Hearts of Oak FC: A Jewel of African Football

Adorning the southern coast of the Gulf of Guinea is Ghana’s bustling, metropolitan capital: Accra. Home to over 2.5 million, of which 56% are under the age of 24, Accra is becoming ever more cosmopolitan. Museums, libraries, galleries, and skyscrapers are enveloped by dazzling beaches, enjoyed by thousands each day, before a vibrant party scene erupts in the city’s bars and clubs when the sun goes down. Accra also houses a jewel of African football: Hearts of Oak FC. With a storied history stretching back to the pre-independence, colonial era of Ghana, Hearts are one of West Africa’s oldest surviving clubs, and Ghana’s most decorated. 

African football, Ghana Premier League, Hearts of Oak, Asante Kotoko, Phobians, Accra, CAF Champions League
Artwork by Onkar Shirsekar

Originating in 1911, the club was formed by a group of young men from Ussher Town led by Christopher Brandford Nettey, with the same group also acting as the playing squad during these formative years. But due to social and economic uncertainty gripping Ghana at this time, Hearts were forced to wait until 1922 for their first truly competitive action and indeed their first trophy—the year that the governor of the previously named ‘Gold Coast’, Sir Gordon Guggisberg, founded the Accra Football League. 

After winning the inaugural version, Hearts went on to win 6 of the 12 editions of the tournament, which spanned over 30 years before being replaced by the Ghana Premier League (GPL). This competition exists as the nation’s premier footballing event to this day.

A spark becomes a flame

The formation of the GPL, the nation’s first professional, organised tournament, in 1956 coincided with a political and national climacteric for Ghana. Ghana’s ‘New Assembly’ passed a motion authorising the government to request independence from the British Commonwealth, and on 6 March 1957, Ghana became the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to achieve its sovereignty. 

In true trailblazing style, Hearts of Oak won the inaugural season of the Ghana Premier League and have amassed an impressive 21 championships since. In fact, Hearts were so dominant in the late 1950s and early 60s that their vociferous supporters coined the name Phobians (translated to ‘fear’ in the native tongue) because teams were said to be terrified of playing them! The nickname has stuck to this day, and chants of “Phoooooobia ” reverberate around the 40,000-seater Accra Sports Stadium, creating a pressure-cooker atmosphere at home fixtures. Former players, including 7 time Ghanaian Premier League winner Yaw Amankwah Mireku, comment on the imposing nature of the chant and how it invigorates the team; opposition fans and players also describe their reluctant admiration of the iconic war cry.

Since 1917, Hearts have played in their trademark ‘Rainbow’ kit, which normally comprises red, blue, and yellow colours. The vibrant colour scheme has been coupled with various creative impressions throughout the years, with block stripes being the base of the design in the 90s. This has since given way to more extravagant artistry, involving patterns of tessellated diamonds and interwoven arrows.

The first edition of the kit can be traced back to its origin of manufacture in Manchester, England. Interestingly, in 2018, Hearts signed a long-term partnership with Umbro—who were coincidentally formed in Manchester in 1924—to design, produce and sponsor their kits. Fabled as “one of the best deals in African footballing history” by then Hearts CEO Mark Noonan, Umbro have aided in the creation of some strikingly beautiful kits in recent years. 

Ironically, football marketing ‘expert’ Noonan abandoned his post only a year later, refusing to return to his position amid rumours of internal discontent. In a joint statement between himself and the club, the American stressed that his decision was based on personal reasons and his ongoing frustration with the state of Ghanaian football. His feelings of consternation would prove to be well-founded, as touched upon later in the article.

An age-old tussle for the top 

Despite Hearts’ early dominance on the domestic stage, fierce rivals Asante Kotoko have won the league a staggering 24 times, adding fuel to the fire of what has always been a blazing rivalry. Meetings between the two are often spikier than the animal depicted on Asante Kotoko’s green and yellow badge: a porcupine. 

These two aforementioned titans of Ghanaian football have tussled toe-to-toe for the GPL title in the vast majority of campaigns. There are but several occasions throughout history where another team has usurped the dominant pair, with Ashanti Gold S.C. holding the next most with 4 titles. Other teams who have reached the rarified height of GPL glory include Accra Great Olympics, Aduana Stars, and the intriguingly named Cape Coast Mysterious Ebusua Dwarfs, who claimed an astonishing victory in 1967. 

