GHANA: SOCCER, A TANTALIZING MIRAGE

Source: www.africanakua.com/ Napoleon Ato Kittoe, Ghana

They failed again. Umpteenth time. Their poor run is almost legendary. Citizens now are most careful to put cards on table. Not when you cannot predict outcomes. The only consistency here is the wild goose chase. Yes, chasing the wind. You are not going to lose any betting if you claim they have the acumen. What you might succeed in predicting is their tendency to end endeavours with empty hands. Predictable ways.

Certainly, you must not try to put your head on the chopping block in games of chance involving the pampered Ghana, lest you end up in the gallows. Ghana soccer has bubbled burst to dash and freeze the hopes of citizens and their fans.   Let us retrace their steps to see how Ghana is ribboned in the act. So goes an African proverb, “those carving a path forward may not know the line is crooked”.

Ghana’s build ups have always taken after the imagery of reading an interesting book, only to discover the last page is torn off, denying the chance of seeing the climax. Half glasses are not entertained in football. The fans want the ultimate, not the voyages that end midstream.

THE CHRONICLES

A Ghana Black Stars looking very good in an Africa Cup of Nations staged in Gabon in 2013, suddenly crashed out at semi finals. After series of hard climb on Ghana, Zambia finally got the trick to overpower their nemesis. In that game, the Zambians exploited one of the regimented weaknesses of Ghana’s Black Stars with one attacker striking from the edge of Ghana’s box through a forest of legs. The opportunistic strike tore through the web and deceived the goalie. This was yet another colic pain for Ghana, and with plain absence of watershed moments at any point in time of the rather drab journey, the fans have gone bated breath.

Further back in time, this bus makes a stop in 2010 in AFCON of Angola. The Black Stars after unwinding an initial set back following a heavy loss to Cote d’ Ivoire  at group stages, managed to wriggle its way to the grand finale, only to lose to Pharaohs of Egypt. Another wasted effort. When Ghana hosted that competitive journey on her own soil in the most recent history, 2008, the story was no different. Indomitable Lions of Cameroon took the hyped Black Stars out in the semis. The knockout blows of 2008 and 2010 being clear defensive lapses. Those who viewed these matches on television might have seen “holes” in the defensive construct of the Ghanaians. On the pitch, Ghana’s opponents saw the inviting opportunities and took full advantage of them yet Ghana itself did not see the gaping holes in the set up.

Hindsight experience clearly reveals how each case or situation along the tumbling journey might be standing on its own.  Tunisia ’94 AFCON in which the highly rated Black Stars of Ghana were kicked out by the Ivorian Elephants in the quarter finals. That winning goal came in whiskers of Ghana’s equaliser to an early lead taken by Cote d’ Ivoire. It was anticlimax in the classical sense when the Black Stars players, having done themselves a lot of good with all the spade work and glowed in the Senegal ’92 AFCON,  lost on penalties  10-11 to Cote d’ Ivoire in the grand finals. Many had said, that was Ghana’s golden era, with Abedi Pele as the star player ruled out of the important game for dissent.

Can you believe it? In 1986, 1988 and 1990 Ghana could not qualify for AFCON staged in Egypt, Morocco and Algeria respectively, having been defending champions of the African title in 1984. Ghana was unprecedented four time champions. The plunge have tap roots in 1984, when the Black Stars faulted, fluffed and floundered in first round, the Bouàke debacle.

South Africa’s Bafana completely outplayed Ghana in Kumasi, the year Ghana and Nigeria were tournament’s joint hosts. Year 2000 was another truncation. Similar stories greeted Ghana in 1998, 2002, 2006, 2012, 2017 and 2019. Two episodes that litmus tested Ghana most, occurred in 2010 and 2015. The two offer detailed material for prognosis and post mortem.

Listen to this and tell me if the Black Stars of Ghana are really hungry to break the jinx surrounding the team’s title drought.  If they are, can we then probe the open ends to get to the bottom of this case? 

AFCON 2015 in Equatorial Guinea. Ghana, had successfully prosecuted the agenda and had only Cote d’ Ivoire to decide on penalties. Ghana led in the shootout by two clear kicks but suddenly relapsed and allowed their opponents to scale back. This was a major capitulation in world football as against the self disbelieving return of the Ivorians who eventually won the title. You have not won a title for thirty three years. Opportunity presents itself to break the cycle as you lead by two clear kicks, by the third of five rounds of penalty kicks. Yet, Ghana gave it away. Amazing. Amazing. Amazing.

Ghana had early on broken many hearts on the bigger stage at the soccer world cup hosted by South Africa in 2010. On the brink of World and Continental history, of becoming the first African side to qualify for World Cup semis, to outshine Cameroon for all that she did in 1990 to become quarter finalists, the Ghanaians threw the golden opportunity away.

Ghana was few seconds away from the great glittering goal but needed to put away a penalty awarded to them. Somehow that crucial kick was hit wide into the crowd watching the match.

Whilst Ghana made heavy weather of what almost passed as Heaven-sent, the other combatants, Uruguay, deliberately employed error to defend their interests, very unorthodox on that occasion but it helped them.

Only goalkeepers are allowed to use hands on the ball. Despite that awareness, a Uruguayan player brazenly chose that option when found in tightest of corners. He used his hands to stop the ball from rolling into his net, with barely a minute to end of regulation time. That was how the South Americans denied Ghana. They chose to present Ghana with a penalty kick instead of conceding a last minute goal in open play. Predictably, again predictably, Ghana failed to convert the spot kick, ending in embarrassing defeat in the penalty shootout after extra time.

