By Benedict Nyankun Wisseh
Benedict Nyankun Wisseh
The passage of time has a unique way of undermining one’s ability to recall the facts of national history. As a result, the revisionist accounts, although constructed in distortions and supported by persistent repetitions, are eventually accepted to be true. Such is the claim by some Liberian football enthusiasts that Ghana’s first loss to Liberia took place in 1988, when James Debbah, Pewu Bestman, Mark Gibson, George Weah, Joe Nagbe and Boye Charles reigned as superstars for the Liberian side. These players and their teammates are not without their own accomplishments of being the first. They qualified Liberia twice, in 1996 and 2002, for the African Cup of Nations tournament and beat the Ghana Black Stars in Ghana. However, the fact in this claim is that Lone Stars’ first ever football victory over Ghana’s Black Stars, in a friendly or competitive match, took place on Thursday, July 26, 1979, at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium in Monrovia.
For us who follow Liberian football, the inability of Liberia Lone Stars to beat Ghana was a national frustration. In 1957, after Ghana became independent, the administration of President Nkrumah, a fellow Lincoln University graduate, contrived a national sports development programme that was unmatched anywhere in Africa. Although the programme included boxing, track and field and swimming, in which Ghanaian athletes excelled on the continent, football was its flagship component. Liberia, although lacking the efforts Ghana committed to national sports development, had a national team that was emerging as one of the best in West Africa. But, the Lone Stars needed to play Ghana or Nigeria to justify its inclusion among the best in the region. Therefore, in 1963, the Liberian and Ghanaian sports authorities, respectively headed by Joseph Chesson and Ohene Djan, agreed in negotiations for the two countries to play in 1964.
Lonestar of the 1960's
In January 1964, the national football team of Ghana, the Black Stars, arrived in Monrovia for a friendly international game against their Liberian counterpart, the Lone Stars. This was the first time that the two countries were playing against each other. The Black Stars arrived in Monrovia with an invincible reputation that struck fear in the hearts of their opponents in Africa. They had established themselves as the best national football team in sub-Sahara Africa, effortlessly defeating every national team that they played. They did so without surrendering a lead to their African competitors. On August 19, 1962, the Black Stars played Spanish and world club champions, Real Madrid, to a 3-3 draw. Then, in 1963, they won their first African Cup of Nations Trophy. These accomplishments made defeating the Ghanaian national team the test that other African national football teams had to pass to be respected. For the Liberian national team, this test came on Saturday, January 18, 1964, at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium in Monrovia.
Although this game was only a friendly international, it had all the characteristics of a competitive league cup final game. Borbor Gaye, a young defender then, who became one of Liberia’s best and legendary defenders, recalled that in the weeks before the day of the game, “it looked like Liberia was preparing for war. For the players, everywhere one went, people kept asking if we were ready for Ghana. Ghana had been beating other countries by 7-2, 5-0 and so on. They won games by wide margins that Liberians were aware of. On the day of the game, it looked like everybody in Monrovia was told to go watch the game. Personally, I had a sense that we stood a chance to beat them because the Lone Stars had some very good players too. Some of them were born in Ghana and had played with and against some of the Ghanaian players while they lived in Ghana.”
The Liberian supporters had confidence in the Lone Stars because they had not lost a game at home for a while before the arrival of the Ghanaians. However, the reputation of the Black Stars was not easily dismissed out of thought for every Liberian to have been absolutely confident of Liberia’s victory. So, when the Lone Stars led 3-1 into the second half, the Liberian spectators and players had no doubts about the result being in favour of Liberia. Those who attended the game or listened to G. Henry Andrews’ commentary of the game on radio were convinced of Liberia’s victory, for it was inconceivable to them that their Lone Stars, constituted by David Momoh, Tarpeh Roberts, Garretson Sackor, Borbor Gaye, Charles “Babe Ray” Woeful, Jackson Weah, Varney Dempster, Jardeh Williams, etc, could lose such a lead. But they did. The Ghanaians started the second half in new uniforms and scored four goals, defeating the Lone Stars 5-4.
The defeat was crushing psychologically for Liberian players and their supporters. But, paradoxically, it catapulted the Liberian national team on the front pages of African newspapers as a force to reckon with in African football, for it was the first African national football team to have scored first and taken a lead against the Black Stars into the second half. In the second match in Ghana, in 1964, the Lone Stars were defeated in a game they gave an excellent account of themselves again. After these two games, the two countries, before July 26, 1979, played each other again seven times in friendly and competitive matches with Liberia losing five and tying two games. These results commenced years of psychological obsession by every generation of Liberian footballers to beat Ghana. Finally, the elusive victory for Liberia over Ghana came on Thursday, July 26, 1979, in Monrovia.