Whilst the ‘Porcupine Warriors’ hold the most GPL wins, Hearts of Oak are seen as the most decorated team in Ghana due to their superior 9 Ghanaian FA Cup victories and singular—yet landmark—CAF Champions League victory in 2000. 

Comprising 68 teams from 56 associations, the CAF Champions League is an annual tournament run by the Confederation of African Football that is hotly contested by the continent’s elite clubs. Victory in this competition at the dawn of the millennium saw Hearts of Oak become, and remain to this day, the only club in West Africa to win a Continental Treble, making them one of only 6 African clubs and one of 21 football clubs worldwide to have achieved this monumental feat. But 2000 was the year of the footballing underdog, as S.S. Lazio, Deportivo de La Coruña and AS Monaco all defied the odds to win their respective domestic titles. It is therefore no surprise that Hearts’ momentous achievement flew somewhat under the radar of the global footballing community.  

Nevertheless, this season is enshrined in Ghanaian, and indeed African, footballing folklore. Under the masterful stewardship of the bald-headed Cecil Jones Attuquayefio, Hearts commenced the 2000 GPL campaign with 7 straight victories, including a 4-0 steamrolling of Asante Kotoko. Unsatisfied with the attacking potency of his squad—which had ironically scored in excess of 70 goals the season prior—Attuquayefio signed attacking midfielder Charles Taylor Asampong from Tuniasin outfit Etoile Sportive du Sahel, who in turn became part of Heart’s infamous front-three, alongside Ishmael Addo and Emmanuel Osei Kuffour. Addo still holds the goal scoring record for a single GPL season with 22 goals scored in the 2000/01 season; his two spells with Hearts saw him net an impressive 103 times in 124 games. 

Spearheaded by their devastating offensive trio, Hearts went on to wrap up the league at the matchday 20 mark, following a 3-1 victory over Sekondi Hasaacas F.C. Hearts were in fact unbeaten in the GPL at this stage; however Attuquayefio, to the disgruntlement of certain sub-sections of supporters, began to rotate his starting 11 in order to pursue victory in the FA Cup and CAF Champions League. This pragmatic decision-making bore fruit on 19 November 2000, when Hearts defeated Okwawu United in the final of the FA Cup; Kuffour and Addo were yet again on the scoresheet as Attuquayefio’s indomitable side shut-out the opposition in a dominant 2-0 victory. 

Celebration morphed into nervous energy, as 13 days later Hearts took to the field against Tunisian highflyers Espérance Sportive de Tunis in the first leg of the much-anticipated CAF Champions League final. A two-legged final is a curio in today’s game, and Hearts were first to enter the lion’s den, with their opponents commanding the vast majority of the 39,000 seater Stade El Menzah in Tunis. After a year of almost total dominance, Hearts were initially forced onto the back foot by their opposition, who sport the ominous nickname of Blood and Gold. The Phobians’ fear peaked in the 36th minute, when former Troyes striker Ali Zitouni gave the Tunis side a deserved 1-0 lead. Despite this, a characteristically calm yet purposeful Attuquayefio watched on from the sidelines and was able to steady the ship at halftime, with Hearts going on to govern the midfield in the second half and net twice to carry a slender advantage back to Accra. 

The Blood and Gold took the game to Hearts again in the second leg, which took place an unusually long 15 days after the first. Winger Hassen Gabsi opened the scoring in the 18th minute, and the Tunis outfit fought tooth and nail to retain the lead in a tempestuous affair at the then named Ohene Djan Stadium. Hearts finally broke through in the 83rd minute, when their swashbuckling front three combined again to blow the opposition from the water; Kuffour scored a brace and Addo netted a third to seal a history-defining victory for the Phobians. 

Wild scenes of jubilation washed over the city in a sea of rainbow colours. Street parties, processions, and celebrations enveloping Accra as chants of Phooooobians rang out from every corner. These scenes of exaltation were, sadly, swiftly consigned to memory as the Ohene Djan became home to one of the worst stadium disasters in recorded history. 

