Two days ago (28th March) would be exactly a year since Opoku Afriyie, one of Ghana’s football greats, passed on. The reminder of the first anniversary of the great man’s passing came via a post by his daughter, Priscilla (now a Facebook friend). The tribute was rendered with unmistakable nobility and integrity. Still, it still left a lump in my throat.
Opoku Afriyie was not just a Football Great and a national hero; he served Kotoko with unparalleled loyalty. Given the many significances of Kotoko as an institution, I would expect someone else other than the directly bereaved to be reminding the world of the void created by the departure of arguably, one of Ghana’s, and certainly, Kumasi’s iconic personalities. Tributes, after all, essentially acknowledge public debt to distinguished personalities, and also lighten the emotional burden of the bereaved. Opoku Afriyie and his family. In my opinion, deserve better and more from Ghana and Asanteman.
These, however, are not normal times. Covid-19, for one, appears to have frozen traditions and customary observations in various social contexts. Opoku Afriyie, it has to be noted, has not been the only casualty of the distractions of the ongoing pandemic. Kwasi Owusu, another Great Ghanaian, died a week or two after the passing of his former Kotoko rival and once-partner at the heart of Ghana’s attacking force. Not much has come by way of tribute to the selflessness with which Kwasi Owusu served both Bofoakwa- Tano FC and the national soccer team. In the UK and other western countries, the passing of two of a soccer-crazy nation’s most lethal strikers would be celebrated in lengthy tributes in various broadsheets, social media platforms, and on diverse TV programs and channels. But we are not a western country. Odd times in a country, and among a people with a reluctant affinity for gratitude. Predictable outcomes.
My generation was a direct and immediate beneficiary of Opoku Afriyie’s magic. His career took off in my earliest exposure to the beautiful game, and also climaxed with his membership of the last two Ghanaian national teams to win the Africa Cup of Nations. From these and my undying love for the Fabolous Boys, I consider it a privilege and a duty to honour the great man with a personal recollection of the trajectory of his career and a tribute to his less heralded personal principles; all from a young Siano-G’s perspective.
My earliest memories of his youthful years as a football star would be located in the immediate first half of the 1970s. For young males and adult fans of football alike, the first three years of the 1970s could aptly be described as HAPPY DAYS. Life, at least from the perspective a young Siano-G, was care-free and less complicated. Weekends- Sundays especially-were dedicated entirely to football. Almost every male adult in Kumasi of those days made sure that he watched, at the minimum, football at two venues in the city. Colts football, both nationally sanctioned ones and those run by local OHENE-DJANS, flourished in several parts of Kumasi. Kumasi and Ash-Town in particular had enough playing fields to accommodate the huge interest in the game.
The curtain-raiser to each Sunday’s football orgies often came in the form of Ball-Paa at Subin Valley. Nana Aggrey, as Opoku Afriyie was affectionately called as a colts player, had by then outgrown the Yenkorɔkorɔ-Wo, Brazil, Santos, Fa-bɛ-wɔso teams that graced the lopsided pitch of the Subin Valley. That mini and yet thrilling soccer stage was ruled by the likes of K. Boakye(of ‘ɔde Cynthia akɔgye Nana Yaa fame), Akolombo, Guy Jesus, Nkansah(later of Kumasi High School), Guy Jesus, Obi Nana, Kwaku Boateng (Me-Chopam) and Papa Arko( yea, the future Kotoko Captain and Blacks Stars supremo was then a goalkeeper, as was Kwaku Boateng, the future Kotoko striker).
After the last of five or six matches at Subin Valley, the crowds would troop to watch the official Colts matches, sometimes stopping midway at Abbey’s Park to watch Nana Aggrey and Ojukwu(as Razak was then called), giving folks a sneak preview of the highly competitive national colts matches.
The Ahenfie Park and ‘Cricket’, the old training grounds of Asante Kotoko, alternated as venues for the Colts matches in those days. The teams were star-studded but there was no doubt about which particular players the crowds wanted to see. These were Nana Aggrey, Ojukwu, Kyenkyenhene, Toyota(Kwakye) Kwame Nsowaa (later of Kotoko and Bofoakwa fame) Ovaltine(Thompson of Cornerstone fame) OB(Emmanuel Afayebo), Sidi Master, Rigogo, Yakubu(Dankweke of AEB), Acheampontia, Akwasi Asante(Cee Kay), and Fynn. Super-talented bunch of young boys.
There were no pushovers in the league, and as later events were to confirm, the pool of talent in the colts league of those days would match any anywhere in terms of quality! Opoku-Afriyie would go on to win goal-king awards at the domestic league, two African nations cup with Ghana and several trophies and honours as a Kotoko player. Kyenkyenhene would play for the Stars and Kotoko as a central midfielder and central defender and win one Cup of Nations trophy (with the national team) and several league titles and the Africa Club Championship with Kotoko. Razak, in his turn, would win the cup of nations with Ghana and the continental Cup Winners Cup with Arab Contractors, several domestic titles with Kotoko and also emerge Africa’s best in 1978!
