Two clubs have so dominated the Ghanaian league over the last half-century that even now, when they are no longer title contenders, their derby remains a focal point in the domestic programme. This weekend Asante Kotoko and Hearts of Oak will play the latest instalment in their long-standing rivalry, which stretches back to the halcyon days of independence and was often a significant marker on the road to glory.

In 2010/11, the two giants have failed to have successful seasons by their own standards, but the derby still remains a massive encounter. Only this week the new Ghana national team coach Goran Stevanovic told reporters: “I’ve heard of the intense rivalry, and I want to have a feel of the game.”

The stadium disaster at the match between the two in Accra in 2001, which claimed 127 lives will forever cast a sombre pale over the meeting, but it is still furiously followed and eagerly anticipated.

The origins
Hearts of Oak are among Africa’s oldest surviving clubs, founded exactly 100 years ago, and they have famously had Sir Stanley Mathews guest for them and Pele play against them. The Phobians are from the capital Accra, where they played their football in the local league in their formative years. It was only when the Ghanaian championship was established in 1958 that they became involved in regular competition outside the capital, and in Kotoko they found worthy opponents.

The Porcupines hail from Ghana’s second city, Kumasi, and they have venerable foundations dating back to 1935. Their history tells of one Kwasi Kumah, the driver of a British colonial officer, who went to a Hearts match with his employer in the 1920s and was so enamoured by the experience that he went home to Kumasi and formed his own club, which years later proved the genesis of Kotoko. Both sides were founding members of the maiden national league, with Hearts of Oak the first winners in 1958, followed by Kotoko the next year.

Facts and figures
With the Ghanaian championship in its 50th season, 40 of the past 49 titles have been shared between Hearts and Kotoko. Kotoko’s last championship success in 2008 marked their 21st triumph, while Hearts’ 2009 conquest was their 19th. Their league clashes in recent years have been dominated by Hearts, but Kotoko have bragging rights in terms of the impact they have made on the continent. Kotoko had won the African Champions Cup twice and lost a further five finals before Hearts had their first success in 2000. It came at their third attempt in the final after previous failures in 1977 and 1979. In 2004, the two clubs shared the distinction of becoming the first clubs from the same country to dispute the final of an annual African club competition when they reached the final of CAF Confederation Cup. Both legs of the deciding tie ended in 1-1 draws, before Hearts took the honours 8-7 on post-match penalties.

Tales of derbies past
The tragedy of 9 May 2001 will never be forgotten, being among the biggest stadium disasters in African football history. It came at the end of the 'Ghana derby' at the Accra Sports Stadium, which has subsequently been rebuilt and renamed the Ohene Djan Stadium. It remains an unforgettable shadow over the rivalry, and a statue stands as a memorial outside of the ground.

The meeting between the two sides in the Confederation Cup 2004 was their most important, but as a sporting contest it came outside of the season, postponed to January 2005 because of the presidential elections in Ghana. Although Hearts won in the end, they were in a perilous situation in the first leg at home, down by a goal until the last minute when Louis Agyemang rescued them with an equaliser. In the return leg in Kumasi a week later, Kotoko again took the lead from former Hearts player Charles Taylor, but with 13 minutes to go Lawrence Adjeh Tetteh equalised. In the penalty shoot-out, a total of 18 kicks were taken and Michael Donkor proved Hearts’ hero by converting the winner after Kotoko skipper Joe Hendricks had his effort saved by Mohamed.

The rivalry today
An astonishing seven defeats in a row for Kotoko at the start of the 2010/11 season was a novel experience for the Porcupines and left them floundering in the relegation zone. They have since engineered a remarkable turnaround and are up to fifth place but with little chance of catching leaders Berekum Chelsea, on the verge of being crowned champions for the first time. The long-time dominance of both Kotoko and Hearts looks at an end with more equality in the Premier League these days. Last season Aduana All Stars won their first-ever title, and again this campaign, both Kotoko and Hearts have not been among the frontrunners. It might be changing times, but there remains the constant of the heated rivalry between the leading clubs of Ghana’s two major cities.