Sammy Bartels writes: Why the Black Stars have failed to the Afcon since 1982 (Part 1)

Sammy Bartels writes: Why the Black Stars have failed to the Afcon since 1982 (Part 1)

It will be foolhardy to predict that Ghana will end its 40+ years AFCON drought Cote d’Ivoire. Only the brave will – and there are precious few, mostly based on nationalism. 

After the ignominious exit at the last AFCON, most fans would follow the team’s fate with much cautionOne thing is guaranteed: if the campaign goes well the powers that be and to some extent the players will take the credit.

But if things go pear shaped the coach and his staff will inevitably take the blame. That is just how it works. 

Chris Hughton and his team are up against it. But before we mount an Epitaph and start reading an obituary for the Black Stars latest campaign, it may help to reflect on just where Ghana has tripped at previous AFCONs and what the latest iteration of the Black Stars must overcome if they are to succeed

After conversations with coachesjournalists, and former national team players and a careful review of the Black Stars performances, I have distilled four decades of Ghana’s AFCON heartbreak into the following 10 significant factors.

1. Injuries

As Chris Hughton and his technical team sweat over the fitness and availability of Mohammed Kudus, an all too familiar occurrence is being replayed.

Some football fan seven go as far as to tag this as collusion between club and player to avoid the midseason grind of the AFCON.

Fact or fiction, injury issues can derail a team’s challenge before it even starts. Michael Essien showed up at Angola 2010 with concerns over his fitness.

He was not fit enough to start Ghana’s first match, due to a hamstring strain. However, any optimism about his 45-minute second half cameo was extinguished days later when he went down during a training session. He was out of the Africa Cup of Nations with a knee injury.

In 2006, Stephen Appiah was at the peak of his powers. An injury at the beginning of the AFCON campaign disrupted the skippers participation in Egypt.

In the final game, with Laryea Kingston suspended and a toothless Black Stars staring at elimination, a half-fit Stephen Appiah played on against Zimbabwe but could not prevent Ghana from crushing out.

The repercussions of the strain he put on his injured knee will reverberate for the rest of Appiah’s career as he missed the next AFCON on home soil.

One is left to wonder what could have been if a fit Appiah had been part of Ghana’s 2008 squad. Could Ghana have reached the final of South Africa 1996 if Abedi had been fit and available in the semi-final?

2. The penalty jinx.

When a match involving the Black Stars goes into penalty shootouts, that match is as good as lost. At least this is what Ghanaians have become accustomed to.

There isn’t enough time to mention in-match penalty misses, the most famous perhaps being Asamoah Gyan’s miss against Zambia in the 2012 semi-final.

Ironically, Ghana’s last AFCON title in 1982 was won following a hard-fought penalty shootout victory against the hosts Libya in 1982.

The Black Stars have since lost 4 out of the 4 penalty shootouts they have been involved in including a pair of final losses in 1992 and 2015 against Cote d’Ivoire, a semi-final loss to Burkina Faso in 2013 and a last 16 exit to Tunisia in 2019.

On the back of this distressful record don’t expect much optimism among Ghanaians when the Black Stars face an opponent in penalties at the knockout stages of the upcoming AFCON, if they make it that far.

The vexed question remains: why has Ghana been this bad in penalty shootouts at the AFCONIs this down to back luck or incompetence from 12 yards?

It is hard to tell! I will leave that to the researchers, psychologists, and spiritualists. 

3. Bogey teams – Cote d’Ivoire

A bogey team is a team that either always beats your team or against which your team habitually suffers bad luck. Ghana had its share of bogey teams at the AFCON.

Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana’s immediate western neigbours are the hosts of the next AFCON and a home away from home for a lot of Ghanaians, but the Ivorians have also been responsible for Ghana’s last two final losses at the AFCON.

In the early 1990s the Elephants inflicted painful back-to-back defeats to their West African rivals.

The Ivorians won 11-10 on penalties in 1992 against Ghana to claim their first continental title and deny Ghana a fifth title.

The luckless Abedi Pele watched on the sidelines, having picked up a suspension in the semi-finals against Nigeria.  Abdoulaye Traore’s headed goal saw off the Ghanaians at the quarterfinals of the 1994 tournament in Tunisia.

Two spectacular goals from Abedi Pele and Tony Yeboah broke the sequence in 1996 but normal service was resumed at AFCON 2000 when Ghana lost 2-0 to the elephants at the Accra sports stadium.

