How Egypt shaped Ghana's football future
Pulse Sports' Fiifi Anaman recounts Ghana and Egypt's first meeting in 1959.
On this day in 1959, Ghana met Egypt - then known as the United Arab Republic - in a football game for the first time.
Ironically, on this very same day this year, both teams will lock horns once again, for the 24th time.
This time, the duo - with five World Cup appearances between them - meet as part of qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
But 57 years ago, they had met for a place at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, during an age where playing at the Olympics was considered in some quarters as a more prestigious honour than playing at the World Cup.
The Black Stars, as we know it today, had been formed in August of that year (1959) to replace the Ghana XI. Ohene Djan, the powerful young chairman of Ghana's FA (then the Ghana Amateur Football Association - GAFA) who had risen to power two years prior, was looking to build a strong national team that could handle his ambitions of putting Ghana on the map of world football.
The adoption of the 'Black Stars' tag had been as a result of a desire to have a moniker as recognizable as ‘Mighty Magyars’ - the name of the famous Hungarian national ‘golden’ team that dominated football in the early to mid-1950s.
Djan got the country affiliated to both CAF and FIFA soon afterward, a move that gave the team an opportunity to finally play competitive football after years of friendlies and ceremonial games.
Ghana thus joined Africa's race for two places at the Olympics, drawn into Group 2 (one of three groups) alongside Egypt and Nigeria in the first round of qualifying.
The teams were to play each other home and away, with the winner advancing to a second round, where they'd meet the winners of the two other groups in a similar group format in which the top two would qualify for Rome.
Ghana's first two match days were against Nigeria in October: a 3-1 loss in Lagos was followed by an impressive 4-1 revenge win back in Accra.
The two-leg clash with Egypt was next, with the first in Cairo on November 13.
It would be a heavily anticipated fixture, owing to a fascinating backstory: Ghana enjoyed very close diplomatic relations with Egypt, mainly due to the fact that it was the home country of Fathia Rizk, wife of Ghana's founder and Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah.
Ahead of the team's departure to Cairo, the Ghanaian Press were worried about the opponent due to the fact that little was known of them. Yes, they had been in existence since 1920, meaning they were at least 31 years older than the Ghana team, which began as the Gold Coast XI in 1951. Yes, they and had featured in one World Cup and six Olympic Games, making them arguably the most accomplished African national team at that point. And yes, they had won the Africa Cup in May of that year (1959). But Ghana had never played any African team outside of West Africa at that point, and so the lack of adequate knowledge was understandable.
"Nothing authoritative is known about the strength of the Egypt national team," Daily Graphic sports writer J.K Addo Twum admitted in a column. "But from all accounts, it seems to be a cultured team depending upon brain rather than brawn to win matches."
Despite this ignorance, though, there was no 'fear of the unknown'. The Ghanaian team were inspired to be confident in their prospects of grabbing a good result due to one factor: its stamina. Earlier that year, Djan had hired an expatriate professional to coach the team. Andreas Sjoberg, a Swede, had been brought in to replace Englishman George Ainsley.
Ainsley, Ghana's first ever coach - had left his post in October 1958 after close to eight months in charge.
Sjoberg's most notable impact on the team had been the emphasis on physical fitness: he had instilled an intense physical conditioning routine that had significantly beefed up the stamina of the boys.
This durability was going to be crucial because the rules governing the qualifiers did not allow substitutions, and so the Ghanaians hoped they could outlast their North African opponents - who Addo Twum claimed "depend mostly on substitutes" - in order to steal a win.
In fact, Addo Twum was sure Ghana would win the game based on what he called «sheer stamina", and that the inability to fall on substitutes had "swept fears into the hearts of the Egyptian soccer stars."
"There is no doubt that the Black Star boys will win," he wrote. "But I am particularly worried about is the number of goals."
The number of goals was important because the stakes were high: Ghana was tied with Nigeria on two points each (two points awarded for a win back then), leading with a +1 goal difference, and so they needed a favourable result in Cairo to shoot ahead in the Group. Also, these two games were going to be Ghana's last in the group, a final chance to secure qualification. For Egypt, though, they were going to be their first. The North Africans were to meet Nigeria in December in their second.
The Ghana team left Accra on the night of Monday November 9, arriving in Cairo in the afternoon of the next day, three days before the game on Friday. Due to the amicable warmth that characterized Ghana's bilateral ties with Egypt, a sightseeing program was arranged for the Ghana team in the days prior to the game.
While the trip's excitement - the team had never travelled to North Africa - came with temptations of distractions for the team, Addo-Twum had a caveat. "My advice to the Black Star boys is that they should remember they are not traveling to Egypt on holiday," he wrote. "Sightseeing programs in Cairo before the match should be kept at a bare minimum for these can easily sap the energy of our boys. Cairo is a large city."
Ghana named a strong lineup: the controversial Kwao Baffoe of Kotoko in goal, Emmanuel Oblitey and Attu Mensah in lateral defence, the solid Kumasi duo of Dogo Moro (Kotoko) and Kwame Appiah (Cornerstone) at the heart of defence, the tenacious Joe Aikens protecting the back four from defensive midfield, and an attack-saturated rest of team consisting of right winger Baba Yara, playmaker Aggrey Fynn, left winger Mohammed Salisu, young speedster Ofei Dodoo and marksman C.K Gyamfi (captain).
But so did the Egyptians, who were coached by Pal Tikos, a Hungarian who had been a part of his country’s 1938 silver-winning World Cup squad: Fathi Khorshed, Rifai ElSayed, Tarek Selim, Rifaat El Fanaguili, Mohamed Elshaghbi, Abdu Nishi, Essam Baha, Abdu Selim, Mohamed Hamdi, Hilmy Rafaat, Mimi Elsherbini.
