Hearts, Kotoko and the rivalry that triggered Africa’s worst sporting tragedy

Pulse Ghana’s Emmanuel Ayamga recounts the events which led to the tragic death of over 127 football fans during a game between rivals Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko in 2001.

It was the worst 90 minutes in African football history. Screams and wails could be heard from a country mile. The streets of Accra were dead silent too, as all the rowdiness, noise and attention switched to the various hospitals and clinics in Ghana’s capital, Accra.

The scene at the Ridge Hospital was particularly disheartening: families could be seen nervously pacing around, unending phone calls were being made, uncertainty, anxiety and trepidation were commonplace. At the other nearby clinics, bodies – both half-conscious and totally unconscious – were being randomly and rapidly stretchered into the emergency wards. It was a totally chaotic scene, punctuated by fear and panic.

Anybody would be forgiven to think Accra had been subjected to a bomb attack.

But this was far from that. On the contrary, football, a game supposed to ignite passion and joy, had just delivered the antithesis of anything good.

Two hours earlier, when Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko took to the field on that fateful Wednesday (May 9, 2001), not even the most vivid predictor of doom could have imagined what was to happen.

Yet, everything happened very fast. The home team Hearts of Oak run out 2-1 winners, with striker Ishmael Addo scoring late in the game to seal the result. However, the score line and the manner in which the winning goal came did not enthuse a section of the Kotoko fans.

Some of the away fans thought their team deserved more, others felt they were undone by refereeing decisions. Emotions were high, tempers fled, friendly banters became petty complaints, disapprovals turned to protests and, tensions soon escalated into hurling of missiles.

The Police – called to help restore calm – chose to fire teargas into the rioting fans. Officers went on to lock all exiting gates, leaving most of the fans – both innocent and guilty – trapped and suffocated in the emissions from the teargas.

The fans tried to run for their lives but they had no escape route. One hundred and twenty-seven (127) good people lost their lives as a result of the stampede. They died of compressive asphyxia.

“I remember that very day vividly. My friends, my brothers, about 35 of them all perished. We loved our club. We only wanted to go and support our players, our badge; not to die in this manner,” Aziz Haruna Futa, a survivor and then-chairman of the ‘Chapter O’ supporters’ group of Hearts of Oak, recalled amidst tears.

Aziz and his friends were in the stands when the chaos unfolded. They were on earth, but the atmosphere was as daunting as hell. He managed to survive, through fortuitous circumstances, but most of his colleagues weren’t as lucky.

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The Rivalry

The rivalry between Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko spans over half a century. Till date it remains the biggest fixture on the Ghana football calendar despite both clubs losing their dominance in recent years.

Prior to the 2001 season, though, the rivalry between the Phobians and the Porcupine Warriors was at its highest point of interest. Hearts had won the previous four consecutive league titles and were on course to make it a fifth domestic triumph on the spin.

Also, the Accra-based side had just won the CAF Champions League and CAF Super Cup, beating Zamalek 2-0 in the latter. Such dominance and success made the “enemy” jealous. Here was Hearts dominating in Africa and winning the domestic league four times in the previous five seasons. In that same period, Kotoko had been knocked off their perch and had tasted league glory just once in the previous eight seasons. Such was the gulf in success between both clubs. Worse off, Hearts had humiliated their rivals in their last meeting by handing them a 4-0 thrashing.

The onus therefore lied with Kotoko to breach that gap and stop their rivals’ winning sequence. Watching the Phobians win the league four consecutive times was humiliation enough, and Kotoko were not prepared to allow their adversaries have another field day.

More damning for the Kumasi-based side was the fact that Hearts were coming into the fixture with a 100% record, having won all their opening three games. Everything was truly going well for the “enemy”.

As a result, the Porcupine Warriors could not wait to play against Hearts after finding out that the big clash had been scheduled for match-day four. Anticipation was at an all-time high; patience was no longer a welcome virtue.

But if the two teams were itching to resume hostilities on the field, the fans were much more eager to claim the bragging rights too.

It was a midweek clash – Wednesday, May 9, 2001 – and the game was scheduled for 17:00 GMT. However, some fans were already seated a clear three hours to kickoff.

