The Barefoot Pioneers
CK Gyamfi explains how a bootless tour to Britain helped shape the game in Ghana
There were riots. The nationalist leaders in the Gold Coast sent a strongly worded cable to Arthur Creech Jones, the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London. They blamed the Governor, Sir Gerald Creasy, calling him "Crazy Creasy" because he had failed to handle the problems facing the country. Creech Jones, in turn, blamed the Nationalist leaders for the disturbances.
Six of the leading nationalists were arrested and detained — the Big Six, as they became known. Most notable among them was Dr Kwame Nkrumah, widely regarded the father of pan-Africanism and BBC Africa's Man of the Millennium.
That was in early February 1948, in the heat of Ghana's independence struggle. The British tried several tactics to calm the mood. Little worked. There were more riots. There were deaths. And then someone suggested using football.
In 1951, the Gold Coast was invited to assemble its best players to tour the United Kingdom. It was supposed to be a political move to assuage the masses, but it turned out to be an important tool for the emancipation of Africa and its football.
Until then, there was no organised national football association that represented the British colony of the Gold Coast. When it was eventually formed, the team was captained by Emmanuel Christian Briandt, better known by his initials, EC. The vice-captain was Charles Kumi Gyamfi — CK.
At the time, football flourished in the southern and coastal regions of the country, where most of the colonial administration was based. The colonial masters taught the locals football, but never with boots. CK Gyamfi told me it was just one way in which the British decided to delay the black man's progress. And so the barefoot team went to Britain. "We played four games. The first one was a disaster," Gyamfi cackles as he remembers. We are sitting in his airy living room.
"The Gold Coast were beaten 10-1," he tells me calmly. As I gawp in dismay, he sits up sharply. "No, no, don't open your mouth!" he says, laughing. "There was a reason."
The Gold Coast XI had set off to Britain on a steam boat paid for by the British government. "We got to our first game and got on the field," Gyamfi said. "We stood there without boots, as usual, because that's what we knew. They could not believe we were to play without footwear and offered us some. We said we were fine. Then it started raining."
Exactly who the games were against remains unclear; there were no records kept in Ghana and none have been tracked down in Britain. Gyamfi believes that opening game was against the "Artena League", but Briandt suggests that was the second game, which brought a 4-3 win after a 10-1 defeat somewhere in Wales. Before each game, the foreigners were offered boots, but they politely refused them. The Gold Coast XI were the cream of their native land, and, in Gyamfi's words, "We were proud of our methods, bare feet and all."
The Brits were faster, more purposeful and more organised. And of course, well-booted, too. "It was slippery and we could do little. But we learned very fast."
The following three games came to represent far more than 11 men playing for themselves. "With every touch of the ball we knew our people at home were waiting for us to come back with good news," Gyamfi said. The Gold Coast XI went on to win their remaining three matches.
Gyamfi snapped his fingers at the recollection. "That is why when Asamoah Gyan misplaced the penalty in South Africa," he said. "I immediately understood. At that point my mind went back to our trip to the UK. Gyan had a continent waiting for him to score and it was just like the country was waiting for us with good news."
The barefooted Ghanaians had also left Britain with a different perspective of the world. "We came from a place where it was really about skill," Gyamfi explained. "But in Britain, we learned purposefulness. Today, we call it tactics and stratagems. It was our first game which became the learning table. While we were busy dribbling well and passing nicely, our hosts were mechanical and precise. They used the W-M on us."
The W-M formation, developed by Herbert Chapman's Arsenal in the late 1920s, was standard for British sides at the time. "Any time we launched an attack," Gyamfi said, "and we frequently did because of our skill and speed, they would arrange themselves with three men at the back, two in the middle and the rest of the five spread upfront."
The tactic was "unbelievably effective" in catching the Gold Coast teams offside. "A few of us had some education so after playing Artena we asked questions. Our hosts were more surprised at how well we spoke than the fact that they were leaking their tactical secrets."
The Gold Coast tour took in Britain and Ireland. By the time it was over 25 goals had been scored, barefooted. Gyamfi got 11 of them and, together with his teammates, took his new-found knowledge — and the boots he finally got after the tour — back home to revolutionise African football. When the players tried to introduce boots to their friends back home, though, they met with a hostile reception. Only Excelsior, a team made up of Europeans, wore boots. When Gyamfi, then at Asante Kotoko, persuaded the club owner to buy boots for the team, they had to smuggle them past fans into the ground.
Gyamfi was ahead of his time, someone who constantly pushed the boundaries and sought new challenges, which it showed in his career — he never lasted long at one club. He was signed by Mysterious Dwarfs in 1948, after impressing in a match against them playing for Sailors FC. A year later, Dwarfs played Kotoko and he was the outstanding player. Kotoko signed him on the spot. Soon he had developed into a national team regular, where he secured his legend by inspiring a victory over Nigeria, who remain Ghana's great rivals. Then he moved to Kotoko's main rival in the local league, Hearts of Oak, with whom he crowned his career by winning the league title in 1958.
In August 1959, the West German football federation organised a five-match tour of Ghana and Nigeria for Fortuna Düsseldorf, who had won three successive West German cups. Fortuna beat a Gyamfi-led Hearts side 3-2, but were so impressed that they signed him. Gyamfi became the first African footballer to play in Germany, the greatest legacy of that transfer perhaps being that the street name for five-a-sides in Ghana is still 'fortuna'.
Gyamfi never settled in Germany, hating the cold winters, and returned to Ghana in 1961, but not before he'd been influenced by the great Hans 'Hennes' Weisweiler. "Hans was a wizard," Gyamfi said. "If you passed through Hans and your game did not at least improve a little, then you had a problem." Gyamfi came back with coaching on his mind, and he was soon appointed as assistant to Ghana's first foreign coach, the Hungarian Jozsef Ember. He later succeeded him.
"Our style blended the traditional dancing kind of football with fast wingers and full-backs," Gyamfi said. If the traditional Brazilian style is 'samba football', at the root of Ghana's style is 'agoro' — 'playing or having fun'. "At the time we won the Cup of Nations, we began experimenting with our tactics and strengthening our position as the best in Africa by travelling. It also helped that our head of state was Kwame Nkrumah, whose life's ambition was to create a United States of Africa."
Ghana won the Uhuru Cup tournament (a competition marking Uganda's independence), following that with the West African Gold Cup and the 1963 African Cup of Nations at which Gyamfi was the only African coach among the six sides that took part. "This was the time they started calling us the Brazil of Africa," he said. "But for me the element of surprise had gone by 1965, when we had to defend the Nations Cup."
Gyamfi's team was ageing and he feared it would not be able to cope with the rigorous tactical systems that he felt he needed as emancipation around the continent allowed other teams to close the gap on Ghana. So he headed to Rio de Janeiro, where he learned the secrets of the 4-3-3 that had helped Brazil to the World Cup in 1962. Ghana scored 12 goals in three games to become the first side to retain the trophy.
A year later Ghana experienced the first of its military coups. Although solid foundations meant they performed creditably at the next two Cups of Nations and qualified for the 1972 Olympic Games, Gyamfi was long gone, his passion leading him to Somalia, to coach an Africa XI, and then to Kenya, where he won a league title. "I went round teaching what I knew because that was the reason the leaders of my time invested so much in me," he explained." They did not send me all over the world to learn for myself. They sent me all over the world to gain knowledge all over the world to teach Africans all over the world."
Eventually, he returned to Ghana and, in 1982 in Libya, took the national team to its fourth African Cup of Nations success. Gyamfi was the first coach to win the title three times, and arguably the greatest coach Africa has ever had. And it all began barefoot on the English mud in 1951.