Today marks exactly 13 years when the beautiful game of football became a national disaster. The worst tragedy in football history in Africa would take place in Accra. 127 football fans lost their lives during the premier league game between Accra Hearts of Oak and Kumasi Asante Kotoko in Accra.
I had woken up that morning excited. I can’t quite remember why but I could not be far from wrong. There was excitement building up in the air with hours leading to the game between the biggest traditional rivals in Ghana and I had caught that fever too. The titanic clash promised to be fire works.
I got dressed up for school and headed straight to the news stand for a copy of my Kotoko Express, Kotoko Digest and Graphic Sports. I would build up my own excitement of the game at school. I never missed an edition of the Kotoko Express and can spend my entire school money on my idol club.
Teachers were ready for me in school to grab my copy of newspapers. They knew I would come to school with one. They would read before I do and it wasn’t a problem to me at all. I gave out the Kotoko Digest and the Graphic Sports but the Express I hid in my school uniform.
The entire duration of class, I did not pay attention. I was so carried away by the excitement of the game that I read the newspaper while teachers teach. I had hidden the newspaper in my notebook and pretended as if I was following the class. My friends knew but they understood me.
Then our Headmaster walked into the class. He was a die hard Phobian. He daily bought newspapers from politics to football. He came to class with Hearts News. Flying high in the school was his Phobian flag. He was to teach us and I was certain the game would not pass his lips. He teased me and predicted a sound beating of Kotoko. There were thunderous cheers from the students as if the game was happening live. I bowed my head and refused his prediction. I believe this time round, Kotoko was going to win.
Our headmaster got dressed in his white attire and Phobian flag and informed us he was going to the stadium. He left me with a message, “Tomorrow, I will laugh at you.” He meant Hearts was going to win.
But he could not laugh the following day as we all mourn rather than rejoice. No sooner had he left than it began to rain. School has closed in his absence and I was the first to reach home.
I was at home with some few minutes to kick off. I got my recorder ready for the recording of the proceedings of the game from Radio Ghana. I got glued to my radio set. The game promised to be an interesting one. Kotoko were in to revenge their four nil humiliation they suffered a year earlier at the same venue. Hearts were in for the double.
The stadium was packed; the supporters of the two teams were all clad in their traditional colours and each had taken one side of the stands in the stadium. The away supporters were in all red while the home supporters were in their rainbow colours. Both sang and chanted their favourite club tunes to welcome their players. Their voices were thunderous. I felt life and live at the stadium. The commentator, Nii Nortey Dua captured the scene so perfectly for his listeners.
The Kotoko supporters sang their “kum apem a, apem beba” to welcome their players while Hearts of Oak supporters sang their “Arose, arose, arose! Be quiet and don’t be silly!! We are the famous Hearts of Oak!! We Never Say Die!!!”, to ginger their players on.
Hostilities began and the rains would not mar the beauty of the game. I was beside myself when Kotoko took the lead through speedster Lawrence Adjei in the 60th minute. I could barely sit. Everything seemed to favour the Fabulous club until striker Ishmael Addo’s late two goals in the 77th and 81st minutes sealed the day for the Phobians. I wept over the defeat.
Then I heard the commentator say Kotoko supporters were throwing missiles unto the field and others destroying the plastic chairs at the stadium in protest against the referee not disallowing Ishmael Addo. The game was over and Kotoko had lost. I removed my recorder and sat to ponder over the game. What went wrong for us?
Minutes later, I heard the breaking news: “there is a stampede at the Accra Sports Stadium and many fans are feared dead.” I inserted my recorder back so I don’t miss anything. Apparently, Police had fired tear gas into the stands where the supporters were throwing missiles unto the pitch and destroying plastic chairs. In their attempt to escape 127 soccer fans died and many injured. I remembered and prayed for my headmaster. He was not one of them. The rains had stopped him from going. The next day, he told us he was heading for the same stand should he had made it to the stadium.
I was completely traumatized at what I saw on television. Television pictures from GTV and Metro TV showed scores of unidentified dead bodies both at the stadium and at the various hospitals in the capital. Then I heard Herbert Mensah, Board Chairman of Kotoko confirm the tragedy on air. Pictures from the 37th Military, Ridge, Police, Trust and Korle Bu hospitals showed dead bodies deposited at these hospitals.
Many blamed the police for over-reacting to rioting fans while others too held the view that the supporters be blamed for the disaster. A cenotaph was built in memory of the deceased soccer fans stands right in front of the stadium. A stadium disaster fund was put in place and yielded over GHC 300, 000. This resource was shared among the relatives of the deceased. A Presidential Commission of Enquiry was set up by President John Agyekum Kufuor.
What lessons have we learnt from this unfortunate national event? Hooliganism still goes on in our stadia. No proper medical facilities, security presence at stadia woeful, officiating isn’t getting better and club officials and supporters keep attacking and insulting referees.
Today is a sad day for me as I sit in my office reflecting over this tragic event thirteen years ago.
Never Again should May 9, 2001 be allowed to recur in Ghana.