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Hearts of Oak's treble winners of 2000: A team and manager that dominated African football

By Primenewsghana
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The year 2000 was one of the most memorable in terms of sporting successes: Venus Williams won her first championship at Wimbledon after defeating Lindsay Davenport, Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe historically won five medals at the Sydney Summer Olympics, the New York Yankees beat the New York Mets in five games in the first ‘Subway Series’ since 1956, and St. Louis Rams saw off Tennessee Titans to win the Super Bowl XXXIV.

The story was no different in football, where there were many notable against-the-odds triumphs for Lazio (Serie A winners), AS Monaco (champions of Ligue 1), Deportivo (conquerors of LaLiga) and Galatasaray (victors in the UEFA Cup). Among all these, though, Hearts of Oak’s treble-winning campaign flew under the radar.

The Ghanaian giants mastered the art of winning with style, verve and fervour. If their racking up of consecutive wins was sportingly illusory, the cheeky ease with which they dismantled opponents made them even more endearing. For the average football fan, this Hearts team represented in totality what football should be about and how it should be played.

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Indeed, the Phobians themselves have had some very good teams in the past – like the one that won the Ghana Premier League with a record 78 points, or even the group that went unbeaten in the 2003 league season. However, Cecil Jones Attuquayefio’s class of 2000 was on a totally different level. For they remain the greatest of all.

Bolstered by a squad of depth and immense quality, Hearts made light work of every opponent, both domestically and on the continent, as the romped to the league, FA Cup and CAF Champions League titles. Nicknamed the 64 Battalion, this Hearts team had it all. They were a team of talent and eminence, fighters and leaders, brawns and brains.

The agility and awareness of Sammy Adjei made him unstoppable in goal; Yaw Amankwah Mireku and Jacob Nettey brought composure and comportment to the full-back positions; Agyeman Duah and Sannie Wahab were fierce and feisty at the heart of defence; Charles Allotey, Joe Ansah and Adjah Tetteh were wily and tidy in midfield; while the trio of Charles Taylor, Emmanuel Osei Kuffour and Ishmael Addo were attacking royalty.

Their bench was equally skilled, with the likes of Stephen Tetteh, Edmund Copson, Daniel Quaye and Emmanuel Adjogu all rising to the occasion whenever called upon.

In a flawless season that is unlikely to be repeated for many decades, Hearts won 18 of 30 league games, went unbeaten in the CAF Champions League from the group stages and lost just seven matches in all throughout the campaign. “We were a team of very committed players,” Charles Taylor, who was a key member of the 64 Battalion, tells These Football Times. “Nothing mattered more than winning. Not even money. Our focus was to improve in every game.”

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Hearts’ unprecedented treble success, though, came largely thanks to the influence and genius of Cecil Jones Attuquayefio. For if this winning machine of a team was the gold, Attuquayefio was the skilled miner who oversaw its digging and refinery.

When the gentle, bald-headed Attuquayefio was appointed coach of Hearts in 1998, his main task was to transform the team into one capable of competing on the continent. Despite being the most successful side in the county, it was somewhat embarrassing that the Accra giants had not won any African title in their 87-year history.

Attuquayefio would, however, go on to lead the club to the most successful spell in its history. He had achieved commendable feats with Great Olympics, Okwawu United, Stade Abidjan and Ghana’s under-17 side, but the pinnacle of his coaching career was now about to unfold.

Attuquayefio was usually spotted with a white handkerchief tied to his wrist – a gesture symbolic of victory in Ghanaian parlance. He was a man of few words, but whenever he spoke he had a philosophical tone which epitomised his winning mentality. “History is still being written and I would never stop writing my name in gold any time the opportunity beckons,” he famously declared during one of his press conferences. But despite all the optimism that greeted Attuquayefio’s arrival, the challenge ahead wasn’t going to be easy.

A club of great history, Hearts were by far the best Ghanaian side from the 1950s through to the 1980s. However, a massive power shift saw them overtaken by their rivals at the turn of the 90s. The Phobians had won 11 league trophies and six FA Cup titles before 1990, but the following years weren’t as generous. A series of underwhelming results, coupled with a six-year league drought, left the club in a damning situation. Despondent fans, an aged squad and a lack of technical direction meant the turmoil at Hearts was fast approaching a crisis.

