While July 4 is normally an occasion for Americans to celebrate independence, the date this year was also when a true football giant fell. Ben Koufie, former Botswana Footbal Association (BFA) Technical Advisor and Ghana Football Association President lost his battle with illness at a hospital in Accra, Ghana. To his friends and family the news came as a cruel blow. We comfort ourselves in the knowledge that it was God's will and that Ben ‘has run his race.’ Funeral arrangements are still to be concluded by his family. I am informed that this weekend his family and friends will have a ‘one week celebration’ in Accra in his honour. It is expected that at this event the dates of his burial will be announced. Ben Koufie’s curriculum vitae is as good as they come. Apart from studying for his coaching qualification in Czechoslovakia, Germany and England, he has coached clubs not only in his native Ghana but also in Ivory Coast and the DRC formerly known as Zaire. He also coached the Ghana Black Stars initially under compatriot C.K Gymphi and winning their first Africa Cup of Nations trophy in 1965, before leading the team as National coach to finals in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1968 and Sudan in 1970. He ventured into being a Technical Director in Zimbabwe from 1983 to 1992 before moving to Botswana from 1992 until 2000. Indeed Ben was not a world acclaimed African Football Technician by accident.
It was during his stay in Botswana that Ben and I became very close both as a colleague and friend.. Although I was his Boss he was like a father figure to me and we had an excellent rapport. On occasions that I felt like I had reached dead end in my job as BFA CEO, Ben would provide much needed encouragement and motivation to soldier on. Whenever he came very early to my office in the morning, I knew there was something worrying him either at a personal level or about his job. One of the things that concerned him at the start of his football development adventure at BFA was how we would succeed without financial resources. He would leave my office at least convinced and sufficiently motivated to continue working. He manned the Technical Department alone until we could employ Philemon Makwengwe as his assistant. The two worked very well together although their relationship was at times topsy-turvy. I recall a time when Ben Koufie wanted me to dismiss Philemon. I told him that I was not convinced with his reasons. I implored him to make his relationship with Philemon work. When all turned out well, it was something we would on occasions chat and laugh about. Ben and I were in regular contact even after his return to his native Ghana.
Ben achieved a lot for Botswana Football. He introduced the development of national football which previously did not exist. He developed the first Development Plan for the BFA and succeeded in convincing the Ismail Bhamjee led Executive Committee to do away with ceremonial independence friendly games and rather plunge directly into international competitions at all levels possible as this was the only way we could appreciate competitive football at the international level. The baptism of fire that followed at the level of international competitions where Zebras were referred to as ‘whipping boys of Africa,’ made many believe that Ben Koufie did not know what he was doing. Managing change was indeed a huge challenge for the BFA amongst the football followers in Botswana at this time. For a good number of people in this country it was only long after Ben had left that there was any real appreciation of what he had been doing for the eight years he spent here.
Ben’s first Development Plan (known as the Three year Development plan) had three critical components. First was the training of coaches with some focus on school teachers because schools were located in almost every part of the country and that teachers could move with the knowledge whenever and to wherever transferred. The second component was laying of Junior Structures throughout the country which would be followed, as final component by commencement of age group based inter regional competitions. Owing to a lack of funds to drive the plan it was not possible to complete the first plan in the time given and this necessitated making several extensions to the plan. By the time he left Botswana, Ben had produced 1000 coaches in Botswana including Basic, Intermediate and Advanced level coaches. He had also hosted a number of FIFA/Olympic Solidarity courses. I recall pleas from a good number of intermediate level coaches for Ben to take them through a final advanced course before leaving. This proved difficult owing to time constraints. At the conclusion of the plan and apart from the production of coaches Uncle Ben had succeeded in the laying of Junior Structures in 14 Centre’s throughout the country, manned by appointed Regional Coach at each Centre and Zonal coaches to coach specific age group regional select teams. Although activity was created in all the Centre’s, a lack of resources delayed the start of inter-regional championships. There is was no major centre or village in the country that Ben koufie has not visited in pursuit of the Development Plan.
Another milestone that the ever hard working Ben Koufie will be remembered for was when he travelled across the country accompanying the then Treasurer of the BFA, Pako Keokilwe to visit the different District Councils in order to address Councilors on the BFA Development Plan and at the same explain the role of Technical Advisor of the BFA. There was a misplaced believe that Ben koufie was also a National Coach and because the Zebras were perennial losers in international competitions at the time, this to some translated into failure by Ben Koufie. The feedback from the council visits was very positive and went a long way in educating many people on what the BFA was doing in football development. At the Association level it became a regular General Assembly agenda item for Ben to update the meeting on progress made on football development. Throughout his stay in the country and contrary to popular belief, the Executive Committee of the BFA not only admired but fully appreciated Ben Koufie and the work he was doing. It is for this reason that the football leadership ignored public pressure to have Ben Koufie sacked. The Botswana National Sports Council in 1999 sent a directive to the BFA that Ben Koufie’ s services must be dispensed with in three months of their letter. BFA wrote back to the BNSC reminding them that Ben Koufie was contracted by the BFA and that the leadership were satisfied with the work he was doing. The letter also made it plain that the BFA would not carry out the directive of the BNSC and that Ben Koufie would see out his contract. He left Botswana in 2000 at the end of his extended contract.
On his return home Ben was elected to lead the Ghana Football Association as Chairman for one term from 2001 to 2003. In no time he instituted a Five year Development Plan for Ghana. In 2000 he was awarded Silver Medal by Confederation of African Football for the development of Football in Africa. He received National Honours (Grand Medal) for distinguished service to Ghana from the President J.A Kufuor in July 2006 and selected for Ghana’s Hall of Fame for excellent performances as player, coach, instructor and administrator. Uncle Ben left a development legacy in Botswana. When he left Botswana, Ben predicted that provided the Development Plan would be sustained, the Zebras would qualify for final editions of the Africa Cup on Nations within the not too distant future. Sadly with his departure in 2000, the development of football was not maintained at the level he had left it and consequently our first qualification for AFCON was not until 2012. Ben was visibly proud when this milestone was reached but regretted that the development of the game in Botswana was no longer structured neither was it consistent. Ben Koufie left a template for Football Development in Botswana. The sooner we revive it the better it will be for the improvement of the game at all levels in our country. Ben will be sorely missed by his loved ones and friends. He will also be missed by his colleagues in the football world where he was highly rated. Whichever way ones views his passing, a football giant has truly fallen.
*Mamelodi is a FIFA Development Officer, Gaborone