On this day, November 6, 1977, Ghana’s Accra Hearts of Oak lived beautifully to their motto, “Never say die until the bones are rotten”.
Actually, Hearts of Oak were dead. They had been well beaten by 5-2 in Zambia by Ndola-Copperbelt-based Mufulira Wanderes in the first leg of the CAF Champions League.
A Ghanaian, living in Zambia then, by name Kwamena Apponsah, wrote to the Ghanaian Times of the first leg defeat:
“Hearts found their whole set-up on the field in great disarray. The team looked like drenched-fowls, their ball control and team work left much to be desired and their passes were feeble, lazy and inaccurate.”
A lot happened before the first leg. Hearts of Oak who were based at the residency of the Ghana High Commissioner to Zambia, two days before the match, were over fed. The Zambians generously offered goats and sheeps to be slaughtered for them to chew daily and the soggy players eventually got thrashed on the match day and the best headline in Zambia Daily after the match read ” OVERFED HEARTS WERE NO MATCH”.
Hearts were completely written off by most football pundits in Africa after the loss.
But the return leg is what will come to be known in Ghana’s football folklore, as “The miracle of El Wak”, powered by Hearts of Oak. It is 40 years today.
Just few minutes ago, I was speaking to Mohammed Polo on radio. He couldn’t believe 40 years has passed, or perhaps come so soon.
Polo, one of the greatest dribblers of the game, was part of that Accra Hearts of Oak side that staged the biggest comeback in Ghanaian Football history.
Polo, the Nima boy, in his prime, they say, was a better dribbler than Barcelona’s Lionel Messi. My dad, a hot-blooded Kotoko fan – despite his strong biases – used to say with agony, that Polo had a sweeter left foot than whatever you can think of.
This was the Polo who, who on the occasion of the 1977 CAF Champions League semi final return leg, like an orchestra, led Accra Hearts to history.
In Nov 1977, General Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, then Head of State, had instructed for the Accra stadium to be closed down for renovation works ahead of the 1978 African Cup of Nation.
This forced Heats of Oak to adopt the Military Stadium (El Wak) for their CAF Champions League home games. They could dream of a miracle anywhere, but certainly not the small, lifeless El Wak.
The Hearts team flew straight to Ghana after that embarrassing encounter, took a critical look at what really went wrong and began preparations for the return leg in Accra.
6th November was soon here and fans were at the El Wak Sports Stadium with little hopes but expecting a miracle. Hearts of Oak lined up goalkeeper Suppey, Aryee Quaye, Offei Ansah (of blessed memory), Sarpei Nunoo, Adolf Armah, Hammond (RIP), Mama Acquah, Peter Lamptey, Anas Seidu and Mohammed Polo.
The first 45 minutes ended barren with Hearts of Oak not really showing any signs of being able to turn things round and left most fans disappointed with no hope. Polo recalls that a lot of the fans had lost faith and left the stadium after the first half.
The Zambians could have even taken the lead had it not been the heroics of goalkeeper Suppey. He virtually stood between the Zambians and an opener.
The second half began in a similar fashion till the 59th minute when Mohammed Polo decided to wake up from his slumber. Polo, then 22, started his wizardry and held the key to Hearts’ victory and once he took those keys out, there was no stopping Hearts of Oak.
Hearts had an indirect free kick thanks to Polo. With his magical left foot, he kicked the ball gently to Anas Seidu who fired a cracker of a shot through the thick human wall of the Zambians. The goal cancelled out the two earlier sitters he missed before this and the anger of the fans.
There was hope now as Mohammed Polo seized the midfield and was showing some great “ball sense” which suddenly made the Zambians decide to defend their post and avoid more goals but Hearts had other ideas.
20 minutes to go and Hearts needed 2 unanswered goals to qualify for the finals of the elite African football competition so a miracle had to happen. You don’t think of where the miracle will come from when there is a dribbling magician in a team. Mohammed Polo characteristically mesmerized the defense of the Zambians and put through a computerized defense splitting pass straight to the Peter “Best Man” Lamptey who clearly showed his feet was itching to put the ball in the net. The former goal king beautifully flicked the ball to the blind side of the Zambian goalkeeper amid cheers from the home supporters. 2-0 to Hearts of Oak. 79th minutes now.
We were left with 11 minutes to end proceedings and the miracle seemed impossible since the Zambians had tightened up their defense but with the dribbling magician on the pitch, a miracle was not impossible. Mohammed Polo picked the ball from the middle of the pitch and put Mama Acquah through with a sleek pass. The veteran very typical of his bombing days that earned him the accolade “the bomber” dashed with the some speed Usain Bolt would even envy today and beat the entire defence of the Zambians in the process before sending a diagonal pass to the onrushing left winger Douglas Tagoe, who scored a memorable 40-yarder shot which caught Zambian goalie bemused even after the game. 3-0 for Hearts of Oak and the magician orchestrated.
This was a day that the “FEARSOME FIVESOME made up of Mohammed Polo, Mama Bomber Acquah, Peter ‘Best Man’ Lamptey, Anas ‘Thunderman’ Seidu and Robert Hammond” cemented their name in the hearts of Hearts.
Hearts via this victory become the second team from Ghana after Asante Kotoko to reach the finals of the competition.
The Phobians however lost out on the chance to win their first continental title in the grand finale when they lost 4-2 on aggregate to Guinean side Hafia FC but that year will be forever remembered for the semi final tie dubbed ‘The Miracle of El-Wak’.
Credit: Kwabena Yeboah