In the early morning light, Ghana’s capital, Accra, is dulled by a dusty haze. It is harmattan – the season when a dry wind blows sand through the air from the Sahara desert, casting an arid fog over the city.
But in a sandy clearing in La Bawaleshie, a residential area in the north-east of the city, the mood is one of blazing colour. Opposite God’s Favourite African Wear – an old shipping-container-turned-boutique that sells brightly printed maxi-dresses – a group of local boys and young men are already busy, training at football and talking breathlessly about the match.
It is quarter-final day in the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), and in the first match of the round, Ghana are taking on the tiny island nation of Cape Verde in an all-west Africa affair.
“The last few years haven’t been good for us, but this time we have to bring the cup home,” said Enoch Alorwordor, 17, sweating heavily in his fluorescent yellow shirt after jogging round the pitch.
“It means a lot to me. I love football and I love our country. Everyone I know will be watching the match today – my friends, my mum, my grandma, everyone.”
For the last fortnight, millions of Africans from across the continent have been tuning in religiously as some of the world’s best teams have battled it out in the tournament, which is being held in South Africa.
“The Beat at Africa’s Feet”, as one Nigerian blogger described it, has been impossible to avoid. In Ghana, mobile phone companies have been spamming lines with pre-recorded commentary, so that answering calls from an unknown number has been almost guaranteed to result in a three-minute burst of the latest Afcon news.
One mobile phone company was furiously tweeting previous Ghana match statistics before the match. Another has blocked off a stretch of “Oxford Street” – the nickname given to the most popular shopping street in central Accra – with a large screen and 10-metre-wide blue balloons.
Hundreds of Black Stars fans jostle for a good view of the match, and hawkers, whose heads are usually poised to balance loads of sunglasses, pineapples or muffins, set down their wares to crane their necks up towards the screen.
Afcon 2013 has delivered its fair share of surprises, with South Africa defying expectations to make it through to the knockout stage, all of north Africa eliminated and Cape Verde catching most of the continent unawares by eliminating Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions in the qualifying stage and drawing with South Africa to make it to the quarter-final.
Cape Verde “have come out of nowhere,” said the Ghanaian-born former France captain Marcel Desailly, speaking to Fifa earlier this week.
It’s not the first time Ghana, a booming economic powerhouse on the heavily forested west African Atlantic coast, and Cape Verde, a music- and tourism-rich cluster of tiny islands off the Sahel’s western coast, have played each other. The nations faced each other in a final warm-up match before the tournament, resulting in a 1-0 victory for the Black Stars.
And in 2005 Ghana beat the Blue Sharks 4-0, Cape Verde’s worst ever home defeat. Cape Verde went into the match never having scored against Ghana, a record Ghanaians were hoping would continue.
“We will beat Cape Verde,” said Emmanuel Oduro, 22, who works as a cleaner at a nearby hotel, plays for a third division Ghanaian team, Argentinos, and trains at La Bawaleshi in between. “And when we do, you will see the way people will celebrate.
“I will be watching the match at work in the conference room. It’s Saturday so the managers are not going to be around. There is no way I am missing it,” Oduro said.
Coby Debrah, 27, a skinny taxi driver wearing a checked shirt and Adidas high-tops, has adorned his car with Manchester United stickers, Black Stars logos and – on match days only – a large Ghanaian flag draped over the back window.
“I put this flag over my taxi whenever Ghana is playing,” Debrah said. “I am seriously excited. We will win – seriously – we will.”
But more experienced footballers are more cautious in their optimism. “Cape Verde will be difficult to beat,” said Stephen Appiah, a former Ghana captain and one-time midfielder for Juventus and Fenerbahçe.
Appiah was training early on Saturday morning on a neat astroturf strip at Pippas, a smart gym in the affluent East Legon suburb just a kilometre away from the sandy pitch at La Bawaleshi.
“When it comes to a tournament like this, we don’t need to play perfect football, we just need to grab the trophy,” said Appiah, in between a punishing circuit of burpees, press-ups, running on the spot, squats and lunges.
Many Ghanaians reined in expectations of their performance in Afcon after a disappointing first match in which the Black Stars failed to turn an initial 2-0 lead over the Democratic Republic of the Congo into victory, ultimately drawing 2-2. But as the team’s fortunes improve, so football fever has swept the country.
Charles Narh Teye, 34, a powerlifter who competed for Ghana at the London 2012 Paralympics, said he has not missed a second. “I have watched all the matches where Ghana has played,” said Narh Teye, who had both legs amputated as a child.
“In the beginning we weren’t that happy – we lost a 2-0 lead to DRC, that showed the weakness of our team. But in subsequent games we have done better, and our last game was fantastic,” he added, referring to Ghana’s 3-0 victory over Niger.
Despite initially limited expectations, on days when Ghana have played every shop, shack or office building with a visible TV screen in Accra has attracted a crowd, drawing nearby workers away from their tasks with magnetic force.
Last week, while the Black Stars were pummelling Niger, motorists were left without attendants at one petrol station on Spintex Road, an industrial road in the Accra suburbs, as staff peered over cartons of wine bottles to catch a glimpse of a TV screen in a nearby off-licence.
Nobody seemed to mind. Their car radios were tuned in to the match and the usually gridlocked streets around central Accra were spookily empty of traffic for a Saturday.
“It is so lovely when it gets close to the match. Everyone stops what they are doing and gets close to the TV,” said Narh Teye. “Everyone wants to be watching in time for the national anthem – no one knows the words, but we do know ‘God bless our homeland’ and ‘Make our homeland strong. We love our country’.”
Patriotism in Ghana is often laced with a large dose of religion. The Black Stars’ captain, Asamoah Gyan, has repeatedly posted “Keep praying for #Ghana” on his Twitter stream during Afcon – a message that has been widely retweeted – while church services and private prayers have been full of requests for a Ghanaian triumph.
But there is more than just football at stake. On Oxford Street, a group of young men who sell Ghana merchandise say their livelihoods are closely tied to Ghana’s match performance.
“If we win the cup I will be so happy – people will come to see Ghana, money will come, tourists will come and buy a lot of Ghana stuff,” said Amos Okyere, 23, who wears a bright yellow Ghana strip and speaks with a locally acquired Jamaican accent – a popular trait among young men in this part of the city. “If we win today, sales will go up, and if we get into the final, they will go up again.”
“Football is big business here, and for fans it is no laughing matter. “You realise that when we lose a game there are people who die of heart attacks?” Appiah asks.
“Even me, when I’m watching, I get heart pains. When you are on the pitch you are too focused on winning the match to think about it, but when you are away from the action watching on TV, it’s another story. I feel so tense. I don’t eat anything when the match is on. I just drink water. I have to take in every second, I don’t have time to eat. It’s no joke.”
In the end his suffering was worthwhile. Ghana won 2-0, scoring a thrilling and decisive second goal in extra time to set them on their way to glory.
By Afua Hirsch, Guardian