In January 1979, Liberia hosted an international football tournament in which Gambia, Ivory Coast, Togo, Senegal, Guinea and the host participated. Going into the tournament, which became known as The Six-Nation Tournament, Guinea or Ivory Coast was generally favoured to win it based on their respective accomplishments and reputation, while Liberia was sentimentally favoured. Coincidentally, Liberia and Guinea were placed in the same group. When they played each other in the group game, Monrovia was generally transformed into a ghost town. All business centers were closed and the streets were emptied of commercial cars as if the government had issued a proclamation for everyone to go watch the game. Before a crowd of Liberian and Guinean supporters at the over-parked Antoinette Tubman Stadium (ATS), Liberia won the game and went on to win the tournament, defeating Gambia in the final 1-0.
The emergence of the Liberian national football team as the champion of the tournament created national enthusiasm and appreciation for the team. It also renewed the confidence of the public in the ability of the Lone Stars to win games against their African competitors. By April, 1979, the euphoria over the championship of the Six-nation Tournament had diminished. The Lone Stars had been rewarded monetarily by the government and invited to the Bentol residence of President Tolbert for dinner with him. After this honour, no programme was left again to celebrate the Lone Stars for winning the championship of the Six-Nation Tournament. Life was slowly returning to normality in Liberia after the country was rocked by demonstration organized on April 14 by the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) against a proposal by the government to increase the price of a bag of rice. More than one hundred people were reported by various independent sources to have been killed in the protest. Daily street conversations were dominated by the political repercussions of the rice protest. As much as it was important to debate the political issues of the time, most Liberians were craving for the Lone Stars to take to the pitch again, apparently, for a game against another national football team.
The search for an opponent led Liberian football officials to Ghana, a familiar opponent. The football authorities from both countries agreed for their respective national teams to play each other twice at home and away in July. Under the agreement, the first game was scheduled for Accra in July and the second game in Monrovia on July 26. But violent political developments in Ghana, in May and June, threatened the games. In May, an unsuccessful military attempt was made by Flt-Lt. Jerry Rawlings to dislodge from power the military government of Gen. Frederick Akuffo. Lt. Rawlings was arrested and put on trial before the public while execution awaited him as punishment. But on June 4, a group of junior army officers, led by Major Boakye Djan, freed Rawlings from detention in a successful coup and installed him as head of state. A few weeks later in June, the ruling Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, by firing squad, executed three former military heads of state, Generals Ignatius Acheampong, Frederick Akuffo, and Akwasi Afrifa, along with five other military generals. These executions, from the concern of the Liberian side, seemed serious to force the postponement, if not the cancellation, of the games. But the Ghanaian football officials assured their Liberian counterparts of their commitment to the fixture.
Having secured the assurance of the Ghanaian authority, the Lone Stars arrived at Kotoka International Airport in Accra, via Ghana Airways, on July 6. Dressed in uniformed African shirts, we easily drew public attention and were quickly distinguished from the other passengers. We were taunted by the Ghanaians who had gathered at the airport, perhaps on official instructions from the Ghana Football Association, that we would be beaten mercilessly by the Black Stars. Some of them, using their fingers, predicted that Ghana would beat us 4-0, 7-0, 5-0 etc. At this time, Ghana was the reigning champion of Africa, having won the African Cup of Nations at home by beating Uganda, the best team in the tournament, 2-0 in 1978. Hence, one understood the confidence of the Ghanaian supporters that their side would beat the Lone Stars. But they did not know, apparently, because no one told them, that the Lone Stars had capable players in Sarkpa, Frank “Jericho” Nagbe, Joseph “Kofi Bruce” Sion, Forkay Nepay, Sekou Gomez, Paul Bloh, Klay Andrews Waka Herron etc. On Sunday, at the then Accra Sports Stadium, now named Ohene Djan Stadium to honour Ghana’s first director of sports, these players showed no fears of the African champions and battled them to a 0-0 score. For the Ghanaians, this was a disappointing result because the Lone Stars had been on the losing end of previous encounters between the two countries. Putting the game in context for the Lone Stars, however, the result was historic because it was the first time Liberia had drawn with Ghana in Ghana.