The Ivorians repeated the dose with a 3-1 Group stage win at Angola 2010. 5 years later they blocked Ghana’s path to the title and reduced another Ayew to tears, this time Andre. 

4. Bogey teams – South Africa 

An examination of Ghana’s AFCON bogey teams will be incomplete without the Bafana Bafana of South Africa.

When South Africa re-entered CAF competitions in the 1990s, Ghanaians scoffed at the prospect that they were any threat whatsoever on the football pitch, even after a 2-1 win over the Black Stars in a friendly match in 1994.

So, when the two teams faced off in the semi-final of AFCON 1996, very few people expected a drubbing, but that is exactly what happened as Bafana Bafana won 3-0 at the FNB stadium courtesy goals from John ‘shoes’ Moshoeu and Shaun Bartlet on their way to their first title.

Some Ghana fans would put that defeat down to the absence of Abedi Pele and the controversial chalking off of Tony Yeboah’s bicycle kick by Referee EL Ghandour, but any doubts about the superiority of the South Africans were erased at AFCON 2000 when Siyabonga Nomvethe’s goal propelled ten-man Bafana Bafana to eliminate co-hosts Ghana 1-0 to progress to the semi-finals.

Ghana would have to wait until 2015 to secure a first win over Bafana Bafana at the AFCON.

5. Underestimating the noisy neighbours 

Sir Alex Furguson famously said “Sometimes you have a noisy neighbour. You cannot do anything about that. They will always be noisy.”

Ghana’s closest geographical neighbours have sometimes not only been noisy but pesky as the Black Stars have found out the hard way.

Many Ghanaians recognize the might of Cote d’Ivoire, so perhaps defeats to them are easier to rationalize. Things are a lot different with the nations Ghanaians have traditionally looked down upon in football terms – Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso.

On Feb. 12, 1998, Togo, considered as minnows by most Ghanaians, famously beat Ghana 2-1 at the AFCON in Burkina Faso to dent Ghana’s campaign.

Interestingly, it was the goalkeeper of Ashanti Goldfield Football Club (as it was known at the time) Nibombe Wake who thwarted the Ghanaians at every turn. Congo DR will finish the job four days later to send the Black Stars packing and effectively end the starry career of the legendary Abedi Pele in Ghana colours.

In 2013, it was the turn of an Aristide Bance inspired Burkina Faso as they reached their first AFCON final at the expense of Kwasi Appiah’s Black Stars.

Why the Black Stars have failed to win the AFCON since 1982 (Part 2)

6. Infighting 

There is always some rumour of rifts between players of the senior national team. While most of these are the product of sensational reportage, there have been actual infighting that have cost Ghana in previous AFCONs.

Ghana’s AFCON teams of 1992 and 1994 were some of the greatest ever assembled but ultimately, they were undone by infighting and divisions.

For years this disunity was put done to split loyalties based on the captaincy. In 1992, it was the Abedi and Kwasi Appiah camps; in 1994 it was the Tony Yeboah and Abedi Pele camps. Insiders believe the divisions were more cerebral and the product of the growing influence of players based abroad vis-à-vis locally based stars.

Whatever the drivers, Ghana would have been better off with a united team.

In more recent years, there have been rifts that are traced to alleged use of ‘black magic’ by some players to ‘do’ other players.

In 2012, the World Cup squad tipped to win the AFCON was eliminated by Zambia in the semi-finals. In his report to the GFA coach Goran Stefanovic wrote the following damning assessment:

After losing to Zambia, there arose so many accusations amongst the players during my meeting with them. I have learnt great lessons from African football and also about Ghanaian players’ behaviour on and off the field.

We all need to help in changing some players’ mentality about using black power to destroy themselves and also make sure we install discipline and respect for each other

7. Captaincy controversy 

The drama around the Black Stars captain’s armband over the years probably deserves a whole book.

Abedi Pele was famously apparently handed the captaincy before Senegal 1992 because he spoke French, much to the chagrin of “Mayele” Kwasi Appiah and his supporters.

Cue a conflict that will simmer into another generation.

When Abedi was suspended for the final game against Cote d’Ivoire, the unfortunate Tony Baffoe had to bear the brunt of those who felt “dab3n na oba y3?” (loosely translated – When did he come?).

