Cape Coast, the former capital of Ghana, is a relaxed fishing town and tourist spot about two hours drive along the coast from Accra. We arrive in the middle of the day as the sun blazes and the sweat pours. We’ve heard that somewhere around here the first ever game in Africa was played, some 39 years after the very first game to FA rules was played in Battersea Park — the place where our ball, The Ball, started this epic journey on January 24th 2010.
Cape Coast has a fearsome history. Millions of Africans, who had been rounded up and enslaved, were held in dungeons at Cape Coast Castle before being marched through the “Gate of No Return.” Beyond this gate, they were packed like sardines into waiting ships and sent, many dying en route, to Europe, America and Brazil. Those Africans were never to return. But today people come to this castle from all over the world, including Barack and Michelle Obama. They come here to pay tribute to what happened here and to ensure that it will never happen again.
But we are here for another reason. We have heard that the first ever game of football in Sub-Saharan Africa took place here. “Football took off in Cape Coast, formerly Gold Coast, Ghana, around 1903,” Morgan Mason, a Cape Coast historian, tells us. “The first team founded was Essesoir and they played at Victoria Park. The team was founded by a Jamaican headmaster,” he continues.
In The Ball is Round, the Global History of Football, author David Goldblatt writes that “a group of 22 keen pupils of the Cape Coast Government Boys School embarked upon a secret training course in football. They trained mostly at night, when the full moon was over Victoria Park, then a well-kept place for official ceremonies.”
Why was it a secret? “Blacks were not allowed to play the beautiful game in those times, but those days are over” says Morgan. “Football has now grown up to be this game that we all enjoy, globally. Now we are one body, one people”.
Morgan takes us to Victoria Park and we find the field where that very first game was played. Nowadays, it is a concrete square used for official ceremonies — but back in those days it was a rocky, dry patch of land. We locate the half-way line and kick off. Morgan and Andrew exchange several one-twos, cutting the opposition defence open, before Morgan cracks The Ball into the top corner of the goal. Oops, he hits the top corner of a pavilion and The Ball just about hits an old woman selling bananas. Onward.
Can historians also predict the future? We ask Morgan who would win the World Cup. “Ghana will beat Spain in the final”, he says. Unsurprisingly, we have yet to meet anyone in Ghana who doesn’t believe that Ghana will win the World Cup. In fact, Andrew’s friend Kweku told him that Ghana will win the next three World Cups. Good luck to the Black Stars. It is high time for Africa to win a World Cup.
As we part company, Morgan gets emotional and tells us this:
“The mission, the reason, and the aim of which you came to this castle is recommendable. We pray that the good lord keeps you well and wherever you want to visit you should be warmly received so that you accomplish your mission and that when the whole world comes together on the 11th of June to the 11th of July converged in South Africa that there will be happiness, oneness, love, unity and above all respect for each and everyone on this earth.”
Samuel Duodu, DHL’s commercial manager for West Africa, is a self-proclaimed talented midfielder, “a midfield maestro”, he tells us. The team that he supports is the oldest club in Sub-Saharan Africa. “Hearts of Oak Accra was created on 11.11.11″ he tells us with pride.
We are beginning to rue a missed opportunity as we could have met up with Hearts of Oak veterans at the club’s former clubhouse in British Jamestown. Instead, we are stuck in traffic from the Volta region coming into Accra.
“They were looking forward to your visit. They would have even sung the club’s anthem for you. It goes never say die until the bones are rotting. “Is there a big rivalry in Ghanaian football?” we ask. “Well, you can talk about Man United v Liverpool or Kaiser Chiefs v Orlando Pirates in Soweto. Here it is Hearts of Oak and Ashanti Kotoko — these two are great rivals.”
In fact, another missed opportunity surfaces. Our original route had us leaving Burkina Faso and entering Ghana from the north. It would have taken us through the Ashanti region where a visit to the Ashanti King was planned — as well as a friendly match between these two great rivals using The Ball in the game.
“Anyway”, Sammy says, “tomorrow I have organized for you to go to Cape Coast.”