In just over a year, one of Africa's oldest football teams will celebrate their century. It is a rare landmark on a continent whose sporting history is still young. Ghana's Hearts of Oak are a side who provoke great passion, reflecting their deep roots and pre-eminent role in west African football. There are older teams in Africa but few who have been as successful for as long.
Birth of an institution
In the British colony of Gold Coast, now known as Ghana back in 1910, there was only one football team. The Invincibles had been formed by the young men of James Town and across the burgeoning capital Accra, their compatriots in Usher Town were emboldened to take up the challenge.
From outside the area, they brought in a leader. Ackom Duncan, who, became the first captain of the side and served to coach his team-mates in the art of playing football. So was born Hearts of Oak, whose formal date of launch is recorded as 11 November 1911 - the date they were finally ready to take on the Invincibles.
Many of the founding players went on to play roles in sport in the colony, including C. B. Nettey, who was later to become the chairman of the Accra Football Association and J. T. O. Ankrah, whose son was a Commonwealth boxing champion. An auctioneer called Hanson Sackey was among their first patrons and benefactors and help secure some ground for the team to train on. The motto ‘Never Say Die' was adopted and became the creed by which Hearts played their football and in 1917, the colours red, yellow and blue, to represent the rainbow were chosen and the jerseys ordered from Manchester in England.
Making of a legend
The first league in Accra was formed in 1920 and two years later, a shield donated by the British Governor-General was commissioned and given to the winners. Hearts were to dominate the competition, winning the Guggisberg Shield when it was first introduced in 1922 and for a sixth time and final time it was last competed for in 1954. Two years later Hearts were inaugural winners of the new Ghana League.
Among their early players were royalty and political leaders; Nii Tackie Tawiah II, traditional leader of the Ga people, and Joseph Ankrah, who overthrew Kwame Nkrumah, the first leader of a free Ghana. But their most famous player has been the English legend Sir Stanley Matthews, who Nkrumah encouraged to play for Hearts in several guest appearances to publicise the new Ghanaian league at the time of independence.
The ‘Phobians' were early competitors in the African Champions Cup but made their first impact in 1979 when they reached the final, only to lose 4-2 to the all conquering Hafia of Guinea. Two years later they were back again in search of glory and this time went even closer. They beat Union Douala 1- 0 at home in the first leg of the final in December 1979, only to go down by the same scoreline in the return leg and then lost the title 5-3 on penalties.
Just over a decade later, the club finally achieved a long-standing ambition in the 2000 CAF Champions League. The unfancied Hearts team, coached by Cecil Jones Attuquayefio, started their group campaign with a win over Egyptian giants Al Ahly and went onto top their group with an unbeaten run, thereby earning a berth in the final in the days before there was a semi-final round.
In the final Hearts were big underdogs against Esperance of Tunis but Emmanuel Osei Kuffour's late winner gave them a surprise away win in the first leg in Tunis and in a dramatic return match in Accra, they turned that 2-1 lead into a 5-2 aggregate triumph.
Five years later, Hearts won the first ever edition of the new CAF Confederation Cup, an amalgamation of the defunct African Cup Winners' Cup and CAF Cups. Victory on penalties after the second leg of the final against arch-rivals Asante Kotoko ensured them the distinction of being the first side to triumph in both of the continent's two annual club competitions.
A few weeks ago, Hearts claimed the Ghana Premier League title back from Kotoko, winning on the final day of the 2008/09 campaign. They can now look ahead to the prospect of another tilt at continental glory in next year's CAF Champions League. Hearts did stutter towards the end of the domestic campaign after firing Serbian coach Kosta Papic. But former defender Nii Noi Thompson took over for the last seven games and ensured the silverware was brought back to Accra. Keeping the squad intact is the next dilemma for Hearts, whose best talent usually departs for more lucrative shores, with the number of key players leaving particularly noticeable after a successful season.
Hearts use Ghana's premier football venue, the recently refurbished Ohene Djan Stadium. It received a major overhaul for the recently hosting of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations and hosted the deciding match, which saw Egypt beat Cameroon 1-0. Before the renovation, it was also used for the same tournament in 2000 and 1978. It has a capacity of 48,000 and the new look of the stadium bears little resemblance to the original venue, which was the site of the tragic stadium crush after the end of a Hearts against Asante Kotoko match in 2001 where 127 people died.