The last day of any season can be a bit of a nail-biter, especially when there’s everything still to play for. Back at the end of the 2002-03 Scottish Premier League season, with a single game to play, Celtic and Rangers were tied on 94 points. The clubs also had a tied goal difference of plus 68. It became a last day shoot-out as to who could win their last game by the largest margin and take the title. Celtic travelled to Kilmarnock and won 4-0. At the same time however, Rangers entertained Dunfermline and secured a 6-1 victory. It was a result that also brought the title back to Ibrox by the slimmest of margins. In the end, it had come down to an injury-time penalty, coolly slotted home by Mikel Arteta to give Rangers the round half-dozen, and stymy Celtic’s effort by a single goal.
Although the two Glasgow giants rattled in a total of ten goals between them, whilst conceding a single strike, there was precious little talk of any underhand skulduggery or anything less than scrupulously contested games. After all, despite the two defeated cubs finishing the league in fourth and fifth positions respectively, Kilmarnock trailed the top two by no less forty points, and the gap to Dunfermline was over fifty points. The results therefore were not that much out of kilter, especially with the Glasgow clubs having so much to play for, and the other two teams comparatively little. A few years later, another last day battle took place between two clubs tied on points and battling for big wins to sway goal difference advantage and gain promotion to the top echelon of their domestic league structure. If the ‘Old Firm’ battle offered no hint of controversy though, this one differed on that particular count.
In Ghana, two clubs faced ‘last day’ fixtures to decide which of them would gain promotion the country’s Premier League. The clubs involved, competing in the Poly Tank Division One League, one step down from Ghana’s elite division, were Nania FC and Great Mariners. It goes without saying that both clubs would go all out for gaols to put themselves in pole position for promotion, very much as the two Glasgow clubs did when chasing the Scottish championship. Whereas Rangers and Celtic accumulated ten goals between them though, the two Ghanaian cubs would register no less than 59. If that seems somewhat outlandish, the story of the games and the repercussions that were played out afterwards only add to that conclusion.
Nania are based in Accra, Ghana’s capital and had been formed by the country’s most celebrated footballing talent, Abedi ‘Pele’ Ayew. The legendary Black Star hero founded the club in 1998 with himself as the chairman – as well as chief financier at the time – and his wife, Maha, as a director. When he launched the club, there was a clear desire for Ayew to use his considerable talents and contacts to take it to the top of the country’s domestic structure as soon as possible. The deadline day battle was just another step in this climb. Great Mariners, on the other hand are, not surprisingly given their name, based in Tema, the largest port and industrial city in the country, and although do not have such a famous figurehead, clearly lacked little in ambition when compared to Ayew’s club.
Initially, readers may have thought it likely that the figure of 59 goals scored by the two teams was a typing error. It wasn’t. Ayew’s Nania defeated Okwahu United by 31-0 and Great Mariners defeated the Mighty Jets – apparently not so mighty – by a score of 28-0. Ayew’s team won out, but there was an inevitable price to pay for all involved – at least initially there was, anyway. Outlandish as these scores appear in isolation, the way the games developed adds to the any feelings of unease about how such results could occur without some kind of manipulation.
Nania were ahead in their game at half-time, but only by a single goal, and reports suggest that the Mariners were three goals to the good at the same time. Ten minutes later, Nania added a second goal, whilst at the hour mark, Mariners were five goals to the good. It therefore seems that all of the remaining 51 goals were scored in the last thirty minutes or so of each game. How could this happen? On top of this, Okwahu also failed to convert a penalty. One wonders how, with the rush of goals conceded, there was even time to get to the other end of the park.
Information available is sketchy at best, and the goings-on at the Mariners’ game in particular unfortunately leaves a lot to the imagination. With Ayew being such a major figure in Ghana though, not only for his footballing exploits, but very much as some kind of iconic figure, there’s more information available, not only about the last thirty minutes of the game in Accra, but also of the repercussions that followed. Although reports differ as to whether Ayew himself, or any number of Nania officials were present for the denouement of the game, accounts of some of the events on the field appear to be fairly consistent.
Firstly, it’s worth noting that since any Okwahu aspirations of promotion had disappeared long before they visited Sekondi Gyandu Park to take on Nania, the visiting players had little to drive their enthusiasm to fight for the cause other than pride. A virtue that seemed to be far from sufficient as things turned out.