If I am not mistaken, Nana Aggrey was at the time playing for Hearts (Ojukwu and Kyenkyenhene on the other hand were with Republicans and Alhaji Iro’s Morocco, respectively). Matches featuring these three future Black Stars players on opposing sides were a delight to watch. Opoku Afriyie (Nana Aggrey) was then and as always, very swift-footed. He operated mainly on the flanks as a winger and was widely known for his dribbling skills. My most vivid memory of his ball-juggling ability involved him jumping over a left-back who, out of apparent frustration, had sought to scythe Nana Aggrey into a hospital emergency ward. The tackle missed its target by a mile. Nana Aggrey and his team were playing against a team defending the SUMPIE end of the Ahenfie Park. The jeers and cheers that greeted the incident were deafening. The incident further cemented the mythical status of Nana Aggrey as a colts football great!
One did not need the gift of clairvoyance to know then that they were destined for great football careers. The discipline and consistency with which Opoku Afriyie (just like Razak and Kyenkyenhene) brought to bear on his fledging football career was exemplary. I would consider that as key to his survival, not only as a successful footballer but also as a leader and a respectable member of society.
Talent alone, if at all, would not explain the difference between his success as a footballer and the others who were not able to make it as big as he did. Kwame Nsowaa, Kwakye (Toyota), and Thompson were as gifted as any of the players of their generation. They, however, could not make it into the Black Stars and beyond. Afayebo spent a whole career in the Kotoko reserves, thanks to the overpowering presence of Daniel Oppong at Kotoko and the Black Stars. Was that due to a deficit in ambition and self-confidence? We would never know! Goalkeepers Sidi Master and Rigogo, astonishingly blessed with super-agility, also gave up on the game after their colts-playing days. Sidi Master would later become a successful tailor. The last time I saw Rigogo , he was hustling at Kumasi Ahensan. Yakubu and Wofa Acheampongtia( a rock of a defender) also did not explore their obvious talents towards the illustrious points promised by their talent in their playing days. Most sadly of all, two of the most notable names up there would end up in the criminal lane, an overlooked side-track of colts football of those days, and a testament to the seriousness of the perils Nana Aggrey and co had to sail over to entertain us and defend our pride on the sports field in later years.
Razak would precede Nana Aggrey and Kyenkyenhene into a career in top-flight football. Before completing elementary form four, he (Razak) was drafted by Cornerstone to play for them as a left-winger. He entered the national team a year later. I do not however recall Opoku Afriyie taking a transit route into Kotoko( Kyenkyenhene did so as a graduate of Ashanti Stars).
What many football fans would certainly remember is how Nana Aggrey, upon joining Kotoko, was moved from the flanks to succeed Abukari Gariba and JK Mensah as Kotoko’s main goal-getter. Those were some shoes to walk in. Abukari had been Kotoko’s and the Black Stars main striker for close to a decade and had helped Kotoko to win the African Club Championship in 1971. He was at the tail-end of his career when Opoku Afriyie joined Kotoko. His goal-poaching reputation and records would still have been formidable to many a young player. Not Opoku Afriyie; his trademark self-confidence was evident from day one, aided in no small degree by the confidence Kumasi football fans reposed in him, thanks to his stellar colts football credentials.
The only adjustments he made, I recall, were his apparent conscious choice of names as a top-flight footballer and the jersey number he would wear as a Kotoko player. Hitherto, most people knew and referred to him as Nana Aggrey. It was at Kotoko that most football fans came to know his real name. From now on he was Opoku Afriyie.
The second adjustment, as already mentioned, was about his choice of ’14’ as his jersey number, instead of the number 9 Abukari and JK Mensah before him had been wearing. This probably was done out of respect for the aging Goal-Na-Mafef3; it could also have been a choice foisted on him by the then Kotoko officials. The rumour mill, however, had it that Opoku Afriyie had consciously opted for that jersey number to escape the alleged needling sensation said to descend on post-Abukari-Gariba wearers of Kotoko’s number 9 jersey.
Such was the curiosity and suspense and intrigue around Opoku Afriyie’s beginnings as a footballer in the then First Division League. Kotoko were then holding their training sessions at ‘Cricket’, a few metres away from our family house at Manhyia. A few of the Africa Cup-winning squad were still part of the team. It was noticeable, however, that Opoku Afriyie was in his stride as a striker and player. No nerves or jitters; no over-the-top brashness, but certainly no false modesty either. Opoku Afriyie was ready and able and did not disappoint when the time came for him to prove his mettle as an indispensable feature in Kotoko’s regular team.
By: Kwame Kyei-Baffour