While Hearts were on the decline, their rivals took centre stage. Sworn rivals Asante Kotoko emerged as the dominant force in the country in the early-90s. With brutish dominance, the Porcupine Warriors won three successive league titles at the turn of that decade. Even worse for Hearts, by 1994, they had been pushed further down the pecking order, with Goldfields – now known as Ashanti Gold – also winning the league three times on the bounce.

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In the six seasons that Kotoko and Goldfields dominated the league, Hearts finished second twice, third once and then slumped to fifth in three of those campaigns. For the thousands of fans affiliated with the Rainbow club, this was unacceptable.

In 1995, the Hearts hierarchy made its first contact with Attuquayefio, having identified him as the right man to overturn the club’s fortunes. They desperately wanted him to replace Petre Gavrila, who had just been sacked for failing to return the Phobians to the glory days. Gavrila had been in charge from 1991 – winning just one FA Cup – but the Romanian’s failure to bring major silverware proved to be his undoing. His departure looked to have cleared the way for Attuquayefio to step in, until the 51-year-old’s past scuppered the move.

Having previously played for, and managed, Accra Great Olympics, the Hearts fans found it unacceptable that a son of the enemy would manage their club. Those were the days when the Mantse derby – played between city rivals Hearts of Oak and Great Olympics – was one of the biggest games in Africa.

To make matters worse, Attuquayefio had a chequered history with Hearts. In 1960, he rejected a move to the Rainbow club before, rather egotistically, declaring that he would never play for Hearts. He is also said to have made several spiteful comments against the Phobians during his playing days.

So, while he was an Accra boy, there was still plenty of resentment towards him in some parts of the city. On one occasion when the Hearts hierarchy tried to manage issues and hire him, the result was near-fatal. Such was the level of resentment towards Attuquayefio, the fans charged at him when he was invited to observe one of the club’s training sessions. The move, therefore, had to be called off.

Amid growing criticism over the club’s years of underperformance, the Hearts hierarchy quickly began a massive overhaul, albeit without their preferred choice of manager. Between 1994 and 1998, they uncharacteristically changed coaches four times. Hearts’ thirst for league glory finally ended in the 1996/97 season, when they won the title under the managerial guidance of E.K. Afranie. But despite the league returning to Accra, Afranie was replaced before the start of the next campaign. Hearts would, however, go on to win another league title.

With their 90th anniversary fast approaching, conquering Africa became the ultimate goal. Having been formed on 11 November 1911, Hearts’ best run in the Champions League had been runner-up finishes in 1977 and 1979. Desperate to win a continental title before their 90th anniversary, Hearts once again looked the way of Attuquayefio in 1998. This time both the fans and management were in agreement that he was the right person to lead the club to continental glory. Rivalries and resentments aside, Attuquayefio was finally appointed.

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Little did each party know that this was going to be the most fruitful union in Ghanaian football history. Attuquayefio took over a team of champions; now he had the unenviable task of turning them into continental conquerors. Where every other manager before him had failed, he had to find a way. But Attuquayefio was ready for the challenge.

As a player, he was part of the Black Stars team that won the 1965 Africa Cup of Nations. As a coach, though, he was yet to win major silverware, despite the visible progress he had made at his previous clubs. That made Attuquayefio, a coach looking to take his career to the next level, and Hearts, a club looking to conquer Africa, the perfect match.

Attuquayefio quickly set out to overhaul the squad. However, his first two attempts at the Champions League didn’t go according to plan, Hearts exiting the competition at the group stage in the 1998 and 1999 seasons. In the old format of the CAF Champions League, the two sides that finished top of Group A and B automatically advanced to the final.

These disappointments dealt Attuquayefio a reality check, but he swiftly began placing his fingerprints on the team with key signings. For a man looking to conquer Africa, he surprisingly turned to youth.

His choices were cut out by the fact that he was combining the Hearts job with his role as coach of Ghana’s under-17 team. Therefore, it became easier for him to lure the best talents from the Black Starlets to join Hearts. Sammy Adjei was quickly drafted in to become Hearts’ first-choice goalkeeper, replacing the aged Eben “Dida” Armah. Ishmael Addo and Stephen Tetteh, also members of the Black Starlets’ 1999 squad, joined the ranks of the Phobians.

Adjei was the most promising Ghanaian goalkeeper at the time, Tetteh was already a regular with Great Olympics, while Addo was top-scorer in the 1999 FIFA Under-17 World Cup. All three players, although young, were joining with great reputation.