Whether by convenience or genuine injury, the deluge of goals for Nania was preceded by a number of Okwahu players having to leave the field as being unfit to continue the game. All of the substitutes had been used up and both the starting and reserve goalkeepers were injured. In fact, so many players had left the pitch that the visitors were down to a mere seven players. You don’t need to be a Maths teacher to appreciate the number of players, including substitutes who must have fallen foul of the apparent injury plague to leave just seven players on the pitch. What may be less obvious to some though is that Law 3 of Association Football states that for a game to completed, a team must have a minimum of seven players, otherwise, the referee is compelled to abandon the game. It appears that the injury crisis halted at precisely the right time.
Research reveals a few intriguing accounts of the goings-on as the goals mounted for Ayew’s players. I’ve read a couple of contemporary reports of the game that suggest that each time a goal was conceded by Okwahu, their players rushed to retrieve the ball from the net to restart the game, quickly kicking-off, losing possession and conceding again. The events, if accurately related, seem to transcend any levels of haplessness and lapse into something more unsavoury. The goals were added with what must have seemed monotonous regularity, and eventually ended with the total at 31. It was sufficient to outscore the Mariners, whose own goal rush fell three short of Nania’s total.
If the celebrations at the ground at the end of the game were thought to herald promotion, it was surely a naïve and short-lived utopia. The encounter, which came to be labelled a ‘Match of Convenience’ along with Great Mariners’ triumph, was called before the Ghana Football Association who perhaps unsurprisingly considered that there may have been collusion.
The statement from the FA alleged that, based on Article 35.5.d of the Ghana Football Association regulations, the Disciplinary Committee took a decision to charge all four clubs after (a) preliminary hearing following a complaint from the FA. The statement read, “A complaint has been made by the Ghana Football Association in connection with the Middle League match you played on Wednesday 28th March 2007 at Sekondi and Cape Coast respectively. That your club officials and players on the such date at Sekondi and Cape Coast respectively instigated, commanded, counselled, solicited, procured, purposely aided, encouraged, facilitated and promoted the playing of a fix match or a match of convenience.”
It seemed a ‘slam dunk’ case and all four clubs were punished with relegation to the third tier of the league and fines of $20,000 each. A total of 46 players from across the four clubs – all of those that remained on the pitch when the games were ended – were also suspended for the remainder of the season, plus the following term as well. It seemed like a ‘fair cop’ but Ayew, unlike the players of Okwahu, was far from ready to concede defeat.
The three-time African Footballer of the year winner and former Olympique de Marseille star, who had won the European Cup with the French club had suffered the indignity of being tainted by the underhand dealings at Bernard Tapie’s club in his playing days during the Valenciennes bribery scandal involving officials and players at the club. It seemed he would come out fighting to defend his club – and himself – as he was given a one-year suspension.
Declaring a firm intention to appeal whilst giving an interview to the BBC, he made his feelings clear. “My contention is that while the score line may raise eyebrows, it does not provide irrefutable proof that the match was fixed.” Ayew filed an appeal and asserted that he would take the matter to court to have the verdict reversed. “I will go wherever I can, to get justice, as we have been banned on conjecture,” he told the BBC. “There was no evidence that before, during or after the match, the officials of Okwahu United and myself and/or any of my officials engaged in any form of discussion or even camaraderie – nor did any such thing ever take place,” he added. “What then did we do wrong? The only possible accusation is that my team scored more goals. And if that is the case, my contention is that while the scoreline may raise eyebrows, it does not point to an irrefutable conclusion that the match was fixed. At the height of my career and even that of Maradona or the legendary Pele, it is very possible to record that score against a team featuring six players and a seventh in goal who is not a natural goalkeeper.” It’s a passionate stance, but the statement fell well clear of any claim of innocence, and merely seemed to suggest that there was sufficient evidence of guilt. If not a ‘mea culpa’ it was certainly hardly the passionate call of man wrongly accused. It wasn’t the end of his statement though.
“Maybe my strikers should be educated that when they are next playing with a superior numerical advantage, they should refrain from scoring more goals to avoid being banned,” he continued unabashed. “I have also been advised that my players were not treated fairly but I will leave that to my lawyers to handle. Score-lines in football may be baffling but cannot be the basis for judging a match as fixed.” He then reached out for a less than truly helpful comparison, citing a result the week before, when Manchester United thrashed AS Roma of Italy 7-1. “The recent score between Manchester United and Roma could have recorded a cricket score if Roma had been reduced to seven men. In the statutes of Fifa, it is spelt out clearly that there must be evidence of such impropriety before sanctions can be imposed. If there is a video recording of the game, I would love for it to be played so that everybody will be able to judge for themselves.” The last point would be of great interest if such a video existed and would surely lay the matter to rest. Perhaps surprisingly however, given the importance of the game and the standing of Ayew himself, no such video has come to light.
