The Black Stars have real chance of winning their first Nations Cup title since 1982. But victory has a cost that many fans should calculate with realism, reports Michael Oti Adjei from Accra.
That Ghana has not ascended the continental pinnacle in 30 years is a cold, hard fact weighing heavily on its football fraternity. No member of the current team was born when the Black Stars last won the trophy in Libya in 1982.
With the absence of Cameroon and Egypt from this year’s tournament, those looking for a resurrection of Ghana’s glory days believe the moment of redemption finally beckons. Between them, Cameroon and Egypt – sharp thorns in Ghana’s flesh – amassed a total of nine titles over the three decades the Black Stars failed to win any. Egypt has long sped past Ghana’s four-time record, with a total of seven wins, whilst Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions caught up with the West Africans in 2002.
Brimming with optimism over the last few months, Ghana’s national expectations in the run-up to the tournament have, perhaps, become unrealistically high. Even the players have been sucked into the vortex, as they continually reiterate their burning desire to end the long years of disappointment.
But telling the Ghana Football Association (GFA) president, Kwesi Nyantekyi, that the absence of the usual Nations Cup suspects offers his side the trophy on a platter will not get a welcome response.
“The people who say that do not exactly understand their football,” he argues.
“In 1992, Denmark were last-minute replacements at the European Championship and still won it. Countries like Cameroon and Egypt do have fantastic records but they failed to qualify. Niger, Guinea and Senegal, who denied so-called big teams places at the tournament, are in better form at the moment.”
That, of course, does not deny the obvious – the absence of Egypt, Cameroon and Nigeria certainly favours Ghana, whose form has progressed steadily over the last five years. After an early exit from the 2006 Nations Cup in Egypt, the Black Stars have earned semi-final and final spots in the ensuing two tournaments. Such a progression leaves a logical expectation that ascending to the top in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon is a realistic target.
“After the last Nations Cup, the hope and expectation has been that we will win the next one,” the GFA boss says. He did not forget to add a caveat, though: “All 16 teams that have qualified are capable of winning the trophy. The difference will be in having proper preparation and fielding a team that has discipline and purpose.”
On the surface, Ghana’s group – with tournament debutant Botswana, Mali and Guinea – does not look the most tasking. But earning a quarter-final ticket is far from guaranteed. Guinea qualified for the Nations Cup at Nigeria’s expense, and Mali possess a pack of quality players that could, on their day, give any opponent a run for their money. It is a chastening message that many ex-internationals are keen to preach.
“When you listen to the radio, you get the impression that all Ghana have to do is to turn up in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea and lift the trophy,” former Bayern Munich defender, Samuel Osei Kuffour, says.
“It will not be that easy. There are credible teams we must give respect to… I hear all the talk about not winning for 30 years. It’s too much pressure. Let’s go easy on the side.”
It is a view that the legendary Abedi Pele, a member of the side that won the African title in 1982, shares. “When you have a tournament without many big names, every country goes in with the confidence that they can win. This will be one of the most open competitions ever.”
Dousing the country’s expectations, Abedi says, would help lessen the pressure on the team. “I am also part of the group of people who think we can win,” he says. “But it’s difficult when you expect too much and start putting pressure on your players. That could make the tournament situation very hard. It’s a huge opportunity for us, no doubt, but let us be calm.”
Unfortunately, the players charged with the task of ending the Nations Cup quest have done little to manage expectations. “People hail us for doing well at the World Cup. But in the future, we’ll have to ask questions about what we have actually won. At the moment we have nothing to show,” says Andre Dede Ayew, the Olympique Marseille player and Abedi’s son. Goran Stevanovic, the third Serbian coach to manage the Black Stars in five years, has been wise enough to avoid getting trapped in the vortex of hype. “We will try to do our best,” he says coyly.
Since taking over the team, following Milovan Rajevac’s departure, Stevanovic has opted for an attacking philosophy that has earned the commendation of his paymasters.
“Stevanovic has convinced us that he is the right man for the job… He has good control over the team, instils discipline, teamwork and a proper work ethic,” GFA boss Nyantakyi says.
Playing with the verve and panache needed to win a trophy will require a group of experienced, fit and in-form players, which seems to be lacking at the moment. Central defender John Mensah is a case in point. A huge asset when in good nick, the Black Stars captain has hardly played club football this season. Regular right back John Paintsil has had a horrid time at Leicester City in the English Championship, and attacking midfielder Sulley Muntari has been out of favour at the Italian side, Inter.
But the discovery of some exciting talent, like goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey, has been a major plus. His quality was evident during his recent debut against Brazil in London, making a string of world-class saves that earned him a permanent place in the side. Midfielder Agyemang Badu has also become a consistent regular, and Kwadwo Asamoah, his Udinese team-mate, is heavily relied upon to provide the creative genius for Ghana, whilst Andre Dede Ayew’s form, at the 2010 Nations Cup and World Cup, indicates he has inherited the big tournament mentality from his famous father.
“Dede is showing every day that he can take responsibility, and Badu plays with a really big heart. Those two players have really improved,” says Mohammed Polo, a 1978 Nations Cup winner with Ghana. And Asamoah Gyan is no slacker either. Scoring three of Ghana’s four goals at Angola 2010 and three of their five World Cup goals, Gyan is expected to deliver the much-needed goods.
But Polo, also a former African Player of the Year, poignantly observes that teamwork, rather than individual brilliance, is what will lead Ghana to finally break the trophy jinx.
“We have been talking largely about teamwork, with all the individuals pulling together. It is not a team that relies on one player,” Polo says.
Millions of Ghanaian fans hope Polo’s take on the team is a winning tonic which will be replicated on the pitch. The possibility of the Nations Cup drought entering into a fourth decade is something no one is prepared to contemplate.