Gradually Attuquayefio was getting his team in shape. If these signings were not warning enough, a 4-1 drubbing of Afienya United in the opening game of the 1999 season sent shivers down the spines of opposition teams. Hearts and Attuquayefio left all other teams in their wake, winning the league with 62 points, nine clear off second-place Ebusua Dwarfs. Their failures in Champions League, though, weren’t all forgotten, especially in 1999, when Hearts finished third in a group containing Raja Casablanca, Al Ahly and Shooting Stars.

There was, however, consolation as Attuquayefio led the Phobians to the FA Cup at the end of the season after a 3-1 win over city rivals Great Olympics. Although Hearts couldn’t cut it on the continent, Attuquayefio had done enough to keep his job by winning the double, the club’s first since 1990.

Determined to still “write his name in gold”, Attuquayefio sought further reinforcements ahead of the 2000 season. Despite scoring over 70 goals the previous season, he wasn’t content. Despite boasting the league’s top-scorer in Ishmael Addo, who netted 19 times in 1999, Attuquayefio went all out to acquire the signature of the intuitive Charles Taylor. Having established himself as one of the league’s best young strikers, Taylor joined as the final piece in the jigsaw. All was now in place to chase that elusive continental title.

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Attuquayefio assembled a lethal frontline led by Taylor, Addo and the goal-hungry Emmanuel Osei Kuffour. Initially, there were doubts over whether the three would gel when played in the same line-up. Such fears were, however, quickly banished once the season began. The trio became the deadliest attacking unit on the continent, tearing opposition defences apart. “We had a very good team,” Taylor reckons, “and the coach [Attuquayefio] made sure it was never about individuals. We helped each other and covered up for each other’s deficiency. Unity was our biggest weapon to glory.”

The Phobians started that season like an angry Mother Confessor, ‘confessing’ every opponent before them. They ruthlessly dominated and battered opposition sides into submission. Hearts won each of their first seven games of the 2000 league season, including a 4-0 rout of bitter rivals Asante Kotoko. Their winning run was finally halted on matchday eight when they drew 1-1 at Power FC.

The 64 Battalion, however, went unbeaten in the first round of the league, winning 14 out of 15 games, scoring an impressive 39 goals, conceding just eight. The league was virtually won at this point, with Goldfields trailing by 16 points in second-place and Kotoko further behind by a whopping 18 points.

Still unbeaten going into August, Attuquayefio and his charges wrapped up the title after matchday 20 when they beat Hasaacas 3-1. Such was the efficiency of this Hearts team, many believe they could’ve gone unbeaten had they not taken their foot off the gas after winning the league. Having wrapped up the title in record time, Hearts won just one of their remaining ten league games. This was, however, understandable as they now had their eyes set on the FA Cup and the Champions League.

Although a rotational Hearts team was underperforming in the league, the story was totally different in the cup competitions. Attuquayefio and the 64 Battalion recorded narrow wins over Hasaacas, BA United and Dawu Youngsters, to set up an exciting final in the FA Cup against Okwawu United.

In Africa, too, Hearts were crashing all before them. They defeated Guinea’s AC Haroya and DC Motema Pembe from DR Congo to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League. Paired in Group B with Lobi Stars, Jeanne d’Arc and Egyptian giants Al Ahly, the Phobians finally navigated their way to the final of the Champions League. And they did it in style: Hearts were unbeaten in the group, securing 14 from 18 points, scoring 12 goals and conceding just five.

With this, they set up a mouthwatering final against Tunisian heavyweights Esperance. With two crucial finals to come in the space of 28 days, there couldn’t have been a better moment for Attuquayefio and his charges to finally write their names in gold. On 19 November, Hearts won a second successive double under Attuquayefio, recording a hard-fought 2-0 win over Okwawu United in the FA Cup final, Addo and Osei Kuffour getting the goals.

There was, however, no time for overblown celebrations, as the club immediately shifted focus to the Champions League final, where Esperance awaited. The first leg was played in Tunis on 2 December. Despite Hearts’ reputation as the side that usually bullies the opponent, Esperance proved to be a tougher nut to crack. Backed by a charged home crowd, the Tunisian giants took the game to them and deservedly drew first blood in the 36th minute through winger Ali Zitouni. The hunter became the hunted.

