Digiqole ad

Tribute to Opoku Afriyie: Part Two.

 Tribute to Opoku Afriyie: Part Two.

The goal-scoring exploits of Opoku Afriyie at both national and club levels are all too familiar to Ghanaians to merit an elaboration in this modest tribute. Besides scoring the two goals that clinched for Ghana the AFCON of 1978, he would twice emerge Ghana’s leading scorer in an era teeming with top strikers (e.g., Kwasi Owusu, Dan Owusu, George Alhassan, Mohammed Choo, Mahama Nlai).

But for a restraining order of a sort from his then Club Captain, Malik Jabir, to hold back against a direct challenge of Dan Owusu for the goal-king title in Opoku Afriyie’s debut year as a Kotoko player, he probably would have won the top-scoring diadem thrice!

Quite a remarkable feat for a player of his stature, and who rarely scored with the head. Those were the days when fouls on attackers were called only when they were perceived to threaten a loss of both eyes. Defenders calculated their tackles to maim and cripple their targets. Opoku, as we shall presently, see was not one to be cowed with rough house tactics.

Throughout his playing days, Opoku Afriyie always stood his ground. None could intimidate him on and off the ball. That fearless spirit would have been drilled in him by colts football. That level of play was where most hardened defenders picked their off-the-ball antics and the knack for strategically timed professional fouls. The essence was to put the fear of God in attackers at the first blast of the whistle, usually with a kick at the shins and calves or a poke in the eye.

Defenders and goalkeepers in the then First Division who carried such tricks into matches with Kotoko would often find to their surprise that Opoku Afriyie was no bayerɛ-a-aberewa-dwoɔ. Joseph Carr got a taste of this trait in a match between Kotoko and Hasaacas at the Kumasi Sports Stadium. The two players pushing and shoving each other before a corner kick to Kotoko was quite a sight, considering the difference in physique between the two. To literally get Opoku Afriyie off his chest, the Agile One had apparently stamped on the feet of the harassing attacker. The reply to that appeared to have been delivered swiftly in the same fashion. It took the intervention of players from both teams to get the two players to let go of each other. Opoku Afriyie jumped right back to where he stood prior to the scuffle. The corner kick instructively led to Kotoko’s equaliser. Joseph Carr was furious, but the goal stood.

It would later emerge in Kotoko folklore that right after that match Opoku Afriyie had personally persuaded Joseph Carr to play for Kotoko the next season!!! His ‘strictly business’ attitude on the field of play in a Kotoko jersey and the cool, level-headed, compassionate character off the field would manifest in diverse contexts. The latter parts of this short tribute celebrate these seemingly contradictory traits in Opoku Afriyie!

When Opoku Afriyie put on the Kotoko jersey, he assumed a firm, principled sense of leadership trait one would not normally associate with his reticence and compassionate character off the football field. Referees and many a central defender would testify to his unflinching resolve to protect his teammates, oftentimes at the risk of getting sent off the field himself. None was too intimidating for Opoku Afriyie to take on when it came to protecting the interests of Kotoko on the field of play.

I remember thus how he once took on a burly-sized referee, a soldier by profession, and a notorious bully. The dude, not happy at being questioned on a decision that had gone against a Kotoko player, threw away his whistle and openly dared Opoku Afriyie to a fight! Opoku Afriyie did not move an inch from the posturing soldier. I was baffled as to why he would do that against a bigger guy, a soldier at that, and at a time the beast in most soldiers appeared to have been unleashed by the carte blanche to misbehave tacitly handed to them by the PNDC! The fears were ours. The Soldier-referee, not seeing in Opoku Afriyie’s body language the expected result of his posturing, relented. Unrestrained. ‘Yaa bari banza’, the Hausa man would say.

In a Kotoko Jersey, and with the captain’s band on his arm, Opoku Afriyie always appeared possessed, an epitome of total commitment. No captain in the history of the club would ever exhibit anything close to the sense of duty with which Opoku Afriyie applied himself on and off the field in the service of Kotoko football club.

In spite of the ever-burning desire to win, Opoku Afriyie was not mischievous or aggressive as a player. He was one of the few footballers who seemed to be addicted to the use of common sense and most importantly, the brain, much more than the feet to express themselves on the ball. His ability to escape his marker was probably his greatest gift. He could also anticipate passes very well and create spaces within the defence of opposing teams like no other.

He and Razak later would parlay these gifts towards a telepathic understanding the like of which is yet to be replicated between any duo in Ghanaian football (This would ring especially true in the ears of die-hard Kotoko fans like yours truly blessed with intense biases to temporarily forget the amazing partnership between Dan Owusu and Kwasi Owusu in this context!!!).

