An interview with Ghanaian filmmaker Baff Akoto about Ghanaian football players trying to make it abroad
By Ben Lerwill
When your debut film gets nominated for three awards at the Palermo Film Festival, you can be more than a little proud. When you end up leaving the ceremony having been presented with two of them, however - one for best screenplay, the other for best foreign film - it's a sign you've created something a bit special. For director Baff Akoto, London-born but Ghanaian by origin, the recognition was reward for a project that began in 2007 and focuses squarely on an obsession both personal and universal: football.
The resulting film, Football Fables - which has since made it into three more major festivals around the world - gives fresh perspective on the unquenchable enthusiasm for the sport in Ghana. By tracking the fortunes of upcoming local players, the documentary sets out to examine what it takes for youngsters to achieve the transition from the dusty pitches of West Africa to the fat salaries and gleaming stadia of Europe. Understandably, with the money and machinations involved in modern-day football, it's not an easy leap to make. For every Michael Essien, there are untold hundreds of talented youngsters destined, through bad odds, bad handling and plain bad luck, never to make the grade.
"The film was very much a passion project," says Akoto, who explains how time in Accra as a young man changed his notion on what it meant to encounter a genuine fervour for football. "I grew up in West London until I was 14 then went to finish secondary school in Ghana. Just before I arrived, the Ghanaian under-17s had won the World Cup and there was a public holiday. A public holiday for youth football! The whole concept of a country stopping still to watch kids was alien to me - I'd not come across that before. It was at the level where your mate's mum could tell you who was in the youth squads. Our history teacher used to talk to us about Germany's midfield! That permeation through all levels of society was something new."
The names of some of those interviewed for the film - among them 90s star Abedi Pele and Inter Milan's Sulley Muntari - will be familiar to fans of the world game. The chief protagonist, however, is 16-year-old Francis Boadi, already involved in the national youth set-up at time of filming and coveting a move to Europe. For Akoto, it was a chance to highlight subject matter that often gets overlooked. Needless to say, it's not always feel-good viewing. "I wasn't trying to make a morality tale in any way shape or form," he says. "I know people will watch the film and have their own strong opinions on what they've seen but I'm not telling them what to think. I just felt it was very important to contextualise someone like Essien by showing people what your average Ghanaian kid with a dream needs to go through to get to Europe."
"I didn't want to dwell on the stuff that you see about Africa most of the time and make it about negative issues," he continues. "I'm not saying what I'm showing is all positive, but what supersedes all of that is the fact that we talk about a regular kid with hopes and dreams just like the rest of us."
Away from the narrative itself, one of the film's most striking aspects is its vivid visual aesthetic. Was it his intention to make such a colourful documentary? "It wasn't a conscious decision per se, but I did want to go and show Ghana as I saw it - and that's how I see it. It's a very vibrant place, a wonderful place. When I went to live there, everything I felt I was leaving behind in London was more than compensated for by what I found out there. It's very visceral, very exciting. Accra and the country as a whole is somewhere with a lot of energy."
The filming process also became a journey of discovery for Akoto himself, who developed a greater understanding of just how the game became embedded in the national psyche. "We love the game as Ghanaians - the red, gold and green - but what I didn't know until making this film was that the footballing madness we have is a direct result of the period when we as a nation came into being. Kwame Nkrumah put a lot of stock into maintaining the sense that Africans could do it for themselves, and he brought that to bear when he became president. When independence came, one of the outlets for that was football. He actively encouraged development of the game throughout the 50s and made a point of having a Ghanaian as coach of the national team. When Ghana won their first Cup of Nations in 1963, they were the only team with a black coach."
"People don't realise that it goes deep," he explains. "We watch football, we love it, and it all goes back to what Nkrumah did in putting resources and prestige into the team. Look at the name The Black Stars - everyone else is called the Antelopes, the Gazelles, the Lions, all that Disney sort of shit - we're called the Black Stars for a reason. I think you can trace the incubation of the game across Africa in the modern era back to Ghana's position in the independence movement. I'm not saying Ghana's the reason why everyone's into football in Africa though." He pauses, then laughs. "But maybe I am saying that!"
Football is more than just a casual passion in Ghana. Walk down the street on any given day and you're likely to see a greater range of club shirts in the space of an hour than you would anywhere in Europe. Billboard-friendly midfielder Michael Essien, born in Accra, is a national folk hero of market-stall-dominating proportions, and when Ghana's young Black Stars team arrived back into the country after finishing runners-up in the Africa Cup of Nations in February 2010, they were afforded a heroes' welcome that brought the entire Airport Residential district to gridlock. Stuck for conversation with a taxi driver? Just mention the F word.
The English Premier League is a particular obsession. Scrawled chalkboards the length and breadth of the country advertise live "theatre" screenings of matches from the UK. These generally take the form of a big screen set up by an enterprising individual charging between 50 pesewas and ₵1 for a plastic seat and 90 minutes' entertainment. If you're after an insight into just how much the goings-on in London and Liverpool mean to people, pick a big game, sit back, and watch the cheers and gesticulations fly.
But away from the omnipresent Manchester United and Chelsea shirts, what of the domestic competition? The fact that almost all Ghanaian footballers of note ply their trade overseas makes the Ghana Premier League something of a curio. If you're a sports fan, though - or a sociology student - you'll find that the matches, and their attendant fans, reward first-hand experience. African football has a reputation for being dynamic and direct, and the GPL is no exception. The crowds, complete with ball-jugglers, drumming troupes and fierce tactical debaters, are usually just as watchable.
Despite there being 16 clubs in the top flight, however, there are only two dominant teams in the country: Accra's majestically named Heart of Oaks (whose supporters' chant is surely one of the world's quaintest: "Be quiet and don't be silly/ We are the famous Hearts of Oak") and Kumasi's Asante Kotoko, aka the Porcupine Warriors. Since the league's inception in 1956, Hearts of Oak have won 21 championships, Kotoko 20. Their nearest competitors have managed just three. If you're looking to take in a Hearts game in Accra, they play at the 40,000-seater Ohene Djan Stadium near Independence Square. And if you're looking for the full, sold-out, high-decibel match experience, move heaven and earth to snare a ticket for the Kotoko clash.