When The Money Is Ghana
There’s a group of people in England known as the Ninety-Two Club. In England’s top four tiers, there are a grand total of 92 clubs. These 92 clubs have 92 different stadiums spread out to all corners of England, including quite a few places few people would think to visit, or want to visit, if there wasn’t a game attached. In order to gain entry to the Ninety-Two Club, a person must have attended a competitive match at each and every one of those 92 stadiums. Given the vagaries of promotion and relegation, your list must be current on the date of completion, meaning visiting 92 stadiums can easily mean visiting several more on top of that and then watching some of your stadiums get relegated off the list. It must also be the current stadium, meaning if a club you’ve checked off moves into a new stadium, you have to go and do that one too. You aren’t required to update it after that once new clubs get promoted into League Two, but it’s encouraged.
This is a pastime of fans who freely admit they probably have more money than sense. Every year, you hear of some baseball fan or other who tries to make their way to all 30 MLB stadiums in the course of one season, one summer, or even one month. But that’s only 30 stadiums, all of which provide top-level baseball. 92 stadiums, many of which house games which the fan knows going in will probably be nigh-unwatchable, is quite another matter, even after substituting the massive United States for the far smaller England, where a ‘cross-country’ Premier League trip from Portsmouth to Newcastle (359 miles) is the same as the distance between Pittsburgh and Indianapolis.
Even so, the act of getting oneself from one stadium to another for a game generally is a minor enough issue that individual fans can make a game of it. It’s certainly nothing to the club itself.
Well, if you’re reasonably well-financed, anyway. As members of the Ninety-Two Club will tell you from experience, all that travel can get expensive. And they only have to go to each stadium once. The actual team has to make those kind of trips over and over, week in and week out, every season. If you’re a Premier League team, or really any of the 92, it’s not going to really be much of an issue. Smaller clubs, though, can’t exactly afford to go tromping coast-to-coast all the time. That’s why tiers further down national pyramids are split up regionally; so the clubs don’t have to travel as far and maybe can get home and sleep in their own beds the same day.
But that’s the domestic system. What happens when clubs get scheduled to play abroad? In England, the kind of place that could spawn something like the Ninety-Two Club, travel difficulties are simply unheard of. If you’re traveling abroad, you’re either a globally-recognized club going on tour to sell the brand to overseas markets, a globally-recognized club that’s in continental competition (or the Club World Cup), or at least doing well enough to make preseason jaunts into continental Europe. Your biggest concern is the size of the paycheck you get for making the trip.
Not every nation is England.
Which brings me to this article from Ghana SoccerNet, dated Wednesday. Historically, Accra Hearts of Oak is one of Ghana’s Big Two, alongside Asante Kotoko. Asante, as of right now, has 23 league titles. Hearts of Oak has 20. Nobody else has more than Ashanti Gold’s three. For the 2013-14 league season, the top two clubs were granted entry to the 2014 CAF Champions League, and in this case, that was Asante Kotoko and, well, not Hearts of Oak, but instead Berekum Chelsea. (Kotoko would get knocked out in the opening round 2-2 on away goals by Liberia’s Barrack Young Controllers. Berekum Chelsea would go down one round later 3-1 on aggregate to Al-Ahly Benghazi of Libya.)
Hearts of Oak finished third, placing them into the second-choice continental competition, the 2015 CAF Confederation Cup. That competition is underway. In the preliminary round, Hearts of Oak defeated Benin’s AS Police 1-0 on aggregate, and will be starting their first-round tie next week against Olympique de Ngor of Senegal. (Yes, soccer newcomers, the first round can actually be the second round. Don’t ask me, I didn’t make that rule.) Which would be all well and good, you would think: the distance between Accra and the AS Police game in Cotonou is 172 miles, not much at all when it comes to continental travel, right? To get to Ngor, Dakar’s westernmost neighborhood (and Dakar is itself Africa’s westernmost point), would be 1,333 miles- a good ways out, think Oklahoma City to Orange County, CA- but to be expected in continental play, right?
Not quite. The AS Police trip, a bus ride of 172 miles out and back, cost about 121,000 Ghanaian cedi, or around $34,000 US. The trip to Dakar will need 180,000 cedi, or about $50,000 US. If you’re in a well-heeled league, that sounds like pocket change. The Ghana Premier League is not well-heeled, even at the top. To a club like Hearts of Oak- who won the CAF Champions League as recently as 2000, mind you- these are hard pills to swallow. The CAF, itself not exactly flush with cash, has asked all participating clubs to pool in and help each other out, but even after that, Hearts of Oak is 87,000 cedi in the hole, or about $24,500, and in the end, that comes out of the pocket of the chairman, Togbe Afede XIV, president of the Volta Region House of Chiefs, and tribal chief of Asogli State, based in the city of Ho.
The supporters, meanwhile, despite a promise made as recently as November of 24-hour open borders between Ghana and neighboring Togo- sitting between Ghana and Benin- have found themselves having to shell out 5 cedi each (about $1.40) when traveling to the AS Police game, and are not happy.
But it’s not quite as simple as a cash-strapped club in a cash-strapped continent. There’s another factor at play.
As far as Togbe Afede is concerned, he’s bailed the club out more than once, buying a majority of shares in the club when it was floated on the national stock exchange in 2011, after seeing rank-and-file supporters fail to step up to the plate. As far as the supporters are concerned, Togbe Afede is part of the problem, charging that his funding of the club is not a gift but a loan, a loan for which he charges around 30% interest. And the matter has recently come to a boil. Last month, board member Apiigi Afenu resigned, disagreements about financial stability alleged and then denied, while almost simultaneously, former executive Aziz Haruna publicly called on supporters to take back their club. Haruna said, “We are going to raise funds to pay-off whoever is the largest shareholder and take our club back,” knowing full well who that largest shareholder was.
The next day, a press release from the club was issued, blaming Haruna for not putting up the money himself back in 2011… and announcing that additional shares would be floated, without saying how many would be available or if it would be enough to potentially knock Togbe Afede out of majority position. Given that Togbe Afede, who it should be noted is using a regnal name, was formerly an investment consultant named James Akpo before taking office in 2003, it seems unlikely that he’d place himself at risk.
Meanwhile in the current league table, ten games into a 30-game season, both Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko have gotten off to sluggish starts, and Hearts sits barely above the relegation zone, with Kotoko actually in it. Hearts of Oak has taken the age-old step of blaming the coach, with hot seat occupant Herbert Addo- hired last July with 36 years of coaching experience, but nonetheless seen here wearing a Vancouver Whitecaps jersey in front of the Ghana Premier League’s media backdrop- under a three-game ultimatum to turn things around or get fired. The first two matches have seen a 3-2 win over Aduana Stars and a 1-1 draw against Sekondi Hasaacas, and the third match, against last-place Brong Ahafo Stars, beckons next week.
But when one of the most storied clubs on the continent is having trouble scraping the money together for bus rides and is staring relegation in the face, even early in the season, Hearts of Oak supporters would tell you the coach isn’t really the problem here.