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Hearts were overwhelmed at this point. As confidence was sapping, diffidence was heightening. Wayward passes, sloppy defending and a lack of urgency characterised their play. A look at Attuquayefio’s face depicted to a man out of his depths. The moment was slowly slipping away and the half-time whistle was the only thing that could save the situation. And it did. Some say Esperance were complacent; others also hold that Hearts just needed an awakening. Whatever the situation was, things began to take a different turn after the break.

Rather than try to match Esperance’s intensity, as they had unsuccessfully done throughout the first half, Attuquayefio set his side to slow things down, take the sting out of the game and play on the counter. It was a complete departure from his philosophy, but in that moment it was never going to matter.

The conservative approach turned out to be a masterstroke. Seven minutes after the restart, Hearts pulled level thanks to a swift counter-attacking move which ended with Addo prodding the ball home. The equaliser rattled Esperance. The Ghanaian club completed the turnaround in the 79th minute, against the run of play, when Osei Kuffour and substitute Emmanuel Adjogu combined beautifully, the latter going past the goalkeeper before setting up the former to tap home from close range.

In a game that many gave Hearts no chance, where they lost talisman Amankwah Mireku to a 65th minute red card, where they had to come from a goal down, survive an intimidating home crowd and abandon their attacking philosophy, Attuquayefio and his 64 Battalion managed to pull off a surprise 2-1 win, far away in Tunisia, at a ground where Esperance hadn’t lost in over 30 years.

That was drama, but the real theatre was reserved for the second leg in Accra. Just like in Tunis, Esperance opened the scoring when they visited the Accra Sports stadium on 17 December. Playing at home, Attuquayefio threw everything at his opponents, but Esperance held firm. The usually lethal Addo and Osei Kuffour were having a hard time, while Taylor was completely marked out.

By the 73rd minute, Attuquayefio had desperately made all three changes, bringing on Emmanuel Adjogu, Edmond Copson and Osmanu Amadu for the struggling Charles Allotey, Adjah Tetteh and Charles Taylor, respectively.

Esperance’s narrow lead meant the scoreline was 2-2 on aggregate heading into the final ten minutes. It would turn out to be the most animated ten minutes in the history of any CAF Champions League final. There were riots, goals, a red card, brawls and blood. An ostentatious spectacle for the fans, this was a highly tempestuous and arduous encounter for the players involved, one which demanded they give everything on the pitch.

Minutes earlier, there had been a long break in play – almost 20 minutes – after a police officer lobbed teargas into the crowd, nearly marring the occasion. Then there was Esperance goalkeeper Chokri El-Ouaer, who in the midst of the melee, cut himself in the face with a bottle in a bid to fool the referee. There were numerous brawls within that period, with Esperance defender Walid Azaiez consequently receiving his marching others.

Although the home side was technically on course to win the cup due to their 2-1 win in the first-leg, the tension in the stadium was palpable. Hearts left it late, but the three substitutes had the desired impact, freeing up Addo and Osei Kuffour to wreak havoc at the other end. And it was the latter who eventually pulled Hearts level, volleying home with the outside of his boot in the 83rd minute. Six minutes later, the stadium was sent into a frenzy, rainbow colours flying in every corner after Osei Kuffour struck again to make it 2-1.

At this point, it was evident that the Champions League was finally coming to Accra. However, the celebrations had barely started when Addo added a third in the 90th minute to seal the result and end Hearts’ thirst for continental glory. Attuquayefio and his 64 Battalion had finally completed an improbable treble, thanks to a 5-2 aggregate win over Esperance. And it came just before the club’s 90th anniversary.

Unmatched domestically and insurmountable on the continent, Hearts proved to be a Thanos in their own galaxy. Such was the greatness of this team, many believe they would have won the Club World Cup had the competition not been cancelled that year. A fourth major trophy, however, immediately followed when the Phobians defeated Zamalek 2-0 to win the CAF Super Cup.

Hearts were subsequently rated the eighth best club in the world by CNN/World Soccer in its weekly chart, while Attuquayefio was named CAF Coach of the Year.

As Hearts of Oak marks another anniversary this year, trying to describe Attuquayefio and the 64 Battalion with words alone doesn’t do justice to how good they were. Those who watched them play are unanimous in declaring that they are beyond even the most exaggerated superlatives. For this was a team and a manager of a generation.

By Emmanuel Ayamga @EmmanuelAyamga