I have relatively little experience in the kind of welcome the Black Stars receive while returning from a botched cup of nations. But with the few I have seen in the past seven editions the Black Stars have attended, Ghanaians have not been that disappointed with the recent campaign in Gabon-Equatorial Guinea. I must state that the chagrin that the players were met with when they returned will ever be etched on their crania to haunt them.
Expectations ran high prior to the tournament and assurances were given the entire nation from the team’s management to technical committees that the trophy will be brought to Accra on 13th February, 2012. Head Coach Goran Stevanovic even boldly put his job on the line. One was left with no option than to wade into the wave of this eccentric optimism. These hopes which were raised had a corresponding degree of glum countenance written on the faces of all and sundry after Zambia stunned Ghana in the semi-final. Ghana had only placed fourth, a position many other nations would have been happy about. But that was not the case in a country that was convinced beyond any qualms that the trophy was destined to be lifted by John Mensah by mere dint of steady performance in the previous two editions. Incredible! But respectable as the fourth position may be, its disregard by Ghanaians has blinded many football fans regarding a milestone hit by the nation in the history of the tournament. The milestone was struck through Captain John Mensah.
Player selection criteria
Mensah went into the tournament as one of the players who have had little playing time at club level. He had played only once for Olympique Lyonnais after returning from a loan spell with Sunderland. As a result, he had only merited a place in the Black Stars squad ostensibly as captain of the team, if the player selection criteria of the team are anything to go by.
John Mensah had also scored only once for the Black Stars prior to the tournament. That goal was scored in the final qualifier against Sudan in Omdurman. As a result, going into the tournament, no one had given the captain a dog’s chance to bang in goals. Justifiably, goal-scoring has been quite unusual of him. If any set of players, besides the strikers, would be trusted to hit the back of the net, it would definitely have been the midfielders. However, the captain jumped highest in corner kicks literally.
First goal at AFCON
First of the many achievements of captain John Mensah at the Gabon-Equatorial Guinea tournament was that he scored the nation’s first goal at the tourney. Ghana were indisputably one of the pre-tournament favourites and were penned by the bookmakers to thrash debutantes Botswana in the opening match in Group D. However, the match turned out more difficult than expected. The match against the Zebras of Botswana was one of the few Goran Stevanovic paraded two of the three strikers he sent to the tournament. Jordan Ayew and Asamoah Gyan failed to hit the back of the net. It took a giant leap from John Mensah for Ghana to break the deadlock. The Olympique Lyon defender’s goal was incidentally the only one in the match. His heroics in that match was not only limited to that goal but also they extended to the professional impediment he put on the way of Jerome Ramatlhakwana, who was clearly on a scoring dash after Anthony Annan’s misguided back-flick header. It attracted a red card from Senegalese referee Badara Diatta but it was a welcoming and brave tackle which was a snippet of what happened in Accra four years ago in Ghana’s quarter final clash against Nigeria. He again gained applause for such tackle.
Mensah injury woes at AFCON
After that match, it was brought to the notice of Ghanaians that the captain had been playing with a thigh injury and would have sit out of Ghana’s clash with Mali irrespective of his suspension. John Mensah was not available for selection for the Guinea game simply because he could not recover in time from the injury. Well, Ghana tactically beat Mali 2-0 in the second group game and dispatched Guinea from the tournament in a 1-1 draw.
‘Ghana at ‘1oo’
John Mensah returned to the fold in Ghana’s quarter-final clash with Tunisia and scored Black Stars’ 100th goal of the Africa Cup of Nations. That milestone came in the wake of Ghana having contributed luminary strikers in the tournament. The efforts of Wilberforce Mfum, Osei Kofi, Mohammed Polo, Abdul Razak, Opoku Afriyie, Abedi Pele and Anthony Yeboah, who are among the players to have scored in the history of the tournament for Ghana, were capped by that milestone goal scored by the captain John Mensah. That goal was Mensah’s second in the tournament and incidentally it was the highest number of goals to be scored by a Ghanaian player at the 28th Cup of Nations– Dede Ayew being the other Ghanaian player to score twice.
Pillar in defence
Not only was he scoring goals but John Mensah became a pillar in the heart of defence for the Black Stars especially in the semi-final match against Zambia. Mensah neutralized the venom from Rainford Kalaba and the rest. The defender sustained a knock in the early minutes of the game but soldiered on to play the entire first half. I even thought he would have been substituted during the break but he came on in the second half to continue his mission of preventing the Zambians from scoring. He executed that mission to perfection until a second knock in the game worsened the situation and he had to finally make way for tall Isaac Vorsah. Few minutes after Mensah got off the pitch, the Zambians through Emmanuel Mayuka found a cavity in the Ghanaian defence and scored the only goal of the match dashing the hopes of the Black Stars and millions of Ghanaians.
Indeed, Mensah’s exploits did not go unnoticed as he became the only Ghanaian to be named in the tournament Best XI by the Technical Study Committee (TSG). He played only ‘one-plus-two’ matches for Ghana but he must be credited with a great tournament. Admittedly, the Black Stars team does not rest on an individual player but Captain John Mensah led gallant men who had to shelve their dream to a Zambian squad that had the backing of destiny and departed souls of a 1993 plane crash.