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The Game

“By 2:00pm when we got to the stadium, the place was already packed with fans. The magnitude of the game meant that no fan wanted his side to lose. In fact, the banter and debate started whiles we were in a public bus en route to the stadium. This was what Hearts of Oak vs Kotoko meant,” said Eric Amoah, who was at the stadium that day.

“We got to the stadium gates three hours ahead of the game, yet we couldn’t get tickets to buy. Fans of both teams had taken over every joint; the crowd outside was so huge you could barely see the ticket attendant. And this was not 30 minutes to kickoff, this was three hours to the game!”

About an hour to the game, the Kotoko team bus arrived first, sparking huge cheers among their fans who were already in hyper mode. When the home team’s bus arrived, the pandemonium could not be described. Hearts fans continued to sing, drum and chant the names of their players as they walked into the dressing room.

In the stadium itself, the atmosphere was completely charged. On one side of the stadium were Kotoko fans, dressed in all red to match their team’s colours. Hearts fans also occupied the other half of the stadium, clad in the club’s traditional rainbow colours.

The stage was set!

Coached by the legendary Cecil Jones Attuquayefio, Hearts started the game with a slightly-changed side from the one that beat Zamalek to win the CAF Super Cup earlier in the year. The agile Sammy Adjei was kept in goal, whiles the dependable quartet of Amankwaah Mireku, Dan Quaye, Stephen Tetteh and captain Jacob Nettey made the back four.

In midfield, the Phobians opted for physicality as Adjah Tetteh and Edmund Copson were given the responsibility to anchor. The trio of Charles Allotey, Emmanuel Osei Kuffour and Charles Taylor were played in advanced roles to offer support to the deadly Ishmael Addo, who was playing as a lone striker.

Kotoko also came in with a very strong line-up. Having mulled Bofoakwa Tano 3-0 in the previous league fixture, manager Ernst Middendorf opted for an unchanged starting XI. Osei Boateng kept the sticks, ably guarded by the defensive pairing of Kwaku Duah, Godfred Yeboah, Dan Acquah and Joseph Hendricks.

The likes of Stephen Oduro, Lawrence Adjei, Godwin Ablordey and Nana Frimpong formed a four-man midfield, with Shilla Alhassan and Frank Asoah leading the attack.

The game began on a slow note, but in the stands it was a totally different thing all together. Both sets of fans were in bullish mood, and were not prepared to go home a defeated unit.

Kotoko drew first blood and sent the away fans into overdrive when Lawrence Adjei took advantage of a mix-up in the Hearts defense to slot home. However, the Phobians came back strongly, leveling the score through the exemplary Ishmael Addo.

From there, chances were few and far between both teams but, just as it looked like the game was headed for a 1-1 draw, Ishmael Addo popped up again with a typical striker’s goal to put Hearts in front.

Emmanuel Osei Kuffour dispossessed a Kotoko player off the ball after a series of pulling and tugging. The attacking midfielder then squared the ball to the unmarked Addo who tapped in to make it 2-1 in favour of Hearts.

Some Kotoko fans felt the goal should have been disallowed, insisting the referee should have stopped play after his linesman raised his flag in the buildup to the goal.

However, Jacob Wilson Sey, the referee who officiated the game, later explained that indeed his assistant signaled him of an infringement in the buildup to the goal, but he opted to play the advantage, rather than call for a foul on the marauding Hearts attacker.

“People said that my assistant raised the flag. Of course he did but it was for a different infringement. The infringement he flagged for was on the same attacker who had the ball and they had the advantage. By the rules of the game, I had to play on and I did. The player scored and that was it,” he said in an interview with TV3 Ghana.

It was a late goal, and it was heartbreaking for the Kotoko faithful. Whiles the home fans jumped in ecstasy, their rival fans seriously rumbled in misery.

The frustration of defeat staring them in the face translated into sheer rowdiness. With five minutes to the end of the game, some Kotoko ultras took matters into their own hands and started throwing plastic seats and bottles onto the pitch in protest of the goal.

Hearts of Oak eventually won the game 2-1 – putting them five points clear of their rivals – but there was no cause for celebration. Rather, that victory marked the beginning of what was to become (it still is) Africa’s worst ever sporting tragedy.

