In the summer of 1957, the world's biggest football star then, Englishman Sir Stanley Matthews, landed on Ghanaian soil - a visit that would eventually shape football in the country forever.
Below is an extract from the upcoming Autobiography of Charles Kumi 'C,K.' Gyamfi (ghost-written by Pulse Ghana’s Fiifi Anaman), published with permission of his family. C.K Gyamfi, who died in September last year, was an accomplished footballer who captained Ghana's national team before going on to become the first African to play professionally in Germany. His record of three African Cup of Nations titles (1963, 1965 and 1982) as coach of Ghana makes him one of the most successful black coaches in football history. Below, he recalls when the great English footballer Sir Stanley Matthews visited Ghana, in 1957.
When our club, Hearts of Oak, decided to invite the great Sir Stanley Matthews, everyone wondered how we were going to pull it off. Sir Stanley, ‘The Magician’, one of his affectionate monikers, was by then the biggest footballer on the globe. The year before, he had been awarded the Balon d’Or, football’s biggest individual prize, when UEFA-based journalists voted him ahead of Real Madrid’s Alfredo Di Stefano.
Our coach Ken Harrison, himself also an Englishman, had handled the negotiations and correspondence with Sir Stanley’s camp. Then playing for Blackpool, Sir Stanley had expressed interest in touring Ghana and indeed had followed it up by giving his word that he would come, but where were we going to find the money to finance the operation? I must admit that most of us were doubtful about it happening.
It took an assurance from our chairman H.P Nyemetei, or Henry, as we simply used to call him, to give an assurance that the club could shoulder the financial burden of such a huge project. He announced that the superstar’s ticket and match fees had been guaranteed.
Sir Stanley’s arrival was accompanied by colourful fanfare. At the airport, soon after his BOAC Argonaut aircraft touched down, he heartily descended the gangway, wearing a sleek Blackpool Blazer and a grey flannel pair of trousers, soaking in the hot Ghanaian ambiance.
He was met by a range of high profile dignitaries from our club and beyond – including a representative from the British Council and Kotoko’s President J.D Amoah. Players and fans of Hearts were also there to hijack the atmosphere with sprightly renditions of the club’s anthems. It was a proud moment for the Hearts fraternity.
From the airport, he was driven to the Accra Community Center, where a sort of welcome ceremony was scheduled to unfurl. The venue was full of colour and ardour, filled with tradition, and an addition of local and foreign pressmen.
The Sempe Mantse, Nii Tetteh Kpeshie II, on behalf of Hearts - of which he was Patron - enstooled him ‘Soccerhene’ (king of football). This was after a range of speeches by Henry, FA chief Richard Akwei, and Sports Council chairman Sir Leslie McCarthy.
Sir Stanley looked regal sitting in state. Fittingly, he was dressed up in full Ghanaian chieftain gear – a kente cloth over a white jumper, while his famous feet, featuring distinct Ahenema (Native sandals), rested on a pair of footballs. He beamed with smiles and seemed fascinated by the warm hospitality and the resplendent cultural exhibition.
The Sempe Mantse then handed him an ivory sword as a “symbol of authority as soccerhene.” “I realize what it means to be given such an honour and I will strive always to live up to the best traditions,” he pledged to an outburst of applause.
Mr E.M.I Maclennan, the British High Commissioner, Mr Dennis Saunders, his host, and Ken Harrison, our coach – all Englishmen – made Sir Stanley feel at home.
Later the next day, he began what would be a running theme throughout his stay: calling on dignitaries, visiting places of interest, and participating in numerous sherry parties thrown in his honour.
All of us – the players at Hearts - were eager to experience Sir Stanley in the flesh. We were so curious, so pumped up. We wanted to see, to observe, to learn. As you can imagine, there was so much we could imbibe from a legend such as Sir Stanley. He was a model professional: he neither drank nor smoked, and he had an unflinching commitment to personal training, fitness and healthy dieting. No wonder he was considered the best player in the world at the age of 41. Even more admirable was the fact that he had never been sent off on the pitch his entire career. He was a class act.
We certainly anticipated being star-struck. Intimidated, even. But when, for some bizarre reason, he turned up at our first training session wearing a leather boot that was worn out and thus had a nail protruding out the base, we felt that the god was human after all. He was just like one of us. Well, not quite, but you get the point, don’t you?
We helped him get the boots ready by using a stone to hit the nail back in its place. He was very amicable and the whole experience helped us feel at ease, allowing the butterflies to settle. We started bonding with him from that amusing start.
