Finding “Mecca” – The Rise of Sunyani as Ghana’s football Haven

by Papa Kwadwo (@papa_kwadwo)

By the time you’re reading this, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, as “Captain America” would have led a depleted Black Stars to war against les Rouges of Canada. Ordinarily that wouldn’t have been news considering it won’t be the first time this has happened. But the timing of his captaincy and the circumstances surrounding it, goes to confirm what I’d long suspected. Over the last decade, Wenchi, Dormaa, Sunyani etc have been associated more with everything football than they ever have with yams and cocoyams.
There is a subtle revolution in Ghana football yet everyone is too preoccupied with dumsor to see (all puns intended). It’s as if a volcano erupted and instead of lava, out came 12 little midgets with unseen football skills. And they all claimed Sunyani was their home.

Ok that may be a little far fetched but point is I have had more than enough reason  to believe that the Brong Ahafo region has become the citadel of Ghana football. But wait, please hold on. Before you attack me, why don’t you indulge me? Come along with me on this “pilgrimage” and I will explain.

Before Ronaldinho There Was Awudu Issaka
The Brong Ahafo region, most notably known as the food basket of Ghana, is the country’s 3rd biggest region. The region is only behind the Northern and Ashanti region in terms of size; size usually couples massive population. The probability of finding raw genuine football talent is high – and so is the case. Over the years, the region has produced so many stars who have more than contributed their quota. Alex Opoku will most likely not be a household name for the nineties babies. But he was the leader of the famous Starlet 91 squad. Awudu Issaka certainly was almost a cult hero -the disco dancer, as he was affectionately called. Allah Koso fans will swear he was better than Ronaldinho. Yet, his, is a name many mention with deep sighs and an ever present lingering thought of “what could have been”- a running theme in my quest to uncover what makes the region tick.

I set off one fine Friday afternoon with my friend Nana to the Brong Ahafo region. Nana, a football enthusiast himself, had just returned from Italy where he is based. I had just mentioned to him my curiosity about the development of football in his hometown, Sunyani. Since he was going there anyways, it was perfect timing. It had been 10 long years since he left the shores of Ghana. He had started off as a footballer himself, but two broken knees and a wrist injury would ensure his football dreams shattered. He recounted how many like him could not make it for one reason or the other – lifestyle choices, injuries, black magic or just downright fate. Sadly in some cases, even death.

After an 8hr ride in the bus, we had to stop and catch a light stroll. We spotted a nice local setting not far off from the bus stop and we made our way towards it. The inscription on the sign post, “broman baako-p3 chop bar”, immediately gave away the secret; we were almost at our destination.

 

Shatta Wale Used To Enter The Net Better Than Baby Jet

But no sooner had we settled down to our akrantie palmnut soup and two healthy balls of fufu well dished in our local asanka when my travel partner startled me with this revelation. “You know what PK, i tell you, “Shatta Wale was a better footballer than Gyan back in Junior Secondary School.”

Perhaps, a statement at a time like that was only a ploy to steal the two pieces of meat on top of my fufu. I sat there bemused, prying him to explain further. He wasn’t kidding. He laughed off my inquisitive gaze  and we happily dug right into it as we completed the “assignment” in 10 simple minutes. It had to have been because I just could not stop thinking about what i’d just been told.
That sure would make for some interesting conversation when next I had the fine opportunity to meet either Gyan or Mr Wale. But  the import of the message was clear. There was no shortage of talent in this part of the world. Oh and just so you know, Gyan, arguably Ghana’s greatest player ever, is from Wenchi. Won’t say where that is exactly. In fact, let me allow for you some few minutes to let that sink in after you’ve consulted google.
 

