Preview: Kotoko and Hearts clash for 100th time in the league

This is the 100 league installment of one of world football’s fiercest rivalries, and though it doesn’t feel like the big occasion it is supposed to be, the ‘Super Clash’  –  the biggest item on the Ghanaian football calendar  – is upon us.

It’s the soul of Ghanaian football, a monolithic institution that is revered. It is the clash of the two largest, most successful and most glamorous clubs. Accra Hearts of Oak and Kumasi Asante Kotoko, the African footballing beasts that they are, are snarling at each other once more, in a game that has proved to be much more serious than life and death since the first edition 56 years ago.

This has been a proper rivalry, with a tradition so deep and so far reaching. If football is one of Ghana’s major identities as a nation, then this clash is one of the things that make the country thick.

The backdrop to each clash has been unique, the stakes different. On Sunday, when they take to the pitch at the Baba Yara Stadium in Kumasi – the 45 time in the league that this clash has happened in the ‘Garden City’ –  there will be nothing more to play for but for the raw pride, the empowering bragging rights.

Indeed, Kotoko have wrapped up the title, and third placed Hearts are looking to round up what has been a disappointing season, knowing that a CAF Champions League place looks unlikely at this point. But, despite the seemingly nonexistent stakes, and the unusual timing – just 11 days before a FIFA World Cup – threatening to slow the anticipation, this, after all, is a game that never settles for mediocrity in standards.

There is something inherent in these clashes: players feel a renewed urge to play above themselves, suddenly turning into gods and titans, investing every inch of their blood, gut and sweat. Fans feel an adrenaline rush to go loud and charged throughout too. The emotions are rich, the tension out of the roof. It doesn’t matter how, where or when, but the Super Clash always brings out the best in both sides. There never seems to be average encounter, no matter the occasion.

The backdrop to this, though not as traditionally exciting, is interesting in many ways nonetheless: the hype seems a bit on the down side, and it looks like both clubs have not been their usual big-talking selves ahead of the clash. The game seems barred of the usual factors that make it one to look forward to, and you would be tempted to think that neither side acknowledges the importance of the match-up of fancies a win.

Don’t believe this. There are latent desires.
Kotoko’s motivation
Kotoko midfielder Rahim Ayew joked that his side can afford to go into the game and ‘decide to draw’, but there is a feeling that Kotoko want to win this, and win it big, to feel like their current dominance is credible.

It does seem to matter that they have been league champions for the last three consecutive seasons, neither does it seem to matter that whilst they’ve bossed things, Hearts have languished in trophy-lessness since 2009. It does not seem to matter that they have now stretched Hearts by four with regards to league titles won. What really matters for Kotoko – the one dominance that makes them feel fulfilled as a club: a sort of dominance they would give anything for – is dominance over Hearts of Oak.

For Kotoko, there’s a raging obsession – driven in part by an edge to exact revenge – to pulverize their archrivals beyond recognition; a desire that has proved elusive over the years.

At the height of their powers – 1999 to 2002 – when they knocked out every single team in their path and swept every trophy possible, Hearts took advantage of the vernom they had mustered in an era defining streak to record this rivalry’s biggest result, thrashing Kotoko 4-0 in Kumasi. That defeat has haunted the Porcupines for years, and has left them restlessly chasing a similarly comprehensive result, their achievements never really satisfying them.

Nothing is enough, nothing matters. It is revenge and nothing else: a sickening thirst and a helpless addiction.

Against the run of events?
For Hearts, though, it is another chance to defend that famous result. Another chance to get under the skin of their archrivals through the sweet joy of retaining the bragging rights of that iconic score line. The current Hearts of Oak side have looked largely unconvincing all season. Team cohesion and confidence has not been encouraging. Their manager, Mohammed Polo, has had one of the most turbulent tenures you could ever imagine, struggling to steady the ship amid the storm of competition. There has been a managerial sacking, a Managing Directorial interdiction, numerous technical team divisions and board room wrangling. The Oak tree seems ill, a pale shadow of its former glorious self, and on paper at least, are the underdogs.

But they aren’t. The Super Clash has never seemed to care about backdrops; it has never cared about any team’s story; any team’s form; any team’s struggles or any team’s wishes. It has never followed the statistical or historical trends. It has never been about any of all that; never influenced by anything. With it, it always feels like a refreshing clean slate – a level playing field. Every team goes into it with an equal chance of winning, no matter the sub plots, no matter the stakes, no matter what the experts say.

That is why Ghanaian football fans are so deeply in love with this iconic league fixture. A love that has seen  99 previous blockbusters of the highest quality, and counting.

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