By Emmanuel Adu-Gyamfi
May 9, 2001, is undoubtedly the saddest and bloodiest day in the history of Ghana and African football.
It is described as such, because, on that day, over 127 soccer fans lost their lives at the Accra Sports Stadium, in a Ghana Premier League match between perennial rivals Accra Hearts of Oak and Kumasi Asante Kotoko.
On that fateful Wednesday evening, not even the most vivid predictor of doom could have imagined what was to happen.
The rains had just subsided, cold winds blew, and the streets were deserted, as majority of the people, especially, soccer fans, had made their way either to catch the action live on Ghana Television at home or had trooped to the stadium to catch a real glimpse of the action.
The atmosphere was charged, and rightly so, because the Phobians had, prior to that encounter, beaten the Porcupine Warriors 4–0, and the Fabulous Boys had sworn to take revenge. Hearts were vintage, and Kotoko were not ready to submit their dominance to their rivals. Led by German tactician, Ernst /Ernest Middendorp, Kotoko were inspired by their winning streak in the Premiership and paraded goalkeeper Lawrence Osei-Boateng, Kwaku Duah, Godfred Yeboah, Dan Acquah, Joe Hendricks, Stephen Oduro, Lawrence Adjei, Godwin Ablordey, Shilla Alhassan, Nana Frimpong, and Frank Asoah.
Hearts had promised they had unfinished business with their sworn rivals and were still in a buoyant mood from their CAF Champions League triumph five months earlier.
The late Sir Cecil Jones Attuquayefio, the Coach of Hearts of Oak, was not ready to let his guard down and paraded a very strong squad in goalkeeper Sammy Adjei, Yaw Amankwaah Mireku, Jacob Nettey, Dan Quaye, Stephen Tetteh, Lawrence Adjah Tetteh, Charles Allotey, Edmund Copson, Ishmael Addo, Emmanuel Osei Kuffour, and Charles Taylor. Asante Kotoko drew the first blood from Hearts of Oak through Lawrence Adjei in the 60th minute, and it sent their fans into raptures. Hearts quickly equalised and went ahead to get the winner in swift succession in the 77th and 81st minutes through Ishmael Addo. However, some Kotoko fans were not happy. They felt hard done by referee Joseph Wilson Sey, claiming the second goal was offside. Emotions were high, tempers flared, and it quickly escalated into the hurling of missiles onto the pitch by some irate fans. The police, in a bid to disperse the rioting fans, rather chose to fire several canisters of tear gas and rubber bullets into the stands.
However, the control effort was counterproductive, as the gates to the stadium were still locked, leaving both the innocent and guilty trapped. Suffocating fans that were making a quick dash out of the stadium were caught in a stampede at the exit point. And what ensued thereafter was horrific and tragic.
The scenes at the Ridge Hospital and the 37 Military Hospital were heart wrenching. Families soon besieged the various hospitals and could be seen nervously pacing around with anxiety, uncertainty, and trepidation.
A football game that was supposed to ignite ecstasy and passion had taken the innocent lives of breadwinners, loved ones, future leaders, and people close to us.
22 years on, the debilitating effect of that action on football has been enormous, with many totally avoiding stadiums.
Very few useful lessons were learnt, as we go back to business as usual after the commemoration of the day each year.
There have been several violent acts instigated by some club officials, supporters, and sometimes the players that have resulted in confusion and, in some cases, people losing their lives. Referees are beaten, guns are shot, and missiles are still being thrown during games. Every year, people are educated on the need to be responsible at the stadium. It may have been several years ago, but the wounds remain fresh in the minds of Ghanaians.
As Ghana marks the 22nd anniversary of the May 9 disaster, may the monument erected in front of the Accra Sports Stadium continue to remind the millions of football fans on the continent and Ghana in particular, sports officials, and the Police, that never again will their emotions, reactions, actions, and inactions send a single soul to the grave.