Ghana shoots for sports diversity

ACCRA, Ghana — A country is officially soccer crazed when its gold mines reduce production during World Cup matches to preserve electricity so that people can watch their team on television without interruption.
 
That happened in 2006, when Ghana competed in its first World Cup, boosting national pride with victories over the Czech Republic and the United States.
 
Now Ghana’s new president says it’s time for soccer to share the spotlight. President John Atta Mills is pledging to spark interest in more sports, including track and field, basketball and field hockey, in hopes of making Ghana — already one of Africa's most promising democracies — a well-rounded sports nation.
 
At Ghana’s official field hockey pitch in downtown Accra, national team captain Ebenezer Frimpong said school children deserve more opportunities.
 
“There are so many young ones who want to play other sports but due to publicity they have all shifted to football,” Frimpong said. “They need to promote the other sports better.”
 
The plan involves overhauling sports programming in schools, while also promoting sports such as track and field at the collegiate level.
 
“Our goal is to move away from the over-concentration on soccer and to some extent boxing,” Mills said in his recent state of the nation address.
 
Paying for the initiative will require creativity, especially as Ghana and other developing states feel the effects of the global financial crisis. The Mills administration will set aside funds in its new budget, but officials also want to raise revenue by selling advertisements at the four new stadiums built for the African Cup of Nations soccer tournament held last summer.
 
Henry Fynn, coach of the men’s national field hockey team and spokesman for the Greater Accra Hockey Association, said corporate sponsors are vital for lesser-known sports.
 
“Everybody wants to play football because it’s cheaper,” Fynn said. “When you have one ball, 30 people can play. But in hockey, you need to have the equipment before you can play.”
 
A field hockey stick costs about $75, and that’s in addition to specialized padding for shins, elbows and chest, as well as a helmet. Without help, it’s impossible for people living in poverty to afford such luxuries.
 
Ghana is hosting the African Hockey Cup of Nations this summer and the government has pledged to support the tournament. Construction crews are busy building new stands at the national hockey pitch, and the turf is to be replaced this spring.
 
  
“Hockey is a very wonderful game — better than football because there are combinations that players can work out to go and make a goal. It’s so beautiful,” Fynn said. “When you make a good goal, you jubilate. People will cheer you.”
 
There’s no doubt, however, that soccer is king. The jerseys of Ghanaian soccer heroes Michael Essien and Stephen Appiah are big sellers at an open-air sporting goods shop near busy Danquah Circle in Accra. Samuel Tetteh, who operates the shop, said it’s inevitable that young people are attracted to soccer because of the big money and glamour of the European leagues, whose matches are shown all over Africa.
 
“In England, you can see what the clubs are paying for players,” Tetteh said. “Everybody’s thinking about football.”
 
Still, Ghanaians are at least trying out other sports. While Tetteh consistently sells 20 soccer balls a week, sales of volleyballs and basketballs have inched up to about five of each per week. The three different types of balls have the same price, about $8.
 
Mills has himself played field hockey for many years and frequently swims to stay in shape. And like virtually all Ghanaians, the 64-year-old is an avid soccer fan. So while the new policy also will emphasize other sports, the president said supporting the national soccer team, as it tries to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, is a top priority.
 
National pride is a motivating factor in the government’s initiative. Ghana, which is working to sustain its democracy and to boost its relatively strong economy, is trying elevate itself to middle-class status, and diversifying sports interests may be a byproduct.
 
“The ultimate target of the government is to draw up and execute a strategic plan that will aim at Ghana capturing the commanding heights of not only sports in Africa but the world as a whole,” Mills said.
 
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