Among elements of the overview include a Ghana with a poor penalty conversion rate and a side that easily breaks down, especially after it scores a goal. Ghana has not been able to deal with the recurrent concessions whenever its goalmouth boils in melees. Taking a cue from this, opponents of Ghana prefer holding onto the ball aiming at the Ghana vital area. These invite free kicks out of which those speculative strikes that took Ghana by surprise, may be repeated. On the other end, except for individual brilliance, little to nothing have come out of similar set pieces awarded to Ghana.

CUE FOR COACHES – SCORE AND DEFEND

Coaches must know that scoring goals without defending well, amounts to fetching water on a basket. Trepidations have given way to confidence in opponents of Ghana when it comes to football. In attending to defensive matters, names of players would be mentioned. Rules of football are tightened but exploits of past heroes continues to shine in our eyes.

Have you heard about defenders as Frimpong Manso, Frank Amankwaah, Emmanuel Armah, Kwasi Appiah, Stanley Aboraah and Emmanuel Ampiah? Another historical survey would not miss Hesse Odamtten, Ofei Ansah, Addae Kyenkyehene, Thomas Hammond among others. This set of players who played in the 70s and 80s frontally confronted advancing attackers.

They did not allow opponents to dabble in darting runs. They stamped out the danger which incubated before it could get out of hand. Admittedly, Thomas Hammond’s skill at defending was a gift from God. He could locate and deal with aerial balls in a manner the world has not seen. He defied gravity law of physics and jumped a second time whilst still in the air, to indulge bicycle kicks to clear the ball.  Hesse Odamtten was a hatchet defender who could not be easily beaten by most athletic forward players. He had a way of stopping darting runs which would attract infringement today. However, his style parried away danger. The nicknames of Isaac Acquaye “the barrier” and recently John Mensah “rock of Gibraltar” spoke volumes of their attitude in defence. The favourite of most Ghanaians in cursory surveys appear to be Frimpong Manso. His slide tackles and his avowed commitment of not allowing the ball go past him, was most remarkable. Frimpong was in the Black stars team that played Cote d’ Ivoire in the 1992 AFCON finals. It is important current generation of players learn from the past. Indeed, it was the remote past that handed Ghana the now obliterated four time champions record. Stagnated Ghana is overtaken by seven time winners Egypt and Cameroon with a tally of five.

PATRIOTIC PLAYING

BLACK STARS WON THEIR FIRST AFCON IN 1963

Flashing back to the 60s, throws up other enrichments to the game, not to be found in current circumstances. Commitment may have different levels but it is to be shared as it runs through generations. However, Ghanaian players of the 1960s played for everything and for nothing, except perhaps, for pride which was intrinsic to them. They won for Ghana, AFCON 1963 and 1965. When  contemporary footballers who failed to bring the needed trophies swam in untold wealth, as a result professional soccer overseas and heavy bonuses, these past, forsaken footballers called for attention. They wanted fitting recognition for their contributions. Some were given items ranging from warm water kettles, electrical fans and stoves, chairs and tables to light envelopes.  There is this myth that pioneer footballers who carried national flag aloft, harbour a pain which translates into curse on nation, hence Ghana’s fruitless search for trophies at the senior level.

Another factor that definitely rubs itself into state of affairs lay in the psychology of players. Are they aware football is the passion of the nation? As seen in reactions to football moments, it is the most potent formula for bridging political cleavages as opponents greet positive results in joy.

Again, football appears to be Ghana’s comparative advantage among other sporting disciplines. That is why, when Ghana  was even eliminated from the Brazil 2014 World Cup, it came away with a major statistic as the only side that was able to hold tournament’s eventual winners, Germany, to a 2-2 drawn game, nearly embarrassing the soccer power before a scrambled equaliser. It means, Ghana must handle football well, placing national interests above parochial interests.

National penchant for foreign based players also weighs into scheme of things. Must players pursuing careers outside the shores of Ghana get automatic call ups into national jerseys? Newly elected GFA boss, Kurt Okraku, have onerous duty of activating the domestic league and ensuring that it does not lack the traditions washed away by oblivious practices. At the end of seasons, the public must know which local players are being poached. There must be a return of player transfer windows. Inconsistent team membership is problematic.

The tactics of the coach on match days would count. Are the coaches of Ghanaian sides aware of the flops, obvious to the television spectator which for now, may be considered opaque to handlers since they keep occurring? Why can they not employ the famous back up system of late coach Sam Arday, who thrust more than one player on advancing attackers to harass and neutralise threats? Why can’t Ghanaian players under pressure indulge wild clearances for breather and to allow reorganization to soak up onslaughts?  Why can’t Ghana do man marking and ensure that there are no open spaces for attackers to maraud in and around the ’18’ yard box? Why can’t players direct penalty kicks into post and in the process displace goalkeepers? You can go for power, consciously controlling the flight to avoid a shot going wayward. It must be noted that almost all Ghanaian penalty kicks in which the player stands close to the ball before kicking, were caught by goalkeepers because the direction looked predictable and the kick had lacked power. 

With these repetitive mistakes beckoning a new formula, the coach looked on for Black Meteors players to also dissipate the chance to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The Ghana men’s under 23 side lost the semi final game to Cote d’ Ivoire on penalties, and then again irritatingly lost the crucial third place game on penalties to South Africa. The meteors had the last kick to score and they failed again, effectively wrapping Ghana in the carbon copy of the past. This cycle, is it ever going to end ?

Everything comes to tough mentality.

END

The writer, Napoleon Ato Kittoe, is a senior journalist with the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation.

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