On Monday, we returned to Liberia and began training promptly to play Ghana again, this time in Monrovia. In preparation for the game, we were camped at the Police Academy in Paynesville. The result in the first game had raised public confidence in our ability to beat Ghana. Lone Stars’ supporters, who came to watch the team train at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium, constantly reminded us that we had to beat Ghana. Coach Josiah Johnson and his assistants, the late Victor Sieh, Anthony Wesseh and Marbue Richards, reminded us how we would make history if we beat Ghana. The late Willis Knuckles, the great Liberian sports administrator, came to the camp every morning from Careysburg on his way to work. Slowly and forever, it seemed, it took the nights and days to come and go as we moved to July 26. Monrovia was given a facelift for the Independence Day celebration and the hosting of the Organisation of African Unity conference. Significantly, members of PAL, led by Gabriel Bacchus Mathews, were released from detention following their leader’s letter to President Tolbert expressing regrets for his action and begging for clemency. The streets were packed with revelers who wanted something else to celebrate, perhaps something that united all Liberians. This drew national attention to the pending football game between the Lone Stars and Black Stars.
In camp, this was not lost on us. Therefore, we trained daily as if we were playing in competitive games against each other. Anthony Gray, who had returned home on vacation from America, was called up to reinforce the team. However, about four days to the day of the match, Waka Herron was expelled from camp by Coach Johnson for insubordination. Coach Johnson had been known as a coach who was sympathetic towards players because of his appreciation of the individual sacrifices Liberian players made to play for country and clubs. Therefore, he was lenient in disciplining players for insubordination. On many occasions, he reversed his own decisions to discipline players. So, we thought he would do the same for Waka after many of the players had appealed to him. But, Coach Johnson stood behind his decision firmly. The news of Waka’s expulsion was announced on ELBC by Gabriel Nemeneh on his sports programme. The public was jittery. But as good as Waka was as a player, no worries prevailed among the players over how his absence from the match would affect the performance of the team. This Lone Star team was balanced with gifted players, some of whom were capable of playing multiple positions. Because I was capable of playing both wings, left and right, effectively, and in addition to having difficulty with endurance, the coaching staff and I had an understanding that I would come into games as a substitute. But the expulsion of Waka altered this understanding, leaving no doubts that I was going to start against Ghana.
Finally, July 26, 1979, arrived on Thursday. Overnight, it rained continuously until the break of dawn. During breakfast, many of us strongly suspected and discussed the possibility of the game being postponed because the rain may have made the ground at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium (ATS) unsuitable to play. We nervously waited to hear a report about the ground. But none came. Although the rain had stopped, a very dark cloud covered Monrovia as if another rainfall was imminent. But, by eleven o’clock in the morning, the sunlight commenced to penetrate the dark cloud. For the avoidance of any doubts, Marbue Richards and Willis Knuckles left for the ATS to access the suitability of the ground for the game to be played. Mr. Richards returned and reported that the ground was suitable to play. Quickly, after lunch, game time came for us to leave for the ATS.
On our way, two police officers on motorcycles with sirens on, drove by our bus and signaled the bus conductor to stop just before we passed Paynesville Junction gas station. Already, we had two other police officers on motorcycles escorting us to the field. Therefore, the sudden appearance of another pair of police officers instructing us to stop was baffling. We stopped and, as we were trying to comprehend what was transpiring, a white Lincoln Continental car, which was being escorted by the other two officers, passed. But the car stopped promptly about ten yards away from us. Its license plate, I still recall, was VAT, the initial for Victoria A. Tolbert, President Tolbert’s wife. The car stopped and quickly its right side front door opened. As we looked curiously, Rep. Adolphus Benedict Tolbert, who was also known popularly as AB and had gone to the Police Academy to meet with us, got out of the car. Displaying an unabashed enthusiasm of a kindergarten pupil, he ran towards our bus with a big smile and his hands raised in a celebratory gesture. In the bus, he chanted “man o man” repeatedly about four times and about four times, we responded “man.” Then, he concluded: “gentlemen, we will beat Ghana today.” For the team, from the moment A.B. Tolbert said this, the die was cast and beating Ghana became an inevitable result of the game. Still displaying his enthusiasm, AB remained on the bus, clapping his hands along with us to the gospel and Kru football songs that were being sung by us until we arrived at the stadium. Apparently, the relatively long ride, during which he remained standing and raising gospel songs, did not diminish his enthusiasm when we arrived at the stadium. Our bus was allowed to enter the stadium and after it stopped and the doors were opened, A.B. Tolbert, perspiring and holding a Liberian flag, got down and ran from one end of the field to the other. Mr. Tolbert was joined on his runs around the field by David Liston, a Barrole’s fanatic, who was displaying his fanaticism this time for Liberia. Our arrival was preceded by the Ghanaian players who were warming up, but, undoubtedly, wondering about the roles of Tolbert and Liston in the game.
