“It would be bad if we lose the game because we are thinking about the money,” “Even if we don’t get the money, we will put everything behind us, because the whole world is watching us.”
That was the parting note of Christian Atsu as he left a pre match press conference as Ghana prepared to take on Portugal in a crucial final group game at the 2014 World Cup .
It was an odd press conference to attend as a journalist. I had been to many. This was not my first international football assignment. But the feel ,mood and tone of this was all different. and significantly, embarrassing.
Embarrassing because I was Ghanaian .Journalists from other countries looked at me with a mixture of pity and mirth as they hammered away at Atsu and Kwasi Appiah . They had reason to. Instead of discussing tactics and the potential of a clash with Cristiano Ronaldo, the story had become how players of the national team had held a federation, a nation, a people to ransom over money.
$3 million dollars , a night of madness its aftermath. June 24 and 25. That is what this is about.
It is has been six years since that infamous photo of John Boye kissing wads of dollar bills went viral. Twas the day after Sulley Muntari lost his cool and perhaps a piece of his legacy. It was the night I concluded Kevin Prince Boating was an a**hole beyond redemption.
Several accounts exist of what happened at the luxurious Palace Brasilia Hotel those two fateful evenings. Most have been second hand accounts and honestly half truths. Admittedly most persons involved that night should feel embarrassed by what happened to share the full truth.
I was there that night. By some odd twisted quirk of fate. Myself and one other journalist. We were the only two journalists allowed in the hotel, on the same floor as the events of those two nights unfolded.
As the reporter for Pulse Ghana for the World Cup I arrived in Maceio, the beautiful coastal capital of the Alagoas Province that Ghana had chosen as its Group G camp a full week ahead of the Black Stars. For those interested in knowing the state stadium of Maceio is the only stadium in Brazil named after Pele. That fact has always intrigued me. I settled down into my hotel room, right next to the Radisson Hotel, the designated hotel of the Black Stars. The next 4 weeks would be nothing short of dramatic.
Looking back it becomes clearer that the buildup of that night in Brasilia started the very day team Ghana landed in Brazil for the World Cup. Kevin Prince Boateng’s mood was grey after some of his luggage could not be located by team manager Saban Quaye . Then there was the desperate need to accommodate his smoking habit when it came to allocating rooms. Essien showed up smiling but it was clear he did not want to be there once it became clear he was not going to be a key cog in Kwasi Appiah’s plans .
I arrived in Brasilia from Maceio with a colleague and headed to the centre of town to find a hotel. The plan was to be close enough to the team to still glean information ahead of the Portugal game. After all ,the drama we had left in Maceio was an ugly, precarious one . No journalist would want to miss this. Our plan however was shelved after a high ranking member of the Ghana delegation we hung out with in Maceio called in the middle of our search. His proposal was one we were not going to say not to. He would facilitate our entry and stay at the Palace hotel if security and the team hierarchy agreed.
It helps to have a sterling reputation in such times and our long history of covering the team stood us in good stead. Our entry was approved. Little did we know it would make us witnesses in part to not one but two of the most bizarre incidents in World Cup history.
The Palace Hotel in Brasilia is an odd structure. Situated in the heart of the capital and about 30 minutes drive from the Mane Garrincha national stadium, it is an imposing, cold design that is reminiscent of a World War II era bunker.
My colleague and I settled down in a room on the second floor of the officials wing. We were cohabiting in the room our benefactor had been assigned to and immediately our conversation revolved around the delays surrounding the payment of appearance fees for players and the training boycott it had engendered in Maceio the day before.
The tension in the Black Stars wing of the hotel was palpable. Players were in their rooms. Some were huddled in conference.Nobody was speaking above a whisper. You could say same for officials. For a delegation that was playing in the greatest tournament in the world, facing its most important game in less than a day and some hours, football was certainly not on anybody’s mind.
Being unofficial visitors, and to be a honest a bit uncomfortable with the situation, my friend and I kept to ourselves that evening and enjoyed the luxuries available. It did not take long however for us to pick up whiff of a potential meeting between the players and the senior officials of the football association. The lack of clarity in when appearance fees would be paid had come to a head. All the little incidents from the team’s base camp in the United States through to petty grievances in the course of its first first two games had come to a head. Something had to give that night.
Players wanted answers and by jove were they going to get it.
My colleague and I debated the merits of filing a story about the meeting. Brazil is three hours behind Ghana and the meeting had been agreed around midnight. We agreed to hold on till we had details from the meeting. That would give us time to make the morning news in Accra. Indeed that would be a much better story. So we waited.
Our benefactor, though not an elected FA official was at the time one of the closest confidants of then GFA boss Kwasi Nyantakyi. Good thing we had good history with him. He revealed to us tension was brewing because officials had been waiting for over an hour at the meeting room. The player representatives were yet to show up. A few text messages to players we knew revealed the identities of some the players who would be in that meeting . Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari and Asamoah Gyan. Ex-captain Stephen Appiah, retired but a member of the delegation would also be a part of the meeting. It made sense. He would be the bridge between between team and management.
