Listen to this article
When Ethel Jacks became African women’s table-tennis champion in 1964, she was competing as a Ghanaian; 12 years later, when she finally surrendered her crown, she was representing the land of her birth, Nigeria. The Cudgoe brothers, both Ghanaian by birth, were for a long time defenders for the Nigerian soccer league side Railway Club, and played for Nigeria against Ghana. Alex Quist and his brother Anthony at various times played football and cricket for both nations against the other.
The sporting histories of Ghana and Nigeria are inextricably intertwined, and on Monday another chapter will be written into their rivalry as they meet in soccer’s African Nations Cup in the Egyptian city of Port Said.
Anglophone and economically more powerful than their neighbours, Ghana and Nigeria have, understandably, enjoyed a reasonably harmonious political relationship. The talks that ultimately brought about the end of the Biafran war, for instance, were hosted in Ghana, while the two have recently co-operated on the West African Gas Pipeline, supplying Nigerian gas to Ghana and the two countries that lie in between, Togo and Benin.
In football, a rivalry that began almost as that between two siblings has since become rather more intense.
Sporting relations between Nigeria and Ghana began as early as the 1930s – not, of course, that either existed as a country at that stage – with “inter-colonial” events in football, boxing and lawn tennis. Gradually, as the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana (or the Gold Coast, as it then was) began to recognise the propaganda potential of sport and sought to establish Ghana at the forefront of black Africa, matches against Nigeria, who were still perceived as playing sport in “the effete English manner” – to quote an editorial in the Nigerian daily Vanguard – began to take on an edge.
Ghana, accordingly, quickly established itself as the great football power of west Africa, and had won three Nations Cups before Nigeria, emerging from civil war, clinched its first title in 1980. As if to make a point, Ghana reclaimed the title two years later.
That is very much the way the relationship has been ever since. Nigeria won the World Under-16 (now Under-17) football title in 1985, which was followed by Ghanaian success in 1991 and 1995, split by Nigeria’s second victory in 1993. Ghana became the first African nation to win an Olympic football medal by taking bronze in Barcelona in 1992; four years later in Atlanta, Nigeria took gold. Significantly, given the way Nkrumah’s beliefs had shaped Ghanaian sport, Taribo West, the Nigeria centre-back, described that success as “a victory for all of black Africa”.
Ghana’s misfortune is that, in their years of dominance, Africa was under-represented at World Cups, denying such talents as Wilberforce Mfum and Opoku Afriyie exposure on a global stage. An African boycott of the World Cup in 1966 led to a guaranteed place from 1970, but it was not until 1982, with the expansion of the tournament to 24 teams, that Africa was granted two slots. As a result, Nigerians were able for years to taunt Ghana with the jibe that they had never played in a World Cup, despite the fact that their rivals had beaten them in qualifiers in 1960 and 1972 – that latter victory coming after rioting in Lagos forced the game to be abandoned with five minutes remaining.
Yet strangely, although Ghana were indisputably the stronger side until the mid-1980s, that curtailed game in 1972 was their only victory over Nigeria in the 11 games between 1960 and 1987.
Perversely, as soon as Nigeria began to make more impact on the continental and world stage, they began to lose to Ghana, seven fixtures over the next 14 years – a period in which Nigeria qualified for the World Cup on three consecutive occasions, beating the likes of Greece, Bulgaria and Spain – producing three draws and four wins for the Black Stars.
Nigeria finally ended the run with an emphatic 3-0 win in a World Cup qualifier in Port Harcourt in July 2001, but that triumph was tainted by a claim from Ben Koffi, the chairman of the Ghanaian FA, that he had accepted a “gift” of £15,000 from Peter Odili, the governor of Nigeria’s Rivers State, shortly before the match. “It is common in Africa to give gifts to visitors,” a Nigerian FA official explained unapologetically. “In the old days, our forefathers gave yams and goats.”
In fairness, it should be said that Nigeria won their next meeting with Ghana, in the Nations Cup quarter-final in Bamako the following January, by the same scoreline.
“The rivalry is now not so intense as it was,” the Nigeria playmaker Jay-Jay Okocha said in anticipation of Monday’s clash. “I’m not worried about it. It’s just because we’re neighbours. Over the years they kept beating us.”
Yet almost as Nigeria had broken the hoodoo, it was as though the polarities reversed. As Nigeria, embarrassed by Zimbabwe and Angola, failed to qualify for the World Cup in Germany this summer, Ghana cruised through their campaign, thanks both to a powerful midfield axis of Chelsea’s Michael Essien and Stephen Appiah of Fenerbahce, and the enlightened leadership of the Serbian coach Ratomir Dujkovic, who has imposed what he somewhat mysteriously terms “Balkan discipline” on the team.
“They were close to qualifying for the World Cup twice before, with the generations of Abedi Pele and Tony Yeboah, who were both world-class players,” he said. “But in those generations there were big rivalries, cliques within the squad. At first the players resisted me, coming late to training, lunch and meetings, even late to the games, but I was persistent, they changed their habits, and we have had our reward.”
Essien, the victim of an ankle injury, will not be in Egypt, and there is a significant possibility that, having been drawn in much the toughest pool – “Group D for Death”, as it has been dubbed – Ghana’s glee at reaching the World Cup finals will be tempered by a failure to make the last eight of the African Nations.
“Senegal and Nigeria will be tough,” Dujkovic said, “because they will both be looking for compensation for missing out on Germany.”
For once Nigerians and Ghanaians are in agreement. “We’ll only pacify Nigerians angered by our World Cup failure by winning the Cup in Egypt,” the Nigeria coach Augustine Eguavoen said. “We have the chance to prove ourselves again and this is going to be the real test of our character. We know that Ghana and Senegal are not weak opposition. This is a tough group, but that will really motivate my players.”
Whatever Okocha may say, tensions are simmering intriguingly ahead of Monday. Ethel Jacks won’t know where to look.