Prof. Kwesi Yankah writes: The curse of penalties; Dede Ayew

In 2007, I sat beside the Maestro Abedi Pele, the celebrated father of Dede Ayew, on a trip to Namibia representing Ghana. I was part of a three-member delegation put together to market the AFCON trophy ahead of CAN 2008, to be hosted by Ghana.

Riks Brobby representing the LOC chairman was with us. I was chair of the Accra Venue Organising Committee. Our interaction over a three-day period got me closer to Abedi, one of Africa’s greatest footballers, then retired.

In truth, however, our very first encounter was in 2001 at Zurich, Switzerland, where a conference I attended included a visit to the FIFA headquarters. It was there I met Abedi for the first time, after climbing the longest stairway ever to the FIFA offices, located in the high elevations.

Thereafter, we met at Legon, where Abedi negotiated to construct a soccer field for his Ajax soccer club, while I was Pro-VC at Legon. Dr Owusu Ansah was Legon’s able sports director. By a strange coincidence, Abedi’s wife, formerly Miss Banga was also my student at Legon.

Her father, Mr Agana Banga, was Legon’s Finance Officer one of the finest, and we were neighbours at Lower Hill.

On the Namibia Airways 2007, I sat beside Abedi chatting with him about his heydays in world soccer; and I heard him confess he probably wouldn’t have survived the current robust play in the game if he was still playing.

“The soccer terrain is very rough these days; tackling is too robust; and I doubt if I would have survived, considering my small size,” soft-spoken Abedi told me, his small cheek mark sparkling.

Fortunately, Abedi somehow survived aggressive play in global soccer, through his kids, Dede and Jordan. Their soaked jerseys and battered body frames after every single match, speak volumes about their first love: we risk our lives for the sake of Ghana, but being human, we are not perfect. That’s their body language.

Despite the public bashing of the Black Stars after every game lost, none has dared blame Dede Ayew for lacking commitment to Ghana.

While other players drag their feet and are obsessed with other loyalties, Dede Ayew is ever present, ever punctual, ever disciplined, and responds ever so swiftly to every single call to abandon club, and come lift high the flag of Ghana.

He screams from rough tackle, groans in pain, limps, hops, crushes to the ground from sky tussles; but he also queries erring officials, calms nerves, soothes, and wipes tears of grieving pals. All this because of a yellow arm band, that marks him out as captain. The Akans say, ‘Title bequeathed is a burden transferred.’

Last Friday, the mob that had hailed Ayew after his splendid goal against Portugal the week before, suddenly changed their song from praise to crucifixion. The man had missed a penalty in a grudge match with Uruguay when a goal was critically needed to further advance in the tournament. Crucify him was the new refrain.

Others conveyed curses in veiled speech: Ayew remain in Qatar, and never return to Ghana. That was a threat. For once, a weeping player had none to console him: it was the comforter himself in pain. In the final analysis, Ayew had to pluck courage, and even carry a collapsed daughter to the hospital, an innocent victim of his flawed penalty kick.

His predecessor must have transferred to him, the curse of penalty kicks. For all Asamoah Gyan had done for mother Ghana: netting the fastest goal in 2006 world cup in Germany, and putting smiles on the faces of Ghana and Africa umpteen times, his critics only remembered goals squandered. 2008, he was the whipping boy, denying Ghana a goal harvest against Namibia in Afcon.

Even the lives of family members were put at risk. Then came 2010, the famous penalty kick against Uruguay that missed the target. That was the last straw; he was crucified again and again, and now carries a permanent cross.

Gyan somehow carried the curse to his successor, Dede Ayew, who missed a penalty kick, that could have sunk Uruguay and sent Ghana to the next round in Qatar.

Dede has a golden past; he led Ghana to score Africa’s first goal in Qatar; that was against Portugal. He had altogether netted for Ghana a total of 24 goals from 47 matches. In 2021, he became Ghana’s all-time top scorer at Afcon. Since last Friday, all that has been expunged from history books. The missed penalty in Qatar is now Ayew’s final certificate in his soccer career.

Somehow, I have faint memories of one penalty experience that broke the nation’s heart, long before Asamoah Gyan. That was 1992 when the Ghana Black Stars in an Afcon encounter lost to Ivory Coast in a penalty shoot-out at Senegal.

Abedi Pele was at his peak, but missed the shootout due to a red card. After a ding-dong-ding-dong shootout, Ghana lost narrowly to Ivory Coast by 10-11, and guess who was the whipping boy: Tony Baffoe then in dreadlocks. He missed the net on his second turn to kick, and took all the bashing for Ghana’s narrow miss, which could have been our 5th Afcon championship trophy since 1957.

Hell broke loose in Ghana, and the culprit’s head was on the chopping blocks. I was then executive chair of the newly established Radio Univers, then Voice of Legon and had sent Kwame Baah Nuako and the rest to the airport, to interview the crest fallen Black Stars arriving from Dakar. I myself targeted for interview Tony Baffoe himself, the cardinal offender. The entire nation was in tears, and Tony was agonizing when I met him, absorbing curses and abuses all over. But did Ghana perish? No. Did the Black Stars black out? No. We learned our lessons and bounced back.

Unfortunately, contemporary soccer has played itself into archaic traditions of remembering only the down part of life, and descending heavily on ‘the diligent child that trips and breaks the pot while returning from the stream.’

In the not-so-good old days, abuse after defeat was the norm; and it was unthinkable for the village head teacher, to watch his school team lose to another in a home game, without reacting. He would simply enforce his own time out, pull the faltering player out of the pitch, and give him six lashes, before restoring him. That was a type of corporal advice by the head, who doubled as coach.

In my own holy village, the accused player was not whipped; he would simply be ambushed after the game and pelted with cocoyam. In all cases it was meant for the culprit to go and sin here no more.

Unfortunately, the crude coaching technique occasionally worked. Three minutes after the lashes, the ‘counselled’ left-winger crossed an in-swinger that curled and hit the left corner of the net for the winning goal. It’s a go-o-o-oa-a-a-al! Hundreds of spectators would throw themselves onto the pitch in celebration. The headmaster’s cane had worked.

In all this, supporters of Phobia knew better, if a player missed a crucial penalty kick or a goal in a tournament. It was advisable for the suspect to remain in the changing room after the game until further notice. In most cases, a critical goal had been missed in a situation where ‘even a child would have scored.’ For your sake a jury was waiting outside to deliver your sentence.

By this time, you may have seen a viral video in the social media, where tiny primary school kids playing soccer in a village, decide on a winner through penalty kicks. The captain positions himself and takes a swift penalty, which an able goalie saves in style. But the faltering culprit would not go scot-free; he is given a hot chase by players from both sides, including the skilful goalie himself. Knowing his guilt, the hapless player does not take chances; he sprints towards the touchline, but is outpaced and arrested by his colleagues who crowd him out, and give him a few body blows and discharge him, or rather put him under probation.

Africa’s attitude to faltering players is what our grandchildren have imbibed at a very early age, and we better change the script and produce more Abedi Peles; or else dying for one’s country will soon be an ancient past time.

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