A mammoth crowd - almost all of them fanatic Egyptians - packed the venue, the National Sporting Club in Ghezira Island, Cairo, on match day. According to Djan, who travelled with the team as one of eight GAFA officials, the crowd could have been around 50,000 people, though a special message sent to the Daily Graphic from the Ghanaian contingent quoted an estimated number of 30,000.
At the end of a gruelling 90 minutes, a brace from Hilmy Rafaat – a seven-year veteran of the team - had given the home side had a 2-1 victory.
Ghana ended up being on the wrong side of the mythical bad luck that is associated with traditionally eerie Friday the 13th: they totally dominated the tie, but ended up losing.
Spearheaded on by a virtuouso display from Aggrey Fynn - who scored the lone goal, and who would go on to succeed C.K Gyamfi as team captain the next year - the Black Stars played so well that they won over the Egyptian press.
"The Ghana team won the admiration of the public by its passes and control of the ball," said the Akhbar El Yom newspaper. "It was bad luck which defeated Ghana."
"We defeated Ghana two to one by force," said A Ghomouria. "We won two precious points we did not deserve."
Back home, the Daily Graphic called it a "proud away loss."
Djan agreed. "Even though Egypt won the match, the Ghana boys won the admiration of the spectators that saw it."
The FA chief also believed the trip, overall, was «was very educative and one that should give the Ghana team a lot of experience."
On the team's return, The Honourable Kofi Baako - Ghana's Minister of Education and Information - who had also travelled with team, praised the Egyptians for their hospitality: "They treated us as their brothers."
And, when they arrived in Accra on Monday, November 30 for the second leg scheduled for December 6, the Ghanaians made sure to reciprocate the brotherly reception. Djan and Baako took the team to meet Nkrumah and his wife at the Flagstaff House, where Nkrumah joked that he hoped the Egyptians would beat his team. Fathia, though, in an interesting reverse of roles, claimed she would support Ghana against her country. In the days preceding the game, Nkrumah made sure the Egyptian team were treated well, treated to a host recreational activities: a tour of Tema, an excursion to the Botanical Gardens at Aburi, then a party at the residence of the Egyptian ambassador in Ghana.
Unlike the first leg, expectations for this game from the Ghanaian perspective were measured. Now, Ghanaians had gathered enough information about the Egyptians, and they were impressed by their findings. “Although this is a home game, I sincerely think it is not going to be an automatic win for Ghana,” wrote a Daily Graphic columnist. “The Egyptians are greater: they are more scientific, more skilful and more accurate. It is a wonderful soccer spectacle to behold their team in motion.”
It was an intimidating assessment, but the players begged to differ. “The Egyptians are excellent players, but we are not scared," Ghana captain C.K Gyamfi said ahead of the game. "We are determined to win."
Indeed, they ended up winning. The Black Stars registered a 2-0 victory, through a brace from goal machine Edward Acquah, but there was a fascinating irony: the Egyptians played better than the Ghanaians.
“We were shockingly outplayed by a brilliant Egyptian side,” Djan conceded at a post-match presser.
So outplayed, in fact, that even Kwame Nkrumah – who had gone to the Accra Sports Stadium to watch the game with his wife – became concerned. Djan said Nkrumah called him up after the game to demand improvement as he felt the Black Stars’ performance was at “a very low” standard.
“When we went to Cairo, we found that Egypt is well advanced as a soccer nation and in Ghana, they have taught us good soccer lessons,” Djan remarked at a dinner held at an Accra Hotel to bid farewell to the Egyptian team.
From Accra, Egypt flew straight to Lagos, where they thrashed Nigeria 6-2 in the first leg of their fixture with the West Africans on December 13. On January 1, 1960, they completed the double over the Nigerians with a 3-0 victory in Cairo to qualify out of the Group, eventually going on to scale the second round hurdle to ultimately qualify for Rome.
By shattering Ghana’s ambition of playing at the big leagues, Egypt had actually delivered a blessing in disguise. Just as Nkrumah asked, Djan got to work on addressing the weaknesses that the Egyptians exposed. A Hungarian football expert had observed that against the Egyptians, “The Ghana boys were world class in strength and stamina, but in tactics and technique their efforts were vague.”
And so Djan, notably, went ahead to fix this by hiring a Hungarian tactician named Josef Ember - a friend of Egypt’s coach Pal Tikos and one who shared the same football philosophy – in 1960 to hone the potential of the Black Stars. Soon, the results began the flood in: Ghana managed to recover from the disappointment to become the most highly rated football nation on the continent. They dominated in the 60s, winning trophies (the West Africa Gold Cup in 1959 and 1960, the Uhuru Cup in 1962, the African Cup in 1963 and 1965) and breaking glass ceilings (becoming the first Sub-Saharan African nation to qualify for the Olympics - Tokyo 1964).
At the time of their first encounter close to six decades ago, little did both countries know that they were on a trajectory that would see them eventually become the two most successful teams on the African continent: Ghana would go on to win the Africa Cup four times within the next 23 years, while Egypt would go on to add six more African titles to their 1959 feat, meaning both countries now share 13 wins between them.
They have since met 21 more times over the years, with the Egyptians claiming the lion’s share of wins (11) while Ghana trail with five.
This weekend, in Alexandria, these two African football behemoths would meet once again to renew a rivalry that was forged in brotherly love and mutual benefits on November 13, 1959.
Except that on November 13, 2016, with a possible berth at Russia 2018 at stake, none of these countries would be in the mood for love or the exchange of benefits.
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