 

The Special Gem Even Abedi Pele Failed To Polish
Of the many (usually sad) stories he recounted, the one about his cousin, Kweku Agyei was the most captivating. One ever so talented, the world was almost at his feet. You could literally see the excitement in Nana’a eyes when he talked about him. “Forget Alex Opoku. He’s the best I’ve seen in all of my time in Sunyani.  He lead Twene Amanfo Secondary Technical aka TASTECH to the only Milo inter-schools trophy won by a BA school. Kweku’s Agyei’s eye for goal and pure skill were unparalleled. He played for Young Kotoko. In fact, in one game against Allah Koso, their main rivals at the time, they lost by 5 goals to 4. Kweku Agyei scored all 4 goals.”
The lad was doing it way before Lewandowski and Agüero. He was so good that after being named the best player at the Milo tournament, The Maestro, Abedi Pele came calling. But as fate would have it, Kwaku never made it to the big stage. He just couldn’t settle in Accra, running away from the Nania camp twice. On the second occasion Abedi himself made a trip to Sunyani to convince him to come back and play. He subsequently took to drinking and that was it. Tragic.

The Football Factory Called Brong Ahafo

But enough of the bad stories. Lets stick to those who actually made it. Today in the Black Stars team we have Agyemang-Badu, Afriyie Acquah and Richmond Boakye-Yiadom. Players like Opoku Agyemang and Saddick Adams have flirted with the national teams repeatedly. The former, once heralded a gem, hasn’t been a main stay as a result of his many injury woes. Asiedu Attobrah about two years ago was regarded as the best local talent around. There was a time the two biggest clubs in Ghana fought over a certain Abanga from Dormaa. But it’s not just the individuals representing BA big time.

Since 2006, about 6 Brong Ahafo teams (BA United, Bechem, Aduana, Chelsea, Arsenal, Bofoakwa) have showcased their stuff in the nation’s premier league. Indeed, in the just ended First Capital Plus Premier league, there were as many as 4 BA teams, the highest of any of the regions – BA United, Bechem, Aduana, Chelsea.

Aduana and Chelsea are the only two teams who have won the Premier League within this period. Aduana in the 09/10 season became the first team in the history of the league to have won the title on the back of their promotion from a lower division. Chelsea won it the following year and a Clottey-led Chelsea side in 2012 became the last Ghanaian team to cause a stir in Africa by threatening to upset the status quo and conquer the continent.

In the past, most of the promising talent in the region were sent to other regions before they became popular. Why that is, was a little difficult to explain. Former Black Stars coach Akwesi Appiah, George Arthur and John Paintsil are some examples. Paintsil was a prodigy of Berekum Arsenal before his move to Liberty. Haminu Dramani, a native of Techiman began his colts football in those parts.
Today Nana tells me he’s not sure the baby teams still feed the bigger clubs in the country. But he has fond memories of his time as a budding footballer and of those far superior. He claims a number of scouts have descended on “la masia” of Ghana football – please his words, not mine.

Football is a business now and can only get better. Sunyani is a big town and that has always been the case. But the spotlight is very much on it now. It will be interesting to see how the success of its players and clubs translate into real social and economic development for the indigenes. But there is a real sense of pride these days. You do not need to wander too far off to see kids playing football on small neighborhood parks with the names of their heroes on their lips.
When we got to Sunyani we made a stop at the home of the coach of Nana’s childhood team. Never endured an interrogation that exciting but at the mention of Kweku Agyei’s name, the old man finally remembered him. We shared a few hearty jokes and memories and laughed of some of the bitterness. All in all it was a humbling experience; a real eye opener of a trip.For Nana, it could have been so much big, so much real. The occasional pain he experiences in his injured wrist perhaps will forever represent a sharp and stark reminder of what could have been. Not for him alone, but for all the the little diamonds that failed to shine.
But on an even brighter side, yes, we may have lost a football talent, but we sure have gained a fine financial expert-cum-male gigolo. A real Italian borga!
Next time you are in Ghana or looking to take a trip, I suggest the kingdom of Tuobodom. Be sure to make a stop at the Coronation park and savour the delights of what is currently the best football region in Ghana in my opinion.
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