On 9 May 2001, a combative, bruising encounter between Hearts and Asante Kotoko saw Hearts come from behind to score two late goals and claim a dramatic 2-1 win. Cue scenes of agitation in the away end, where Asante fans allegedly threw plastic chairs and other projectiles onto the pitch and into the hordes of supporting Phobians. Given the ferocity of the rivalry and the tumultuous nature of previous encounters, the police began firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the stands. 

With gas filling the air and the shouts and screams of fellow fans echoing around the terraces, the caged supporters attempted to flee the ground en-masse via the ‘bottle-neck’ shaped exits, which had devastatingly been locked in efforts to contain the violence. 126 people lost their lives in the resultant stampede, making it the worst African and the third-worst global football stadium disaster in history. 

Frustration still rankles with heartbroken supporters of both clubs; the veracity of the facts and reporting of events being unclear to this day. Subsequent enquiries led to manslaughter charges being brought against several police officers, but no sentences came to fruition given the inability of the prosecution to assign responsibility for the deaths to the officers in question.

Playing under the sombre, dark cloud of that fateful day, Hearts proceeded to notch up another 5 GPL titles under the guidance of 8 different managers—a period which could be fairly summarised as successful chaos for the club. To the great delight of Hearts supporters, treble-winning manager Attuquayefio also returned for a second spell to lift another GPL title in 2004, the legendary coach solidifying his status as a footballing deity in the eyes of the fans.

However, the past decade has seen Asante Kotoko assert domestic dominance, with Ashanti Gold S.C, Legon Cities, Aduana Stars and Medeama S.C each claiming one solitary GPL victory. 

For the first sustained spell in their storied lineage, wind left the Phobians’ sails, and they drifted aimlessly upon a pan-flat, trophyless ocean. A whopping 12 different managers, with nationalities spanning from Scottish to Japanese, were appointed during the doldrum-esque period, without achieving any notable success. 

Asante Kotoko monopolised domestic success whilst the Hearts ailed, especially in the early 2010s, before Ghanaian football took a strange and unexpected twist in 2018.

Plunged into purgatory

Scheduled for its 62nd season, the GPL was originally due to kick off on 11 February, before being postponed to 4 March, then 17 March and then…indefinitely. Confusion shrouded the clubs whilst angst among eager supporters began to boil over following a lack of communication from the powers that be. 

It transpired that Kwesi Nyantakyi, Ghana’s Football President and member of FIFA’s decision-making council, had accepted a bribe from undercover journalists in exchange for securing highly profitable sponsorship contracts with the government. Resultantly, the entire Ghana Football Association was dissolved in June 2018, before being rebuilt from the sum of its then-cleaner parts in October that year. Nyantakyi was suspended by FIFA and the technical teams supporting all Ghanaian national teams were totally disbanded, following threats of worldwide suspensions from the governing body. 

Tragically for clubs, players, and fans, a whole season was lost to the ages. In retrospect, it is understandable that Hearts CEO Mark Noonan, aforementioned in the article, left his position in 2018 after stating that Ghanaian football was surviving “on life support” at the time. 

Recent years have seen an entire rebuild of the nation’s football governing infrastructure, personnel, and operations. Thankfully, the GPL resumed ‘normal’ service in 2019, with the mighty Hearts of Oak getting back to winning ways in a COVID-impacted 2020 campaign, under the managerial nouse of Samuel Boadu. But following a dismal 12th place finish in the 2022 campaign, Communications Director Kwame Opare Addo issued a rallying cry to supporters, requesting their unwavering, unrelenting support, and pledging that the players would return this faith in kind, and with interest.

Whilst results continue to ebb and flow, there can be no doubt that the Phobians create a fortress-like atmosphere which is unrivalled in West Africa, and the pages of their storied history will continue to be filled with highs, lows, and bountiful colour.  

Sam Goffin

A lifelong football fan with a passion for uncovering the lesser-known stories within the beautiful game. Hobbies include traveling the globe to attend weird and wonderful fixtures, reading articles and making the painstaking journey from Norfolk to Yorkshire to watch Leeds United.