Thursday, October 21, 2010

Are you ready for some football?

For those of you who did not enjoy the addicting rush of watching the underdog countries take on the world leaders in a little thing called World Cup soccer this year, you may want to skip this entire post, as it’s all about seeing the Ghana Black Stars in action. As seen on the map I posted on 16-October, the sports fans among you may have noticed that we are located at the south end (“scoreboard end”) of the Baba Yara Stadium, the largest stadium in Kumasi with a capacity of 40,500 seats. In the two weeks that I’ve been here, I’ve watched soccer (“football” or “futbol”) at the stadium four times: three times I saw the Ghana Black Stars, the national soccer team, and once I got to watch Asante Kotoko, the Kumasi Glo Premier League team. (In case you were wondering, Glo is a local telecoms provider—seems that Africa is following the West in having corporate sponsorship of their sporting teams.)

My first experience seeing the Black Stars was purely by accident—consistent with many of the great experiences I’ve had so far. On my first Thursday night in Kumasi (October 7), Steffi and I walked over to one of the local Internet cafés, which happens to be in the VIP level of Baba Yara Stadium. We noticed that there were soccer players on the lighted field with a few people watching them. I wasn’t sure what team was out there, but in surfing Ghanaweb in the café, I ran across mention of the “local friendly” that night and a game scheduled for this past Sunday as part of the Africa cup. Thus began my week of Ghana Black Stars soccer.

On Saturday afternoon, I tried to find tickets to the game. As with most things here in Ghana, the process is completely foreign to me, pun completely intended. Akmed took us to the Sports Hotel (very near our house and the stadium), but they said to check at the Unity Oil station, who said that they would not have any tickets available until 7 am on Sunday morning. As an American sports fan, I couldn’t believe that tickets would not be available until the day of a game to watch the national team in any sport, let alone the Ghana Black Stars. That night, I decided to head over to the main entrance to the stadium to see if I could get tickets before Sunday. I was fortunate that the Black Stars were practicing for the game the next day, which meant there were plenty of people around.

I wandered up to the VIP level and stood behind some men sitting on bar-stool-height chairs. I started asking questions about the proceedings on the field and it didn’t take long to find out that I was talking to the head coach of the Asante Kotoko team, Coach Ebo Mends. Coach Ebo (shown in this picture with me) had been on the Black Stars in his day and followed that up by playing for and coaching many European league teams. He’s lived with the US, too, and has three boys who are currently in school there.

Watching the practice with Ebo and his friends made the whole experience much more enlightening. He and his friends, including a former goalie for the Black Stars who is the current goalkeepers coach for Kotoko, were able to explain that the guy making silly gestures and pratfalls on the track around the field was like a “comedian” in the US, or their equivalent of a mascot. Later in the practice, a row of cars drove up on the track, obviously carrying someone of some importance. Turns out it was the Ashanti king, who was there to wish the team well in their game on Sunday. I have video of the king’s entrance that I plan to post video once I figure out how to compress the MOV files my pocket camera generates.

As I was watching the practice, I asked Ebo how I could get tickets for the game and he said that if I could hang out a bit longer, someone may come up to provide tickets, as he was waiting on his VIP ticket and might be able to get me one. Unfortunately, when the man came upstairs, he told Ebo that the tickets would not be available until the next day. Ebo offered to drive me home and discuss tickets on the way. Being an American, I was appropriately wary about getting in the car of someone I just met, but given his status (coach of the team) and what the guidebooks have said about Ghanaians being helpful to female travelers, I decided to trust him. When he dropped me off, we exchanged mobile phone numbers so that we could get in touch on Sunday morning about the tickets. (As noted in my post on 16-October, handing out cell phone numbers here is about as common as telling someone your name in the US.)

Around 10 on Sunday morning, I decided to look into getting my own tickets as a back-up plan, in case Coach Ebo’s tickets fell through. I went to Unity Oil, but they said I should go to the stadium. When I went over there, I asked someone at the nearest ticket window about the “best tickets” and they told me to go around the stadium to ask about VIP tickets. I finally was able to figure out that tickets need to be purchased at the side or end of the stadium where the seats are. The two endzone sections (if it were a football stadium) are Red (north end) and Green (south end with the scoreboard, near our house), the sideline seats (including the VIP section) are White and Grey, while the other sideline seats are Yellow. During this stroll, I managed to get in touch with Ebo. Bad news was that he couldn’t get me any VIP seats, but the good news was that he was able to score three free tickets in the White Section (named for the color of the seats, not the people who sit there).

I’ll share the experience of the actual game in another post, as it deserves plenty of space on its own.

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