x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

England and Ghana celebrate their shared sporting, and cultural, history

Ghana and England have never met before at senior international level, which is surprise on several counts.

Ghana fans illuminated the World Cup in South Africa with their colourful attire and non-stop singing. Tonight, Wembley Stadium can expect much of the same as the Black Stars face England. Monirul Bhuiyan / AFP
Ghana fans illuminated the World Cup in South Africa with their colourful attire and non-stop singing. Tonight, Wembley Stadium can expect much of the same as the Black Stars face England. Monirul Bhuiyan / AFP

Ghana's supporters were allotted 21,000 tickets for their match at Wembley Stadium this evening. They sold out quickly, and it is fair to guess that many more West Africans have purchased seats in the neutral sections. The number of Ghanaians living in Britain, estimated at more than 90,000, could more than fill the venue.

The demand is understandable. There is history to be witnessed, and a long sporting relationship to be celebrated.

Ghana and England have never met before at senior international level, which is a surprise on several counts.

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Gold Coast, as Ghana was known before its independence in 1957, was once a British colony. You would have imagined an invitation to play a friendly might have taken less than 54 years to extend.

As for a competitive encounter, the last World Cup had been expected to provide it. The Black Stars, as the national team have called themselves since taking the flag of independent Ghana as their direct inspiration, finished second in their group in South Africa last summer, en route to the quarter-finals.

England would have met them at the last 16 stage had they won their group. Instead, the United States pipped them, in turn to be knocked out by the excellent Ghanaians.

The crossovers between the two football cultures go back through two centuries. Ask Sheila Leeson.

She is a 78-year-old from Yorkshire who tonight will watch the game at Wembley as a guest of the English Football Association.

Leeson's grandfather was a pioneering footballer named Arthur Wharton. Wharton's grandmother, in turn, was a Ghanaian princess - or the Ashante equivalent - whose gifted, athletic grandson might - should, according to many accounts - have played international football for England in the late 19th centurys.

He was a successful goalkeeper with several northern English clubs, notably Preston North End.

Wharton, the son of a British teacher and churchman, spent several years of his childhood in Cape Coast, Ghana. The city looks out on the Atlantic, was once an important embarkation point for slaves being shipped to the Americas and Caribbean, and has plenty of monuments both to that brutal era and to the epoch of British sovereignty over the territory.

A bust of Queen Victoria overlooks a sun-kissed square close to the sea, where, according to some accounts, football was first introduced to Ghanaians in the 19th century. Go there now, and schoolboys can be found playing improvised matches.

Ghana was the first of the British colonies in sub-Saharan Africa to gain self-determination. It did so in a mood of festival rather than rancour and the nascent Black Stars would become a focus of patriotic expression.

Stanley Matthews, England's most admired player of the era, travelled to Ghana as a guest of the new government, and seated on a throne, would be given the title "Soccerthene", something like Grand Duke of football.

English clubs toured there in the close seasons in the 1960s, playing clubs like Accra's Hearts of Oak.

Ghana would be the first West African nation to host an African Nations Cup, in 1963, and the first to win that title, which they did on home soil and again two years later.

Their clubs would have an impact beyond Ghana's borders, too. Asante Kotoko won African Champions Cups in the 1970s and 1980s. From provincial Cape Coast, even the wonderfully named Mysterious Dwarves ventured into continental competitions.

Cape Coast is home to one of the game's more exotic derbies: the Dwarves share their fiercest local rivalry with Venemous Vipers at the Robert Mensah Arena, a ground named after a Black Stars goalkeeper of the late 1960s, who died suddenly and young after a brawl outside a bar.

A short walk from there, and from Victoria Park, is a smart, white building, with pillars along its facade and well manicured, grassed playing fields in its surrounds.

It is St Augustine's College, an institution with strong echoes of an English public school, and, not long ago, a place where a gifted young footballer could be glimpsed learning his game. His name was Michael Essien.

Like Arthur Wharton, he would leave Cape Coast and reach his peak as a professional in English football.

Chelsea's Essien will miss tonight's fixture, having asked for rest. But several Premier League footballers will be in the Ghana side, as well plenty from the World Cup, and a scattering of players who won the World Under 20 Cup in 2009.

The atmosphere should certainly be lively, and, in Sheila Leeson's seat, rather reflective.

 

sports@thenational.ae