Ghana’s trophy drought at the highest level of continental football now spans 33 years. After winning the trophy in 1982 in Libya, the Black Stars have come close to annexing the trophy only twice. At Senegal ’92, Ghana lost to neighbours La Cote d’Ivoire in a marathon of penalties after the two sides played goalless in regulation time. In 2010, a relatively young Ghana squad defied all the odds in Angola to reach the finals, where they had to succumb to a 0-1 defeat to Egypt. Ghana presented herself as the favourite to win the next edition in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea by banking on her positions at the previous two. In fact, the Black Stars’ training jerseys in Gabon, then, had inscriptions of ‘Champions’. Hopes were high but they were dashed by the Chipolopolo of Zambia in a match that counted as one of the country’s best in that tournament after a lack-lustre performance at the preliminary stage (against Botswana, Guinea and Mali) and a feisty quarter-final win over Tunisia. Ghana had placed 3rd at Ghana 2008, 2nd in the previous edition and thought it was automatic to come 1st in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea. In fact, I even waded into the sea of optimism but Emmanuel Mayuka of Zambia turned that feeling a dream for another time.
The team’s hopes at the last edition were also high simply from the fact that South Africa has presented a fertile ground for great performances by the Black Stars. Ghana, hard at the thought of the Uruguay world cup quarter-final defeat always comes, had made Africa proud at that world cup. South Africans had fallen in love with the Black Stars that they referred to the team as ‘Ba-Ghana Ba-Ghana’, a corrupt form of their national team, Bafana Bafana. In fact, the love between the two sides resulted in a friendly match arranged just after the 2010 World Cup – Ghana lost 0-1 at FNB Stadium. So, the players thought the support from the South Africans will translate in them winning the trophy on the land of Nelson Mandela. But Burkina Faso dashed another hope in a match that exposed refereeing on the continent. Ghana’s neighbours were a thorn in the flesh of the players even after the partiality of Tunisian referee, Slim Jedidi, who I think was bribed by big-wigs of the Ghana Football Association (GFA).
Qualification for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations was indisputably tough for the Black Stars. It came on the back of off-pitch incidents at the 2014 World Cup which appear to have angered Ghanaians. For the first time in over a decade, no one waved at the Black Stars bus when it passed, spectators were hostile at the Baba Yara Stadium, which had hitherto been the home grounds for the team. The opprobrium was too intense that the team shifted home grounds to the Northern Region, and no one except us the fanatics (or probably because of our professions) cared about Ghana results. The bizarre situation called for effective Public relations on the part of the GFA. No wonder they air-bussed some journalists to Kampala, Uganda to get them talking for them…Hmm!!!
But the team did so well to qualify even at a point coaches were changed during the qualifiers. There was also confusion around the technical team with Milovan Rajevac lurking around to be technical director. Even before the end of the qualifiers, a new coach had been named. So, there were four names – Kwesi Appiah, Maxwell Konadu, Milovan Rajevac and Avram Grant – hovering around the technical department, a phenomenon that could crumble any fragile team.
As if those ordeals were not enough, Ghana was drawn in a tough group for the tournament, which was originally scheduled to be hosted by Morocco. Ghana was drawn in a group that had three in-form sides – South Africa, Senegal and Algeria, who are ranked Africa’s Number 1 side. For the first time in many CANs, Ghana is not the favourite on the bookmakers’ scorecard. That is where I think the Black Stars will rise to the occasion. I have studied this Black Stars team for long and I have come to realize they perform well when underrated. To the extent that the team is not the favourite against South Africa is testament that they will play their hearts out. Ghana has been blessed with exceptional talents and it takes a psychological push to get the best out of those talents. I believe if the team’s psychologist does a good job, the team can make it out of the group for another challenge, which is likely to rank them underdogs. Yes, a qualification from Group C will see the Black Stars play Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Guinea or Mali at the quarter-final stage. All those four nations have proven tough nuts for the team to crack. So, it will present another opportunity to prove themselves at that stage. From there, Ghana could play hosts Equatorial Guinea, whom I tip to make it to the semi-final as a gift from the Confederation of African Football (CAF) for coming to its rescue, Burkina Faso, who denied the Black Stars that final in 2013, and Zambia, who did in 2012 what the Stallions did. A semi-final clash with any of those three countries, I am very sure, will present another opportunity for the Black Stars to revenge. Having tasted a final before, some of the players will not allow an opportunity to be heroes to pass them by when they get there.
Fortunately for the team, the GFA has played down expectations, charging new coach Avram Grant to “do well” at the continental showpiece. Well, if he “does well” and wins the trophy, pressure will be lifted off him in 2017 and I think the Israeli is highly psyched up for this. I have maintained that getting football results emanates from a steady mentality and that is what I heard Grant say he will bring on board. He made it clear that he will psyche the players up for the task ahead even to make them world champions. That is the trick in football. That is why some teams like the Netherlands, Germany, Brazil and the like will always make it to the quarter final stage of a world cup irrespective of the depth of their squads. GFA’s disposition to play down expectations to me will let the players carry their own cross. Previously, the influence of some bigwigs of the GFA at CAF makes the team think that wins tournaments. Sometimes, it does but not at the expense of performance and luck. Just like such a negative influence had Tunisian referee Slim Jedidi banned from the game, it may backfire. Therefore, the players must enter the tournament self-psyched up. Having listened to Captain Asamoah Gyan and Deputy Captain Andre Dede Ayew, I think they are sorted in that direction.
The blend of the squad also bodes well for the team. Blending new players and very experienced ones makes the motivation perfect. New players usually have the motivation to make a name for themselves while experienced ones want to cap their career with trophies. Therefore, blending debutants like Razak Braimah, David Accam, Kwesi Appiah and Daniel Amartey with experience in Asamoah Gyan, Dede Ayew and Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu makes a perfect blend. It will now boil down to the coach.
But winning a Cup of African Nations does not come on a silver platter. It hinges on hardwork and only that can get the Black Stars that elusive fifth title.