“Everything was going fine – we were singing, clapping and drumming in anticipation of a win against Kotoko,” Aziz narrates how things unfolded. “When Kotoko scored the first goal, we [Hearts fans] were sad but we kept on rallying our players in the stands. Then we equalized, and Ishmael Addo added the second goal. We were elated. We hugged each other in joy. Before I realized, we had been separated. Not by an eqauliser from Kotoko, but by teargas!”

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The stampede

Over 70,000 fans had flocked to the Accra Sports stadium to watch the game between Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko. The staggering number meant that the Police were overwhelmed by the chaos. Officers gathered on the tartan tracks trying to talk the unruly fans out of their actions, yet it was to no avail.

Tired of persuasion, the Police opted for force. Wrong force it was. When the teargases were lobbed into the crowd, the hurling of missiles was stopped, but a bigger monster roared its head. Palpable confusion vanished; palpitation took over.

With the teargas blurring the visions of hapless fans, carnage ensued. Those who managed to get to the main gates soon found out they were locked. The fans were trapped. Hopeless. Vulnerable. Nowhere to go.

“When we got to the gates they were locked. We banged and banged to no avail. All this while, more bodies were falling from the staircase to where we were gathered. It was the most horrific scene one could ever witness. Legs were broken, arms twisted and necks crooked. Some also had their heads in between the legs of others, as the bodies continued to pile up. We were just stuck in between bodies, both dead and alive. No movement, no turning. Rolling our eyes was the only move we could make,” Joseph Sackey, another survivor of the disaster chronicled his experience.

“All I could see were bodies scattered everywhere. Some of the bodies were interlocked, whiles others were parked on top of the ones below them. The situation was that bad,” Aziz adds. “I saw people suffocate to death with my own eyes. People were crying for help; they were slowly dying yet there was no one close to help. The luckiest among the victims, myself included, were stuck among a pile of bodies. We could barely move or even feel our legs. We watched on haplessly and helplessly.”

A rescue team eventually arrived but there was very little they could do. And even when they managed to make a breakthrough, they had to trample on tens of corpses in order to be able to pull out the survivors.

The official report put the death toll at 127, but those who witnessed the terror maintain that the number of casualties were more.

Many years on from the May 9 disaster, Accra-based broadcast journalist Yaw Ampofo-Ankrah admits he is still haunted by what he witnessed at the stadium that day.

“As I made my way towards the staircase, I froze! What I saw is something I will never forget for the rest of my life,” the experienced journalist told the BBC. “The most appalling look of fear and hopelessness was written across the faces of dying innocent young men. They were dying and there was nothing anybody could do to save them.”

Meanwhile, a committee set up by then-Ghana president, John Agyekum Kufour to look into the carnage fingered six police officers, recommending that they be prosecuted.

All six officers – Chief Superintendent of Police, Koranteng Mintah, ASP Faakyi Kumi, ASP Frank Awuah, ASP Frank Aryee, ASP John Naami and ASP B.B. Bakomora – were each charged with 127 counts of manslaughter, but were later acquitted after a submission of no case was upheld by a court.

In football goals often spark joy and excitement, but Ishmael Addo’s late winner on May 9, 2001, filled everyone in Ghana and across Africa with despondency.

Indeed, the former Hearts of Oak striker himself divulges that had he known what was to happen after that goal, he would never have hit the target.

“If I had the chance and knew this thing would happen, I would have withdrawn from the game,” Addo later confessed in an interview with Accra-based Radio XYZ.“The club officials had to even fly me out of the country for a couple of weeks just to get my mind off. I was completely traumatised, and with that experience, I don’t think I can be bold to take my family to the stadium.”

The disaster may have happened a long time ago, but the wounds it inflicted remain fresh in the minds of many Ghanaian football fans. The carnage at the Accra sports stadium has since had an adverse effect on the rivalry between Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko as well as stadium attendances in general in the Ghana Premier League.

In April when both clubs played in a league game, the rivalry was still intense but a lot of empty seats could be spotted in the stands. This cannot be fully attributed to the happenings in 2001, but there is no doubt that, till date, some fans shy away attending games for fear of a repeat of the May 9 carnage.

“How I survived only God can explain. I collapsed and when I woke up, I was on admission at the 37 Military Hospital,” Aziz reflects on the impact of the horror he witnessed in 2001. “My life changed after May 9. I lost by passion for by beloved Hearts of Oak and football as a sport.”

Credit: pulse.com.gh