Friday, April 8, 2011

The Wide World of Sports

Today was the first (and, unfortunately, probably the last) time I played ultimate in Africa.  This morning I met Marfo, the PE teacher at one of the schools, and some of his students to show them how to play.  The academic term ended yesterday (a week earlier than it should have, due to many various and sundry reasons, most of which I don’t know) so these students came out during their vacation to learn a new game from an obruni.  Some British kids had already taught them American football (irony, anyone), meaning this wouldn’t be the first time that the foreigners tried to bring them a new sport.

We met on the “field”, which is really a large, flat expanse of pebbly dirt at the top of the hill with a view over the city.  We were supposed to start at 8, but for once Ghana Man Time didn’t matter to me as it lines up well with ultimate time.  Marfo had me start explaining the game to the five students who were there at 8:15.  I was stunned at how good their first throws looked.  I remember teaching college freshmen who took a semester to learn to throw, but these kids—both the boys and the girls—immediately threw backhands that would be fine for any low-level pickup game.  By around 8:30 we had enough for fives with Marfo and me playing so we set up a field and started a game.

Running around with these kids did me a world of good.  We had numerous turnovers back and forth but no one seemed to care.  And when we finally scored, lots of cheering and celebrating commenced.  As more kids showed up, Marfo and I subbed out and let them play sevens.  (I went back in later so that Marfo could get some pictures of me playing ultimate in Africa.  He’s the one who’s a photographer as a side career.)  

Watching them from the sidelines, I was reminded of how much football (you know, soccer), has in common with ultimate.  These junior high school students, who had never seen a disc before today, were moving the disc around the field the way that experienced ultimate teams did, using the players furthest away from the goal—handler position in ultimate or the fullback position for soccer—to move the disc from one side of the field to the other.  These 12-to-14 year-olds had no problems with moving the disc the “wrong” direction on the field since that’s what they do in a soccer game.  I was mentally kicking myself for not playing ultimate with these kids earlier in my stay here.  Then again, who knows how much staying power this sport will have, given that we had to stop playing at 10:30 because the boys all wanted to play football.  Marfo says that he wants to continue teaching them ultimate, so I’ll be looking into sending a box of old discs over here after I get back to the US of A.

Speaking of football, I saw an unbelievably exciting game this week.  On Wednesday Kotoko played in the Round of 16 for the MTN FA Cup.  On my walk around the stadium before the game, I finally got myself a couple Kotoko jerseys.  Since their colors are red and white, I’ll have plenty of opportunities to wear them at Wolfpack events back home.  (And then when we lose, as we often do, I have plausible deniability about being a Wolfpack fan.  Just kidding.  Sort of.)  I bought my ticket for the VIP section and headed to the upper deck.  Unlike American football, Ghanaian football (soccer) fans tend to fill the stadium at the bottom of the upper deck to get the best view.  I found myself a spot with two seats next to an aisle in the center of the stadium and waited for the game to start.
Aduana goalie blocks Kotoko shot

Less than 30 seconds into the game, Kotoko made a great shot on goal that bounced off the crossbar, a quick start to an exciting game.  Aduana drew first blood and took the lead but Kotoko answered back.  In watching the game, I was reminded of how these strong, agile players act like a bunch of babies at times.  Every five minutes, someone was rolling on the ground, writhing around like his leg had been chopped off.  The only time the ref (who was a woman—yay for gender neutrality) took it seriously was when two guys banged their heads together.  That was the first time that the golf cart with the paramedics drove out on the field.

When Kotoko went up 2-1 around 65 minutes into the game, the fans jumped up in their seats and chanted something that must have been related to the team but it was in Twi so I didn’t understand it.  Unfortunately Kotoko couldn’t hold onto the lead and regulation time ended in a 2-2 tie.  Since this was the playoffs, we went straight into a penalty kicks shootout.  The first Kotoko player must have had a serious case of nerves because his shot went straight at the goalie in the center of the goal, putting Kotoko behind in the count.  Luckily only a few shots later an Aduana missed a shot wide right, putting Kotoko back in the game.  The first round of the shoot-out ended 7-7 with both goalies having made their shots.

The next round began.  At this skill level and with them kicking from inside the goal box, it’s somewhat rare for the players to miss.  The goalie has to make a guess as to which way to go, but the player taking the shot has the advantage.   All the players in this round made their shots.  Then it was time for the goalies to take their shots.  The Kotoko goalie wound up for his shot, kicked the ball—and bounced it off the right goalpost.  The crowd gave a collective groan of despair and many fans began to leave.  The Aduana goalie set up for his shot—and it bounced down off the crossbar onto the ground and almost went in the goal but still missed.  Fans started running up and down the aisles in the stadium and cheering even though the game wasn’t quite over. 

The next round must have been some sort of sudden death.  The Kotoko player made his shot, but the Aduana player took a shot and missed his and the crowd went wild.  People began pouring out of their seats.  The cheering didn’t stop for quite some time after the game was over.  Winning this game with the crazy-high score of 13-12 puts Kotoko into the quarterfinals for a game against King Faisal on Sunday.  The Kotoko website says that the crowd should be even bigger.  I can’t wait.

This sports report wraps up with something I never thought I’d see in Ghana: professional cycling.  Yesterday the main drag through town (known locally as the Accra road) was shut down for a couple hours for the race, snarling up traffic all over town.  According to Ghanaweb, it was the 7th stage of a 9-stage competition, with a 20-lap race covering 84 km.  I was walking home from the Metro Ed office when I came upon the race when it had seven laps left to go.  With only two laps left, I was leaning out over the crowd along the roadside to try to see the cyclists when one of the guys working the race yelled, “White woman!” and told me I could move to the median to take pictures.  Once the cyclists passed the midway point, the crowd rushed across to the median where I was at to wait for the finalists.  The guy working the race tried to get me closer to the finish line, but the crush of people was getting a bit scary.  One of the policemen took off his belt and was swinging it to try to get people to move away from the finish line but to no avail.  The cyclists came racing through the finish line—where one of them ran into the mob of people and was knocked off his bike.  I was trying to take pictures above the heads of the crowd but there was no way I was getting any closer to the finish.  Security guys for the race were pushing people away and yelling at them.  I took that as a sign that it was time to go.  This experience makes me understand how it is that people can get crushed to death at football games.  To avoid ending on this down note, here’s the group picture of the kids I played ultimate with this morning.

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