featuring rubber studs beneath to facilitate their adaptability. We were, as you would imagine, not in possession of such boots. But luckily for us, we received assistance from the Organizing Committee in procuring it. At the General Company for Toys and Sports Articles in Tripoli, the Organizing committee were able to purchase rubber-studded ADIDAS boots for our players to use.
After getting the boots, we were only able have two training sessions on an artificial pitch. All our other training sessions were held on a natural grass covered pitch at the side court.
Ahead of our opening game, against hosts Libya, many Ghanaians were anxious to see how the players would fare on the big stage. Not much was expected of us, given the fact that our presence at the tournament had been as a result of a last minute decision. But we had a reputation to live up to. Our success as a football nation in the 60s had earned us the accolade of ‘Soccer Emperors of Africa’, and though the years after our second triumph in 65’ had been largely underwhelming – bar the title in 78’ – the name Black Stars still commanded respect and triggered expectations. There was a reputation to protect, a responsibility to uphold.
The raw, shiver-inducing weather, coupled with all the equipment challenges we faced, were enough to rob us off our mojo, but we were determined to start strong. In order to do that, I selected a team purely based on fitness and current form. I didn’t want our start to be shaky, didn’t want us to commit to an unimpressive first inning. In my mind’s eye, we could go very far, and so I did all I could to enable us have a solid start.
An opener against the hosts of a tournament is one of the hardest games to play in any competition. Over 45,000 fans – of course, almost all of them Libyans – inflated the June 11 Stadium with noise ahead of kickoff. It was intimidating, but we held our own. We took a 28th minute lead via George Alhassan – a relatively unpopular player whose inclusion in the squad had earned me profuse abuse. That goal carried us through the rest of the first half. We found ourselves going into the break with a cherished lead.
The Libyans, though, came in hard in the second half, snatching an equalizer and adding another by the 78th minute. It looked like we were headed for an unavoidable loss, given the fact that they were in the lead and were being spurred on by their enthusiastic 12th man. But, luckily, our steely character enabled us to steal a leveler just one minute to full time. Opoku Nti made sure the game ended with both teams sharing the spoils.
It was a great game, a good start. The boys showed a lot of character, and that was inspiring. I remember making notes to rectify the defensive and midfield deficiencies that paved way for our concession of the two goals. On the whole, I considered our output very satisfactory, one that we could build on.
Our performance on Match Day Two was an encouraging improvement of the first. The game, played at the same stadium, was against Cameroon on March 9. It ended goalless, but we were by far the better side, and that, for me, was significant. But for the brilliance of the Cameroonian keeper, the great Thomas N’kono – who by that performance ended up being named goalie of the tournament – we would have grabbed the maximum points at stake.
A goalless game is always so frustrating, especially when your side plays well. We could have certainly used some luck, a keeper with a form on the opposite end of N’kono’s spectacular spectrum, a win; but we knew it would be pointless wasting our energy on wishful thinking. We immediately turned our focus to our last game against Tunisia on March 12.
We had a powerful John Essien header off a corner to thank for a narrow victory against the Tunisians. It was a difficult game, played under unbearably cold, windy conditions, but we battled right until the very end to earn a victory that qualified us into the last four.
For the semi final, we travelled to Benghazi to face Algeria, who had topped Group B, in front of roughly 5000 spectators at the 28th March Stadium. The Algerians were the most in-form team at the tournament. They had also qualified as one of Africa’s two representatives at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Their profile was high and frightening. For many, it was game over for us.
For many, but not for us.
We defied all odds to knock out our highly rated opponents.
But it wasn’t without toil. After George Alhassan rocketed us into the lead just four minutes in, the early momentum gradually withered, and the Algerians took advantage of our dwindling strength to sneak into control. They equalized and took the lead, and, as the game approached full time, it was almost certain that they had booked a place in the final.
But they hadn’t. Opoku Nti, like in the first game, decided to leave it late – striking on the 90th minute mark to mar the premature celebrations of the Algerians. In extra time, we punished them for allowing us back into the game through a George Alhassan winner 13 minutes in.
We were in the final. From starting out as hopeless underdogs among the eight nations, we had suddenly become one of two candidates for African football’s ultimate diadem. We had made the unlikely happen. Suddenly, we stood on the cusp of a third African title.
There was a temptation for us to accept a mediocre satisfaction with our heroic output, a temptation for us to be content with getting that far. That is usually a mental hazard that comes with exceeding expectations. For us, it was an especially imposing possibility given that we were going to face hosts Libya in the final. Imagine: the whole of Libya was going to storm the 11th June Stadium to cheer their nation on against us. Beating them felt like an insanely difficult task, especially considering how we’d struggled against them in our opening game.
It was a test of our mental strength. Were we going to go all out and try to achieve the impossible? Or we were going to be satisfied with a preliminary acceptance of defeat and hope anything more would be a bonus?
The fact that we scored first during the game was testament to the fact that we were in no mood to be intimidated by the conditions – ranging from a well-drilled opposition, 50,000 home fans in vociferous support, the risk of brisk weather, and the pressure of playing in a final. The goal was a typical goal poacher’s rebound slammed in by the prolific Alhassan on 35 minutes.
We were unable to defend this goal or score more, and we were made to rue this inability when the Libyans gave their fans a chance to explode by netting a 70th minute equalizer.
Like my last final in 1965, similarly against a host nation, this final too travelled beyond normal time. But, unlike that one, it failed to produce a winner. This reduced the tie to the tense lottery of penalty shootouts. It was the very first time in history that the final of the Africa Cup was going to be decided from the spot.
The spot kicks were long and difficult to witness. Both teams scored their first. Then their second. Then third. Fourth. Even fifth.
The ghosts of misses decided come haunting just as we plunged into the daunting depths of sudden death. The Libyans missed their 6th kick and handed us a huge opportunity to upset the whole of their country. But that did not happen. Michael Owusu Mensah stepped up and replicated the miss, cancelling things out.
They scored their next kick, and so did we.
Then, the decisive moment came. Their 8th kick taker, Abdallah Zeiyu, stood behind the ball, his countrymen waiting with baited breath. He missed. The ball was in our court. Our destiny rested in the boots of Opoku Afriyie.
Afriyie took a deep breath made for the ball. Then he slipped at the end of his short run up. We panicked. But the fear was only momentary. He had managed to make good contact with the ball before going down. From the ground, he watched the ball hurtle into the roof of the net. The keeper, who had totally misjudged the direction, diving divergently, watched, too, in anguish.
The ball ruffled the net. Libyan hearts broke in unison across the stadium, across Tripoli, across the whole country. We were champions of Africa once again. Title number four. Unprecedented. Unbelievable.
For me, as coach, it was yet another title: my third – 17 long years after my last. At that point, I was the only coach to have won three titles too, making me the most successful coach in the history of the competition. No coach had even reached two. Did I feel proud? Of course I did, but it wasn’t only for myself: it was more for the symbolic significance of it all. As a Black man, I had achieved something that was surely going to serve as an inspiration to my fellow black coaches of the time and of the generations that were yet to have their go. Kwame Nkrumah must have smiled from beyond his grave.