Shortly after our arrival, President Tolbert arrived, too, and was enthusiastically greeted by the spectators that included Ghanaians residing in Liberia. The field was over packed and the atmosphere was emotionally charged. Just before we lined up to shake hands with the president, a physical fight almost broke out between Liston and some Ghanaian players over an attempt by one of their goalkeepers, John Carr, to scoff at the Liberian flag by stepping on it after it had fallen from Liston’s hands. The Ghanaian explanation was that he was running backwards when he inadvertently stepped on the flag. But Liston rejected the explanation and escalated his protest that, perhaps as he wanted, it drew the attention of the president who was descending the stairs to shake our hands and take the kickoff. President Tolbert, dressed in his usual white “total involvement suit” and smiling, walked to Liston and embraced him. After the President talked to Liston briefly with his hands on the latter’s shoulders, he conducted the handshakes and took the kickoff. Quickly, following the kickoff, the designated referee, the late Mark Arthur, respected for his unquestioned integrity as a referee, started the game at 4:30 PM.
The Ghanaians assumed the first possession of the ball and, undoubtedly, were determined to score first and quickly in order to strike a demoralising blow to our confidence in the presence of the President. In the first ten minutes of the game, the Ghanaians, it seemed, held us hostage in our half of the field and appreared to outnumber us. They created goalscoring chances, but were unable to put the ball beyond Sekou Gomez’s reach. However, about twenty minutes later, the Ghanaians scored and, it appeared that the history of the Liberian and Ghanaian football rivalry was about to repeat itself. This apprehension was reflected in the shriveled enthusiasm of the Liberian fans. As we were about to center the ball, Joseph Forkay Nepay and I, standing close to each other, glanced at the stadium to see the reaction of President Tolbert to the goal. Whether or not it was a direct reaction to the goal, we saw the President in a conversation with an aide. Forkay, clearly exasperated that we were down by a goal, said to me “Benedict, we can’t let these guys beat Liberia today.” After play resumed, our midfield, led by Anthony Gray and Frank Jericho Nagbe, established parity and we began to put the Black Stars’ defence, led by their captain, James Dadzie, under pressure. And we seemed to have equalised through Joseph Sion (known also as Kofi Bruce). But Mark Arthur bravely stood against patriotic sentiments and ruled the goal to have been scored from an offside position to the shagrin of the Liberian supporters, some of whom were calling for him to be imprisoned or expelled to Ghana. The score remained 1-0 to Ghana at halftime.
The resumption of play saw us mount pressure on the Ghanaians again with Sion almost equalising the score with a header from my cross. All of this was transpiring in the absence of President Tolbert who had left the stadium just before halftime. The enthusiasm that had been crushed by Ghana’s first half goal returned in support of our performance. The evidence of cracks in the confidence of the Ghanaian defenders began to show as they argued with each other, some of whom were clearly enervated by our pressure. We put them under persistent pressure until Jericho equalised for us from an excellent through pass by Sion. We attacked each other with equaled determination as each side sought to take the lead. Midway in the second half, it seemed that the game would conclude in a tie as each side was unable to score. To enforce their defense, the Ghanaians resorted to using the “offside trap” to keep us at bay and, for a while, it was effective. But, what an irony it was that the “offside trap” that they deployed to prevent us from scoring, became an achilles’ heel for them. A pass from Anthony Gray to Meally Freeman caught one of the Ghanaian defenders lacking behing his colleagues. Although Freeman was behind his marker, the indifferent attention paid by the marker’s Ghanaian teammate to the execution of the “offside trap” allowed Freeman to score and break the deadlock. Although the game was far from concluding, the noisy celebration of the goal by the home supporters made it to seem that the game had reached fulltime. But it was not, for about ten minutes to fulltime, I scored the third goal, the description of which I will leave to those who were at the game.
Liberians are interested in history and telling the stories that constitute history. But, in telling the stories, they allow their personal admirations for the history makers to alter the facts that constitute the stories. Perhaps, Liberia’s first victory by the Debbah-Weah-Gibson-led Lone Stars over Ghana in Ghana, is mistaken for Liberia’s first ever football victory over Ghana in a competitive or friendly match.