There isn’t enough space to go into the Abedi-Tony Yeboah Bochum rift and its culmination in Ghana’s Quarter Final exit at AFCON 1994 in Tunisia so l’ll skip to the GFA’s tactical introduction of the concept of the ‘General Captain’ and its aftermath.

Semantic genius or conflict avoidance? You judge.

Stephen Appiah’s tenure as captain was undoubtedly the most successful periods.

In 2011 John Mensah was officially named captain following Stephen’s retirement after the 2010 World Cup. When John’s injury prevented him from fulfilling his captaincy role, coach Kwasi Appiah announced Asamoah Gyan as the new permanent captain of the Black Stars.

Mr Mensah was elevated to the role of General captain. Let’s just say John was not pleased and is reported to have stormed GFA HQ to show his displeasure.

In 2019, Gyan, who had captained the Black Stars for seven years was (you guessed right) elevated to the position of ‘General Captain’. 

André Ayew was made the new captain of the Black Stars by head coach Kwasi Appiah ahead of the 2019 African Cup of Nations in Egypt. Gyan felt “betrayed” and the ensuing skirmishes no doubt impacted Ghana’s ill-fated campaign in Egypt.

8. Other Controversies

At AFCON 2002, Ghana coach Fred Osam-Duodu sent defender Sammy Kuffour home for “breaking the rules of the camp.

Osam-Duodu told the BBC that Kuffour had been behaving in an “unruly” way towards officials in the Ghana camp and had disrupted training. In a later interview team manager Malik Jabir alleged that the Bayern Munich man was caught in a disco after the Morocco came.

Kuffour himself in many interviews since has insisted that he was sent home because he spoke up against horrible living conditions in the team’s base.

Whatever the real reasons, the episode overshadowed Ghana’s 2002 campaign and the Black Stars were eventually put out of their misery in the quarterfinals by subregional rivals Nigeria.

9. Second comings 

Second comings have a way of not working out for Black Stars coaches at the AFCON. Word of advice to coaches, please don’t come back. Here is why.

Kwasi Appiah was always a popular appointee as Black stars coach – local guy, served his apprenticeship with foreign coaches – tick, tick, tick.

After a run to the semi-final in his previous tenure Mayele got the call after Avram Grant’s exit. His task? Win the AFCON at Egypt 2019.

Despite Hon. Asiamah’s best hype effort, the Black Stars limped out at the round of 16 and Kwasi Appiah became the fall guy.

Milovan Rajevac is probably the most successful Black Stars coach ever, if the world cup is used as the yardstick.

World Cup quarterfinal, AFCON final and CHAN final are the call cards that earned the Serbian a jubilant return to Ghana prior to the 2021 AFCON despite a dross record from his recent CV.

Well, we all know how it went down… the tears flowed in Cameroon as the Black Stars finished bottom of their Group.

Until 2004, Burkhard Ziese was a legendary figure in Ghanaian football circles.

The German guided the Black Stars to the AFCON in 1992 after an 8-year absence and was brought back in 2003 by popular request to dig Ghana out of another rut.

This time his hallowed status was shredded after he failed to qualify Ghana for the 2004 AFCON in Tunisia.

It was the first time in 12 years the Black Stars had missed the boat. We should have known this whole charade was going south when he put Edward Ansah back in the post at the age of 40.

10. Bonuses and Appearance fees

Pre-2006 was the dark ages for Black Stars players as far as appearance fees and bonuses are concerned – you would be lucky to get a refund of your plane fare.

Former captain Charles Akunnor once told me about how he was moving between Government offices on the eve of AFCON 2000 trying to secure the team’s bonus.

The good times set in after the sponsorships started rolling in on the back of Ghana’s maiden qualification to the World Cup in 2006.

The era of player-demand was well and truly on. Black stars players will predictably declare their willingness to die for Ghana, but only after the bonus negotiations were sorted out.

The events following the 2014 World Cup in Brazil briefly threatened to upend this order.

The Sports Ministry even announced a new “take it or leave it” bonus structure.

By 2015 the stars were busy rejecting the Ministry of Youth and Sports proposed flat rate bonus. When the dust settled the team were just a penalty kick away from winning the AFCON.

By 2019 they were back in business and pocketing about $50,000 each for reaching the round of 16 in 2019. The conversation about bonuses has slipped under the radar because frankly it only becomes an issue when the team flops.

What has become abundantly clear is that no number of bonuses can win you the AFCON if you don’t have the corresponding quality!

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