The Okwahu secretary appeared equally obtuse. Although conceding that his club had received a “fair hearing”, he asserted that the punishment was unduly harsh. “Rules are rules,” he conceded. “And it is for this reason that I feel we should rather have been demoted to Ghana Division Two League and not Division Three League.” He went on to add that he felt the Disciplinary Committee, “should have followed the Italian example where Juventus was sent only a step down in a match-fixing scandal. To have fined us 50 million cedis is also outrageous.” Eleven players and five officials from the club were part of the suspension decision.”
As well as the embarrassment of sustaining defeat by a cricket score, the other losing team, the Mighty Jets, appeared to be faced with the prospect of defending their integrity by arguing that their players were really that poor, or admitting to some form of agreement and preserving the sporting abilities of the team if not the moral standards of the club. It was the Tudu-based club’s second ban in just four years. In 2003, a one-year ban was delivered on the club when they withdrew from a Ghana FA sanctioned tournament without seeking official permission. That case was overturned on appeal after court action.
Club president Abubakar Nallah told the BBC that a similar process would follow against this ban. “Our lawyers are studying the verdict but for sure we will appeal against this gross injustice that has been perpetrated without evidence,” he said. “There should be no illusions about this because we will fight this to the hilt, like we did in 2003.”
In July of 2007, things began to look likely to be brought to a head. A court in Accra dismissed a suit brought by Maha Ayew against the Ghana FA, its President, Kwesi Nyantakyi, the chairmen of the Disciplinary and Appeals Committee of the FA, Amadu Tanko and Justice Anim Yeboah respectively, asking the court to restrain the FA from rehearing the alleged match of convenience case between her club and Okwahu United. The ruling was underscored by the award of 800 cedis to each of the men and costs of 1,000 cedis against Mrs Ayew. The ruling also meant that the Ghana FA Appeals Committee would re-hear the case against Nania and Okwahu. A few days earlier another court had dismissed a similar suit brought by the Mighty Jets.
A couple of months later though, it appeared that there was at least a partial move in favour of Ayew, if not his club. On appeal, the one-year ban on the local hero was lifted, freeing him to be involved in football without restraint. The relegation of all four clubs, and player bans were confirmed however, but the club fines were reduced by 75%.
Some may argue that less than being a nod towards natural justice, the move was an attempt to close the book on the whole affair, and move things forward. The legal wrangling had held up the opening of Ghana’s domestic season for three months, but hopes of peace breaking out may have been presumptuous. Again, speaking to the BBC, Ayew insisted that he would still fight to get the bans lifted on his players. “I don’t think it is fair for the players to sit out a whole season,” he said. “I will not be contesting the verdict against the club but I will stand up for my players and ensure that they are free to play football wherever they please this season.”
Fortunately for football in Ghana however, things settled down from there and got back down to the real business. As time went on however, there were a few ironic echoes of past events. In May 2010, the Mighty Jets, who had been humbled by Great Mariners’ 28 goals back in 2007, entered the Glo Premier League after winning the paly-ffs against no one other than Nania, and as if to confirm that all was not rosy in relations between the footballing authorities and Ayew’s club, in 2011, Nania were banned for three years from international competition by the Confederation of African Football for a late withdrawal from the Confederation Cup competition, just two days before they were due to entertain Sequence FC of Guinea in the opening round of matches. Ayew protested the decision, claiming the loss of sponsor funds had rendered their competing in the tournament impossible.
On a more positive note for Nania, in the same year, they became the first second division club to win the Ghanaian FA Cup, defeating Kumasi Asante Kotoko in the final. They also then went on to beat Berekum Chelsea to win the 2011 Ghana Super Cup. It was a collection of trophies that saw Ayew anointed as Ghana’s Coach of the Year and had his players lifting a number of individual and team awards.
A couple of years later, irony struck again. Four clubs were involved in the paly-offs to gain promotion to the first division. Among them were Okwahu United and Nania, alongside International Allies and Danport. There was no goal storm for Ayew’s team though, and Inter Allies won out to join the country’s top echelon of teams. Nania were eliminated in the semi-final stage, losing out to the eventual winners.
To this day, they remain in the second tier, still seeking that long-awaited promotion. It’s perhaps interesting to reflect that had Nania merely won their game by a more reasonable score back in 2007, and Great Mariners had gone on their goal rampage unhindered, logic would suggest that if consistency applied, the Mariners would have been relegated still, but Nania would have secured their promotion with a lesser result. As a wise man once said, “It’s a funny old game.”