ACCRA — This is a trophy Asante Kotoko craves badly. Since the FA Cup returned after a 10-year absence, The Porcupine Warriors have been to the final twice, and have failed to come out of either of them as victors.
The first time, in 2011, they faced second tier side FC Narnia in the final, with hopes of picking up where they left off, as they had won the last edition of the tournament in 2001. But it was not to be. They lost 1-0.
Two years later, they were back in the final, and this time, Medeama SC stood in their way. Kotoko had won the league title – beating Medeama and Berekum Chelsea in a pulsating three horse race – and were upbeat about completing their first ever ‘double’. By the end, they had failed again, losing by the same scoreline.
This season, they are back with the same thirst. On Sunday, the reds, led by captain Michael Akuffo, will return to the Accra Sports Stadium and file past that giant trophy again. ‘We have disappointed our fans twice already and we can’t afford a third time loss,’ said Akuffo.
Kotoko have had a peculiar trend over the course of their history that they’ve become obsessed with breaking: they have failed to win the Cup anytime they win the league, and failed to win the league anytime they win the Cup. Throughout seven FA Cup wins their 79-year history, they have never had the enviable experience of holding both titles simultaneously. They have never won the double, no matter how hard they’ve tried.
Hearts of Oak, Kotoko’s bitter arch rivals, have won the double four times, and are indeed are the only existing club in Ghana currently to have achieved it. They are also the club with the most FA Cup titles: ten, three more than Kotoko, a fact the ‘Fabulous Faithfull’s wish never existed, as it evens out the bragging rights in the passionate, never-ending debate on which team is the greatest.
The Ashanti King’s own club will pride themselves in the fact that they have won more Ghana League titles (24) than every team else – especially more (four) than Hearts of Oak, who have not won the league since 2009 - but never having won the double remains a nagging kill-joy in their traditional routine of claiming superiority.
This time, like last season, Kotoko go into this final having sealed a league title. A league title in the bag can only mean one thing: they go into this final, their third in four years, with the hopes of achieving that elusive double now higher than ever.
The optimism amongst Kotoko fans to finally break the jinx is noticeably very high. In a season that has seen them endure a painful early exit from the CAF Champions League as well as nearly capitulating in what was a rather slow march to the league title, the final represents a refreshing opportunity for them to end the season on a high.
Having won three league titles on the trot, it is arguably Kotoko’s era – like Hearts had in the late 90s and early 2000s – and there’s a growing feeling amongst their stakeholders that they have to take advantage of this dominance to break every jinx and catch up with their rivals. Winning the double has always been top of their agenda – a chronic obsession. Being so close now seems to have ignited a lot of excitement.
Perhaps Kotoko feel overly excited because they feel that the possibility is higher now more than ever. Their opponents, Tema-based Inter Allies, didn’t exist until 1996, and, to add to the odds, his has been their first ever season in Ghana’s top flight. On paper, Kotoko are giant elephants, Inter Allies small flies.
But this isn’t the full story. Inter Allies have been easily the most impressive team in Ghana this season. Their story – of recovering miraculously from beneath the rubble of the relegation zone to finish just four points off fourth place – has been one of the highlights of a roller coaster season, inspiring and telling of their potential.
Their coach, Herbert Addo, is one of Ghana’s finest coaches, with decades of experience. He took over after they had lost their first seven league games and is justifiably credited with masterminding their impressive escape and rise to prominence.
Under him, Inter Allies have grown. They have learned. They are a totally different side, and are now not anywhere close to the naÃ¯ve beauty-without-goals bunch they once were. Now, they are smart, more experienced and very effective. More importantly, they are Addo’s team, going above themselves to play for him, following every single one of his instructions to the letter.
‘We used to play, play and play when we first joined the top flight,’ said captain Seidu Dabo, revisiting what was a very nightmarish start to the season, when they played the most aesthetically pleasing brand of football in Ghana yet kept losing due to their inexperience.
‘But Addo came in and changed things. For him, it’s simple: if we do not score, we will not concede either. If we get a goal, that’s all. We will protect it till we win. That’s why, if you’ve noticed, we never score much these days. It’s all about winning.’
Truthfully, it has been so. Inter Allies have mastered the art of grinding out results. On their way to the final, they won all of their five games via one goal margins, four of them via 1-0 score lines, conceding only once. They have scored six goals in amid these five games, compared to Kotoko’s 12. Their last four league wins were 1-0 wins too.
Perhaps their semi final match-up, which saw them comprehensively outplayed by the extremely young, technically brilliant boys of newly-promoted Feyenoord, was the boldest reflection of how far they’ve come; how much they’ve changed. They were on the back-foot all day, barely seeing the ball, but they came out as victors.
In fact, the last time Inter Allies met Kotoko (in a league game two months ago) they caused an upset triumphed by a single goal to nil.
Addo, himself a former Kotoko coach, has contradicted the silent figure he’s cut for himself all season by coming out to talk big before the game, vowing to prolong his former employers’ long wait for the double. ‘There are no big sides in the Cup games and our team have what it takes to beat Kotoko,” he warned at the pre match presser. “Sunday’s match will be exciting and I will teach them new tricks.”
Kotoko will go into their 12th final slightly disadvantage: without Head Coach Mas-Ud Didi Dramani, who is on international scouting duty with Ghana ahead of the World Cup in Brazil, and also without influential center back Kwabena Adusei, due to injury. Michael Osei, Kotoko’s former player and now assistant coach, will lead the side.
It should be an entertaining final, hopefully less boring and with more goals, away from the 1-0 trend in the last three years.
Going into Ghana’s 36 FA Cup final, Kotoko are the clear favourites, the pundits’ safe choice, but one can’t help the fact that Inter Allies are symbolic of the stereotypical fairy tale that neutral football fans easily fall in love with.
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