With keen anticipation – and no little amusement – Nigerians waited to see just where Ghana would take them for the first of their two 2022 FIFA World Cup playoff games set to take place later this week.
Independence Day celebrations earlier in the month had left the original location – the Cape Coast Sports Stadium – unfit for purpose, and a frantic, last-minute search ensued for a suitable replacement. The eventual choice, the Baba Yara Sports Stadium, Kumasi, is one that would suit the hosts just fine.
Great battles have been fought there, a good number of those in the last two decades, with the Black Stars emerging victorious on most of those occasions. The resulting successes provided a springboard for Ghana to announce itself, at the highest level, as a global footballing force.
Results like 2013’s famous 6-1 thrashing of Egypt in the final stage of 2014 FIFA World Cup qualification burnished the reputation of the Baba Yara as a fortress, but the arena hasn’t been as kind to the Black Stars since the team’s chaotic outing at the aforementioned Mundial.
The Black Stars haven’t had many good games – or, indeed, many games – in Kumasi in the aftermath of that terrible episode, partly because the Baba Yara had been closed for renovation works. Playing in other parts of the country, the team has remained pretty formidable, but performances have generally not been as convincing as before.
Blame that on the Black Stars’ diminished strengths, if you want, but another school of thought suggests that none of the alternative venues – be it in Tamale or Accra or, most recently, Cape Coast – has proven capable of recreating quite the same degree of intensity and electricity that the Baba Yara generates.
In a sense, then, the Black Stars at the Baba Yara will be right at home – for the first time since a limp 1-1 with Congo in the failed bid to reach the most recent World Cup finals – when Nigeria roll into town for the March 25 date.
It certainly isn’t a place that the Super Eagles are accustomed to playing at when they visit their regional rivals; its name, though, would be unpleasantly familiar to those who know a thing or two about arguably the lowest point in the history of Nigerian football.
Back in 1955, when the two West African countries were still bound by British colonial ties, Ghana (then known as the Gold Coast) welcomed Nigeria (nicknamed the Red Devils at the time) for a game at the Accra Sports Stadium.
Contests between the pair had been close enough up until that point, and few could have anticipated the rout that was to come. Ghana were three goals up before the game was even 10 minutes old, with a certain Baba Yara – a debutant no older than 19 years of age – setting up each of those.
Yara would get a fourth assist as well as two goals of his own, the story goes, in a resounding 7-0 victory. It’s a margin bigger than any Nigeria have ever lost a senior international by, with Yara completely owning the occasion and knitting his name into the very fabric of this colourful rivalry.
And Yara’s name would come to adorn the venue of the next Ghana-Nigeria game (hitherto known as the Kumasi Sports Stadium), a fitting tribute to an illustrious career/life that was also tragically short-lived, at the ground where he first achieved fame.
Come Friday, Ghana would hope for a scoreline as emphatic as that which Yara inspired 67 years ago, even if only to reduce the reverse – due four days later – to a mere formality.
Admittedly, the chances of that happening aren’t very high – not even the most patriotic Ghanaian would be feeling that confident, surely? – but anyone who recalls the last time the Baba Yara hosted a game of such significance (refer to the fourth paragraph of this article) might be a little less dismissive of that probability, however unlikely.