His impression after our first training session was that our methods were wizened. He described our warm- up and jogging routine as “outmoded”, further teaching us what he was used to back in England. It was a priceless learning curve.
The first game scheduled on his tour bill was against our rivals Asante Kotoko on May 26. The press dubbed the game “Match of the Century” – in their eyes, the biggest football match ever to be played in the country. They certainly weren’t overglorifying.
By this time, the whole of Ghana was yearning to see the man nicknamed worldwide as the “Wizard of the Dribble” in action on Ghanaian soil. Many fans, about 20,000 of them, crammed the Accra Sports Stadium to be a part of this grand slam. A good number of dignitaries convoyed their way to the venue too: the likes of Prime Minister Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Head of State Sir Arku Korsah, some cabinet Ministers and the U.K. High Commissioner.
We had feverishly prepared to accommodate Sir Stanley in our team. We shifted our regular outside right, Ofei Dodoo, to inside right in order to create a space in our lineup for the Englishman to slot in. Also, we had worked on perfecting long, through passes from the back to the right wing, in an attempt to make sure we were in a position to adequately feed him with the ball. Our forward line, too – led by myself and featuring Dodoo and Agyiri Fynn – worked tirelessly on sharpening our shooting. We did not want to embarrass ourselves by squandering Sir Stanley’s anticipated servicing.
Like us, our opponents from Kumasi were equally anxious to learn from the legend. My former teammate and good friend James Adjaye, who in those days was the peerless master of dribbling in Ghana, remarked: “It’s a good feeling to know you are going to learn more dribbling.”
For two minutes after the start of the game, Sir Stanley had not touched the ball. Because he was the center of attraction, the subject of traction, the anxiety to see the ball at his feet began to rise, filling the atmosphere with tension. The thousands gathered inside the stadium, their eyes fixated on him, couldn’t wait to see him do what he did best. They could not wait to see the burst of pace and the dribbling wizardry, the accurate passing and the immaculate crossing – attributes that they had seen at the cinema houses and were desperate to see in the flesh.
When the ball did find its way to him, his failure to trap it due to the uneven surface of the pitch meant the ball speedily rolled beneath his studs. It was an awkward moment, an anti-climax, but we knew better: that technical fault was due to the difficult terrain rather than a deficiency in skill on his part.
After that nervy start, he surveyed the pitch and became settled, finding his feet nicely. Soon, he began to exert his influence, sauntering his way about, flaunting his world-acclaimed skill-set, much to our entertainment and awe. The crowd loved it, meeting every touch of his with high pitched cheers.
The difference was clear, because the quality was there. Sir Stanley was a fine artist, emitting a rare majestic air that made the crowd stir. His ball instincts were distinct, his intelligence elegant. Watching him perform in a game situation was fusion of different feelings; on one hand you were a student at a football lecture, and on another, a first-hand witness of greatness. He controlled the ball with a serenity that allowed him to pass with very little faults. And those passes were well distilled too – some were simple, short and sharp, while others had a bit of distance, bearing a touch that was either vicious or visionary. The common theme running through his control and distribution, though, was how he kept the ball on the turf. This, notably, was in sharp contrast to our footballers’ addiction having balls high and in flight. Sir Stanley was a staunch advocate of keeping the ball low and simple, and he believed it allowed us to keep the ball in possession. He led by example anytime he dropped deep to to pick up the ball, with the intention of starting an attacking build-up. His direction of affairs offered us a practical opportunity to learn on the job.
Of course, at times, he did not spare some harmless show-boating. He nutmegged some of his markers with baffling ease, dribbling past others with sudden feints that validated his appellation ‘Soccer Saint’; with swerves that hardly served the reality that he was a 42-year old.
Another thing that was fascinating about our guest was his calm nerves. He seemed to display an aversion for aggression. In a game that can get so hectic and electric, racy and pacy, mazy and crazy, his knack for conserving energy, for preserving a balanced synergy between his effort and fatigue, was amazing. He avoided unnecessary physical duels and only run when he had to. His approach looked strategic, planned. You could see that every one of his moves was well- thought out, well-calculated. He barely extemporized, barely made impulsive decisions in the heat of the moment. There was no rush to his disposition at all. He looked like he knew what he was doing, exuding an entrancing aura of control.
*This is My Story – The Autobiography of C.K Gyamfi (with Fiifi Anaman) is published late 2016.