Black Queens and Super Falcons dare to transgress on a ‘crooked field’

A Ghanaian woman at celebrations commemorating the 50th anniversary of Ghana’s independence, Independence Square, Accra, 6 Mar 07. (Copyright © 2007 Oluniyi David Ajao)

Editor’s note: Additional reporting in California from Gabriel Constans.

With Ghana celebrating the 50th anniversary, earlier this year, of its independence, it became still more apparent how football expresses the national identity. The first president of Ghana (née Gold Coast), Kwame Nkrumah, shortly after independence arranged a six-week tour by the late Stanley Matthews, the “Wizard of the Dribble,” who had also been coaching in the British colony.

In Matthews’s own account, he was treated like royalty on this trip—he was crowned “King of Soccer”—and witnessed a football’s anointing:

They gave me a stool, which I still have, and it says, “King of Ghana.” And the idea was that I sat on this sort of throne in an open court outside. … They placed a ball, and I had to put me feet on the ball. Then someone, I don’t know—a witch doctor—drank something from a bottle, and he spit some grout on the ball. The splash came into my face a bit. (Sir Stanley Matthews: A Footballing Legend, Cherry Red Records, 1996).

According to David Goldblatt in The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Football (Viking, 2006), Nkrumah, the pan-Africanist, named the national team The Black Stars in homage to the ship that Marcus Garvey had chartered in 1922 to bring black Americans and those from the Caribbean back to Africa. In the 1960s, the game’s importance became solidified with consecutive championships in the African Cup of Nations.

“Football is one of our cultures,” says Joseph Agyeman-Gyau, a striker on the 1963 team (“Ghanaian Football’s Early Years,” BBC Sport, Mar 6).

In societies in which football is played on street corners and in almost every open space, it should not be surprising that women ultimately would take to the game themselves. But generalizing about the state of women’s football in Africa is “fraught with misrepresentation,” writes Martha Saavedra, associate director of the Center for African Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, given the geographical scope and range of attitudes. Two states in Nigeria, for example, Zamfara and Niger, have banned women’s football under the dictates of sharia law. “The sport is against the teachings of Islam,” said Zamfara’s state director of sports. Yet in Nigeria as a whole, Saavedra characterizes the women’s game as vibrant, with women serving also as referees, benefactors and administrators.

Culturally, women in much of the continent struggle against gender-based assumptions and have limited time for leisure relative to men. Yet the Black Queens of Ghana and the Super Falcons of Nigeria, the only teams to have represented Africa in the FIFA Women’s World Cup, must contend with the same institutional shortcomings as the men’s teams as well as the practical challenges of travel and poor infrastructure.

Page 1 of 5 | Next page