Above all, however, it was Opoku Afriyie’s penchant for scoring beautiful goals that defined his career as a striker. We witnessed many of that at the Kumasi stadium. He seemed to save his flair for spectacular goals for grand occasions. None came bigger than matches involving the Porcupine Warriors and their arch-rivals from Accra! Hearts fans would never forget the lightning speed with which Opoku Afriyie rose in the air and the precision with which he slapped the ball into the net with the side of the right foot in a league match between Ghana’s two football powerhouses. The goal astounded everyone, none more so than Goalkeeper Chesco Abdulai. For a few seconds, after the ball landed in the net, he was transfixed to the line of his post, like an effigy in a Chinese public park! That goal was the jewel among the three shipped by Abdulai Chesco on that day!

Even us-Kotoko fans- who were so used to seeing Opoku Afriyie score beautiful goals were caught dumbfounded by the quick-thinking and self-belief that went into the scoring of that goal. In a fair world, that goal would count thrice on the scoreboard.

The goal against Hearts was marvelous by all standards. In my estimation, however, that would not be his greatest goal at the Kumasi Sports Stadium. That, for me, would be the one he scored from the corner-line in a hat-trick performance against the Kampala City Council in the first leg of the semi-final of the Africa Club Championship in 1982.
He had raced away from the middle of the opponents’ penalty area to the right flank to receive an incoming ball. Everybody at the stadium was expecting him to cross the ball into the opponent’s box. Opoku Afriyie had other thoughts. He chipped the ball with the inside of the right foot past a forest of legs, and at the post being guarded by the opposing team’s goalkeeper. The ball sailed past the bemused goalie’s left leg into the net!

Opoku Afriyie wheeled away from the onrushing congratulatory Kotoko teammates, and characteristically, whipped out the iconic white handkerchief from the back pocket! It was magical! It was awe-inspiring.

That particular goal was significant in that it represented the last he was to score for Kotoko at the continental level at the Kumasi stadium. The gods, it seemed, had planned it as a souvenir to Kotoko fans and as their farewell gift to Opoku Afriyie for many years of dedicated service to Kotoko Football club. No player in a Kotoko shirt has been able to score a hat-trick in a continental competition since then. Opoku Afriyie’s and Kotoko’s performance on that day was in more ways than one, the end of a glorious chapter in the club’s history.

The crisis that would lead to Capito’s departure from Kotoko, I would say, began with the failure to win the African Cup in 1982. Kotoko had been blitzed away in a three-nil walloping in Cairo by El Ahly. The deficit to overcome in the second leg was huge, but we had Opoku Afriyie, and in him was our full and total trust. We expected to beat the Egyptians by at least the same margin in the second leg at the Kumasi Sports Stadium. That did not happen. El Ahly subdued our attacking line and completely played Opoku Afriyie out of the game.

The entire Kotoko squad had a bad day. All attention, however, had come to dwell on the performance of our captain on that day. The general opinion was that he should have been substituted at some point in the game. But how was anybody going to do that to the club’s talisman and most lethal striker at the peak of his powers?

Effectively then, Opoku Afriyie had by 1982 assumed Kotoko’s fate; when he was off-colour, the team would be off-colour. This, I am sure, would be the take-off point of the inevitable soul-searching within the club after the Cup final fiasco. Jealousy would not be an unnatural part of the mix. That Opoku Afriyie’s sense of leadership and forthrightness might have intimidated some of his teammates and coaching staff alike was reasonably foreseeable.

All these factors, conceivably, directed the call for an evaluation of his dominant position in the club. It culminated in the decision by the then Chairman, Yaw Barwuah, to retire him from active football. There were no prior consultations with the player whose career and livelihood was at stake. Lucifer would have been expelled from Heaven on a more gracious note!

Otumfour Opoku Ware II would try to repair the broken relationship between the club’s captain and its chairman but to no avail. Against persistent threats from the then team’s management and Chairman to resign en masse (should Opoku Afriyie be reinstated in the club), the man called BAYIE for his wondrous goals, sadly bowed out of Kotoko.

Kotoko, with a perceptibly less formidable squad (Haruna Yusuf, Kofi Badu, Rockson, Francis Kumi, and Opoku Afriyie had left the club) managed to win the coveted African Cup again in 1983. It was largely seen as a vindication of Yaw Barwuah’s decision to kick Opoku Afriyie out of Kotoko.