A bit about Essien though. Known as the quiet prankster of the team, it was clear he had been in a foul mood all tournament. The natural sparkle in the eye was gone and the only time one he looked happy was when in the company of his wife Akosua Puni and a male relative of his. He had expected to be a big part of the team after working his way back into the team in the final days of qualifiers. It was the kind of last hurrah he wanted after missing the glorious 2010 adventure.
Kwasi Appiah had a different plan though and once this was clear Essien changed. A lot of officials with the Ghana delegation suspected he was the mastermind behind the player agitation. All these could not be confirmed though. The man barely spoke and always kept to himself in camp.
Muntari was having an exceptional tournament both on and off the pitch. His outgoing and generous nature had endeared him to the locals in Maceio especially. For example on the day the team departed for Brasilia amidst internal turmoil, he still had time for fans who had come to say goodbye. Contrast that with Kevin Prince Boateng who wore a scowl and cussed everyone who crossed his path .
I must admit journalists also did not help to improve his mood with a series of mistimes, inaccurate stories . The worst one was when a radio reporter during a live broadcast from the team’s hotel lobby accused him of cozying up to a random woman.
Turned out said lady was his official partner at the time. And it was during mandated off time.
Back to the that evening though. We kept wake by flipping through TV channels. We did not have to wait long. The sudden rise in voices and hurried pacing on our floor told us something significant had happened. I came out to see the team manager Saban Quaye walk past in a huff with the man in charge of the team’s security, Alhaji Lartey. A lot of doors on the floor were also open as the news started filtering through. There had been a scuffle at the meeting. Details were scanty at that point but Muntari’s name was on everyone’s lips.
It would take another 40 minutes before a clearer picture was painted as a our benefactor entered the room to narrate to us what had happened. The owner of local football club, Medeama Moses Armah who also served as a member of the management committee of the team and Sulley Muntari had engaged in fisticuffs during the meeting. Not just once but twice. First during the actual meeting and later in room 208, where Armah had been moved for safety.
It was a mouth wide open moment. The kind of moment you envisage would never happen to a team you follow at a tournament.
There was the journalist’s dilemma . To report the story or still await further details.No official was going to corroborate the incident but we also knew the story would get out either way.
It turned out to be a good decision because by morning all of Ghana had heard about the incident.
Breakfast for the national team is normally a high point for interaction and loosening up. Its a spot where all the best jokes are made . Not the morning of June 25.
Its evening would be even worse.
Still reeling from the events of the day before, officials of the team were in several meetings to figure out a response. Emotions were high. Team discipline was gone. Tension was in the air. They had also been informed the government had managed to get clearance to land a flight ferrying the appearance fee of the team. That was a relief.
It would be short lived.
The arrival of the money that evening turned into a televised circus right from the airport. A local journalist I had struck an acquaintance with in Maceio was the first to text and ask if I was watching television . I wasn’t. She asked me to watch and get back to her. I switched the hotel room set on and cringed as I watched a scene that was reminiscent of that OJ Simpson Ford Bronco car chase.
Brazilian TV giant Globo was broadcasting the drive of the security convoy on its channel. My colleague and I watched as a television broadcast helicopter followed the convoy right to the gates of the Palace Hotel.
The arrival of the money brought excitement to the hotel. It was like a weight had been lifted . Personally the feeling was mixed. The Portuguese team was staying right across the Black Stars at the Tulip Hotel. I imagined the peace and focus in that camp. I wished it in ours.
We stayed in our room as the money was divided and players were summoned by the team manager in turns to the upper floor to receive their wads of cash.
Poor John Boye.
What nobody knew was that Globo had not given up the chase once the hotel gates were closed. They sought permission from a resident in a the high rise apartment next adjacent to the hotel. Till date I suspect a hotel worker gave them a tip on which floor the money sharing was on. No journalist is that lucky to get a money shot like that.
Our shame had been recorded on camera. Infamy for a lifetime had been achieved.
Our benefactor told us later that evening that a decision had been made. Sulley and Kevin Prince Boateng were out. By morning of the match day against Portugal they had already left the hotel. Our time as well was up. Our final breakfast with the team that day saw a host of non football officials led by then Ghana National Petroleum Company boss Alex Mould had arrived. The damage had already been done. Mould tried to pep talk the players individually at breakfast . Twas obvious the players were not moved as they retired to their rooms to prepare for the match against Portugal.
Ghana would lose 2-1.
What struck me as a lasting moment though was when my friend and I boarded a taxi to the stadium for the game. The excited driver asked us if were Ghanaian in the best English he could muster. We said yes.
Man started laughing and replicated John Boye’s kiss the cash move as he drove.
Source: Godfred Akoto