The inquest into the disastrous showing of Ghana’s Black Stars at the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) is not likely to reach a conclusion any time soon, but Ghanaian football needs answers – and soon.
Ghanaian fans have come to consider a fifth Afcon title as something of a holy grail. It has been 40 years since the Black Stars last won the competition. In that period they lost three finals and made the semifinals eight times, including a straight run of last-four appearances between 2008 and 2017.
It is a record that has rightfully earned Ghana the tag of an African football giant, so their performance at the 2021 Afcon has been a devastating reminder of an era gone by and a declining team that need to reboot urgently.
The numbers in Cameroon don’t lie. Grouped with Morocco, Gabon and Comoros, Ghana finished with a single point. Some Ghanaian football pundits were convinced the Black Stars would cruise to the last 16, inspired by what is a superior record compared with all the teams in their group and players whom many countries would be happy to have.
But game after game, it was obvious that this was not happening for Ghana. The team looked out of sorts, uninspired and painfully lacking in ideas, especially in the final third. Too often, it appeared, Ghana were playing not to lose, rather than to win. Morocco scored late to beat the Black Stars 1-0. Gabon scored late to earn a 1-1 draw, and after coming back from two goals down against 132nd-ranked Comoros, Ghana surrendered the point and the chance of progress to the knockout stages.
To quote one member of the team, “you could see this coming if you were close to the team”. It was Ghana’s worst performance at the Afcon, eclipsing the group stage exit in 1984 when they were defending champions, the collapse in 1998 during Abedi Pele’s swansong, or the catastrophic performance in 2006 when, fresh from their first World Cup qualification, the Black Stars failed to progress from the group stage after losing to Zimbabwe.
The failure has triggered a mass soul-searching and reignited old debates about the competence of the Ghana Football Association (GFA), the commitment of the players and their quality. And with the qualifiers for the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar on the horizon, it has led to important questions about the technical handlers of the team.
Milovan Rajevac, who masterminded Ghana’s run to the Afcon final in 2010 and a World Cup quarterfinal that same year, has been the main fall guy. The Serbian was brought in to salvage a 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign that looked to be over and was given the responsibility of ensuring a respectable performance at the Afcon. GFA president Kurt Okraku claimed his return was a departure from the “trial and error” ways of previous managers, but the tournament in Cameroon exposed that assertion as a lie.
Rajevac, who said before the tournament that he enjoys the team’s underdog status, now claims he had no time with them and is adamant he can lead Ghana to Qatar. The entire country disagrees, but the GFA seems to be in the small minority of those convinced he is still the man for the job.
Okraku rolled out myriad excuses for the coach upon the team’s return to Accra. He claimed Rajevac had picked the best players and asked critics to provide proof of a Lionel Messi somewhere willing to play who was not picked and could have made the team better. He is also convinced Rajevac didn’t have enough time with the team and asked for cool heads to make the right decisions because “we have the men to make the right decisions at the GFA”.
The problem for Okraku is that a lot of people don’t believe that. It is a year since the GFA replaced Kwesi Appiah with former captain CK Akonnor. That didn’t go well either, and analysts ask whether the GFA can be trusted to get appointments right. The Ministry of Youth and Sports, which pays the coach’s salary, has already said it wants Rajevac’s position reviewed. In all likelihood, he won’t be in charge again.
There is also a sense that too many of those tasked to make vital decisions about the Black Stars and junior national teams are conflicted. “You can’t keep the current system where coaches are selected by management members who own clubs, manage players, manage coaches and have personal stakes in how things work. That has to change,” said sportjournalist Saddick Adams.
Change needs to happen quickly, with two massive games against Nigeria in March for one of five places available to Africa at the 2022 World Cup.
The debate about the way forward has revolved around three important issues: the quality of the current players, the administration of football in Ghana and the role of the GFA, and who should manage the team.
Three names are likely to feature consistently in the conversations about the next coach. Otto Addo, a former Ghana international who played for the Black Stars at the 2006 World Cup, has been building his stock steadily in Germany, where he works at Borussia Dortmund as an assistant. He was one of two assistants to Rajevac. Then there is George Boateng, the Ghana-born former Dutch international who manages Aston Villa’s Under-23 side. Chris Hughton, ex-Brighton manager, has been mentioned as a possible boss too.
All three have Ghanaian blood – Hughton is the England-born son of a Ghanaian father – and are highly qualified, and they all have experience in working in the European football ecosystem. This ticks many of the boxes that Ghana would want to satisfy when appointing a national boss.
But there are those who are convinced that Ghana’s problem is not essentially a coaching issue, but rather one of a lack of quality players. Rajevac alluded to this when he said he had “no Asamoah Gyan” in response to questions about why his 2021 squad were nothing like the 2010 one he took to the Afcon final.
A lot of Ghanaian football fans don’t buy into the talent argument, though. John Paintsil, a former international player, thinks there is a good foundation in the current team to build on. “The players are good. If there is a problem, it is that we disband teams too quickly,” he said.
Agreeing with Paintsil is Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, who played in the Afcon finals for Ghana in 2010 and 2015. But he feels the problem lies in how talented young players have been handled. “We need a development plan that transitions players well through the Under-17, Under-20 and upwards. It has to be deliberate,” he said. “We have a lot of individual talents, but we simply don’t have a team.”
Talented but not united
To back Agyemang-Badu’s point, one only needs to consider the background of the players whom Ghana called up for the Afcon in Cameroon. Daniel Amartey gets his fair share of games at Leicester City, while his central defensive partner, Alexander Djiku, is considered one of the best centrebacks in the French Ligue 1. In central midfield in Cameroon, the Ghana pairing consisted of a La Liga regular, Real Mallorca’s Iddrisu Baba, and Arsenal’s Thomas Partey.
The Black Stars also had the services of Kamaldeen Sulemana, who has been earning rave reviews in the French top flight.
But they missed the services of brilliant Ajax Amsterdam playmaker Mohammed Kudus, and have had trouble convincing the hugely talented Southampton centreback Mohammed Salisu to commit to Ghana.
Convincing Salisu to play for Ghana has become a new national obsession alongside similar calls for the Brighton wingback Tariq Lamptey, Chelsea forward Callum Hudson-Odoi, Eddie Nketiah at Arsenal and Felix Afena-Gyan. All of them could provide some solutions to the crippling lack of goals in the current side.
Agyemang-Badu is brutally frank about what needs to happen. “The team has collapsed. Let’s go for a development plan. If we qualify for the World Cup, fine. If we don’t, we shouldn’t be worried. Let’s build from scratch and stop comparing the past teams with the current one. If we keep relying on the old team, then we have a long way to go.”