In truth, however, Opoku Afriyie’s mature handling of his ouster from Kotoko could be said to have granted the club quiet to cash in on preceding years’ championship-building efforts orchestrated by Opoku Afriyie himself with the kind assistance of the club’s then bankroller, the peerless Simms Kofi Mensah.

From the YouTube interview Opoku Afriyie granted one of Kumasi’s FM stations a year or two before his passing, we learn about how he forfeited his personal entitlements as a player to get the club to bring in some of the famous names in the club’s history. These included Razak, Opoku Nti, Joseph Carr, Kofi Badu, Francis Kumi, and many others. The presence of an unprecedented number of Kumasi Boys at Kotoko during his captaincy also was a direct result of his pleadings to the club executives to not always look far for fresh talents. Papa Arko, who would captain the club to glory in 1983, was a vindication of Bayie’s foresight.

Tellingly, too, Opoku Afriyie was the one who got the Otumfour to appoint Yaw Barwuah Chairman of the club! It could be argued then that Kotoko’s second era of greatness (after the one in which the club first won the African Cup)was pivoted on and supervised by Opoku Afriyie. Quite an extraordinary achievement!

Had Opoku Afriyie spoken out about the raw deal meted out to him by Yaw Barwuah and also insisted on continuing with Kotoko, the club, I am sure, would have suffered an implosion. As the son of the then Oyokohene and a Kumasiano through and through, Opoku Afriyie had the wherewithal to marshal support from powerful quarters in Kumasi in his favour. He chose instead to walk away quietly, giving prominence to the club’s supreme interests.

Throughout the years in which Kotoko fans-yours truly included- were maligning him for having deserted Kotoko for Hearts, Opoku Afriyie never tried to clear the air. So, the perception that he was a troublemaker stuck. From the horse’s own mouth, we gather that he made more money playing for Hearts than he did in his eight or so years at Kotoko! Still, when he was twice called upon by the Otumfour to assist in various capacities at the club, Opoku Afriyie responded dutifully.

In the end, the victory at the African Club Championship in 1983 proved to be what it really was: a papering of Kotoko’s deep cracks at the time. The club would be eliminated from the competition in the first round by an unknown quantity from Angola! Kotoko would win the domestic league cup several times in the decades after Opoku Afriyie’s departure and also make a few flashy appearances at the continental level. But gone, it seems, was the consistency and aura of invincibility of the Opoku Afriyie era!

I had stated in the first part of this tribute that Kwasi Owusu died a week or two after the passing of Opoku Afriyie. It was an error. Powerhouse, as the Bofoakwa Tano and Black Star Great, was affectionately called, actually died on the same day as his former striking partner. That was not the most dramatic fact about the deaths of Ghana’s two striking partners. Reports report from intimate acquaintances of the two great men indicate that Kwasi Owusu’s happened in the course of a phone conversation in which he was relaying the sad news of Opoku Afriyie’s death. It is said that his side of the line suddenly went cold at some point; that was it! The shock of Opoku Afriyie’s passing, apparently, was too much for him to bear.

But why would that happen when the two were not clubmates or living in the same city? The answer is to be found in the aforementioned Youtube interview. Opoku Afriyie had taken upon himself the responsibility of seeing to wellbeing and welfare of Old Players in the Northern part of the country-from Ashanti through the former Brong-Ahafo Region to the Northernmost parts of Ghana. Besides the normal courtesy calls, he was financing the upkeep of several players from his allowances as GFA staff member for over two decades, and from resources secured with his influence and fame!

He literally brought me to tears with his plea to the GFA to expand the criterion guiding allowances paid to members of Ghana’s AFCON-winning squads (he was one) to include all ex-members of the national team! Opoku Afriyie was also organising weekend playing sessions for retired footballers to keep them in shape and also lift up their spirits. What a MAN! Whence cometh such another?

Ghana and Asanteman, indeed, have lost a great son! But it is his family that would bear the most pain from the demise of Opoku Afriyie. A year may be long enough to dry tears from the eyes of the bereaved. Still, I pray the Almighty to heal all wounds and also end all bitterness and misunderstandings that would have ensued from the loss of Mr. Opoku Afriyie.

I will also appeal to all well-wishers of the Family, admirers of Bayie, and fans of Kotoko to support the Foundation his family intends to set up to continue the various initiatives Opoku Afriyie adopted to help his fellow retired footballers. That would be the greatest tribute anyone can pay to his compassionate spirit.

May Businessman, Nii Opoku Afriyie continue to rest in peace!

By: Kwame Kyei–baffour

Digiqole ad

Related post