Ghanaian football fans have never been more optimistic for the senior national soccer team, the Black Stars, than before the 28th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations – Gabon-Equatorial Guinea. Indeed, football fans across the country had course to be optimistic because of the steady progress of the Black Stars with regard to performance in the last two editions of the tournament.
On home soil in 2008, a host-and-win jinx, which had characterized the previous two editions – Tunisia 2004 and Egypt 2006 – was broken when Ghana lost to Cameroon in the semi-finals. Nonetheless, the team rallied to win Bronze at that tournament by beating Ivory Coast 4-2 in Kumasi.
Two years later, an averagely young Black Stars squad was taken to Angola for the 27th edition of the tourney. That squad was riddled with the absence of most of the senior players including Captain Stephen Appiah and his deputy John Mensah. That conundrum was even exacerbated by an ankle injury to Michael Essien at training in Cabinda, Angola. Essien, one of the few senior players, had only played 45 minutes in the Stars’ 1-3 defeat to Ivory Coast in the first group match. The feisty young squad then gathered pace from that defeat and injury blow to then Captain Michael Essien and went as far as to the finals only to succumb to an 85th minute goal from Egypt’s Mohammed Geddo. Ghana walked away with the Silver medal.
Optimism before 2012 AFCON
As a result of this steady performance of the team – getting them the third position in 2008 and the second in 2010 – there was a fast-brewing optimism in every corner of Ghana that the 2012 tournament would provide an opportune time to end a 30-year Africa Cup of Nations trophy drought. Ghana had last won the title in 1982! Indeed, the absence of some past winners like seven-time champions Egypt, four-time champions Cameroon and two-time champions Nigeria also lent to that burgeoning optimism. Nonetheless, the high hopes of the players and the nation, at large, was dashed on 8th February, 2012, when the Black Stars were beaten by the Chipolopolo(Copper Bullets) of Zambia. Ghana’s confidence in that match was beyond compare as the Black Stars outplayed their Zambian opponents. But it seemed destiny was on the side of the South Africans. Asamoah Gyan’s first half penalty was saved by Kennedy Mweene, the Zambian goalkeeper. That incident brought memories of the 2010 World Cup quarter final match against Uruguay to most Ghanaians. “Why always me?” Asamoah Gyan may be echoing the words of Mario Balotelli. But the Ghanaian striker later discerned that it was a matter of destiny’s balances tilting in favour of the Zambians and has taken a lesson from it. “For me losing these penalty kicks increase my will and determination to change the image of some people’s view about the player who missed a penalty kick, so I show my best and follow my ambitions and aspirations,” he stated on Al Ain’s website.
Indeed that match was the last hurdle for the Zambians to cross over to co- host country Gabon, where in April 1993 an entire team of 18 players and 12 officials was exterminated in a plane crash – only football boots and passports washed ashore the Libreville end of the Atlantic Ocean. That outstanding Zambian team was en route to Senegal to engage in a World Cup qualifier.
Every football enthusiast agrees the lost souls played a vital role in Zambia’s annexing of their first continental title in Gabon. Beating a striker-laden Senegal side in the first match on the first day of the tournament raised the hackles of bookmakers to tick the Chipolopolo as part of the favourites. For some of us who had followed the pre-tournament preparations, Zambia had resolved to make it to Gabon, where the final had been scheduled to be played, to honour the 18 players and 12 officials who died in 1993. Thus, beating Senegal in their first match sent signals of the ‘spiritual’ role the dead were going to play in the resolve of the team. Backtracking to April 1993, the dead were on their way to play the same nation – Senegal.
Belief in the dead
In this part of the world where belief in the role the dead plays in the life of the living is prominent, I am forced to believe that the 1993 fallen heroes will play a more vital role in the South African country’s quest for a place in a world cup. That was their exact mission when they met their untimely deaths. Incidentally, the 2014 World Cup is the next in sight for the newly crowned African champions and they will battle for next round’s sole ticket from the four-team group with Ghana, Sudan and Lesotho.
Ghana’s record at the world cup has been superb having equaled Senegal and Nigeria’s by becoming only the third African nation to move out of the group stages in their debut appearance in 2006 and more prominently, equaling Africa’s record by reaching the quarter finals of the global show piece. Painful as it did happen, the Black Stars missed a place in the last four only through a missed penalty by Asamoah Gyan in the dying embers of extra time.
Brazil 2014 qualifiers
Ghana’s dream is to go a step further than what was achieved in South Africa in 2010. In effect, the Black Stars’ priority is to qualify for the Brazil 2014 showpiece. However, in my candid opinion, the road is going to be difficult as one of the nations in Ghana’s group has taken on a new status. Yes, Zambia will not play in the qualifiers as a second-rate African football nation anymore. The Chipolopolos will play in the qualifiers, starting in June 2012, as African Champions. Therein lies Ghana’s difficulty. With this new status, Zambia’s team will not leave any chinks in their armours and will face all the other three teams in the group squarely to prove that winning the 2012 Africa Cup of nations was no fluke. Having beaten Ghana and Sudan on their way to winning the tournament, the Chipolopolos will be brimming with confidence ahead of those clashes. For Ghana, the souls of the 18 players who died will still be lingering on the Accra side of the Atlantic Ocean to provide a glimmer of motivation to the continental champions.
Honestly, when the draw was cast, I reckoned Ghana will find it difficult playing Zambia. However, I took solace from the ease with which Ghana made it to South Africa 2010 because I had the same feelings when the team was drawn together with Mali, Benin and Sudan. Nonetheless, my fears have been deepened with the turn of events in the lead-up to the qualifications.
Ghana’s dream is to go to Brazil to show the world the African version of Samba, but I bet it won’t come like the head of John, The Baptist, on a silver platter as we now have to contend with the African champions with 18 souls from the Atlantic Ocean following them.