AFCON 2017: Can the Black Stars Break the 35 Year wait?
I remember my first AFCON; it was in 1990, my sister, Naa Ayeley, wasn’t even born yet. Today, Naa is a grown woman, a full contributing member of society. Naa doesn’t get it why we even bother with the Black Stars any more. She belongs to the group that have decided their hearts strings can’t support the roller coaster that the Black Stars have become and if you consider that the Stars’ current performance is at a low ebb (zero wins in 5 games and only 2 goals scored), you can understand her apathy. You can understand how frustrating it is for me as well as “Naa-lites” that since 1990, when I first watched the Nations Cup, as we called it back then, on TV, we haven’t seen our dear Black Stars lift the AFCON trophy, ever! Indeed, the last time the Stars won the AFCON for the fourth and final time in 1982, I was in diapers, with little care beyond breast milk (ok, stop calculating my age already. Can we focus? Yes we can (Obama 2008), yea, I had to quote, I think I like my peace (laughs). Okay back to serious business!
So, that a whole generation and a half have found little or no joy in the AFCON is not in question, what is; however, is whether the fortunes of the Stars in this year’s AFCON, which just kicked off in Gabon (January 14 to February 5, 2017) would be any different. Can the Stars end the 35 year long wait? Would this edition end in a climax or an anti-climax as usual? It all depends; depends on two major factors.
Ditch the “old boys club” mentality
Avram Grant has had two whole years to shape, mold and stamp his signature on this team but he has been very hesitant at best. What should have been a clear signature looks disjointed and all over the place as Grant has failed to build a good spine or a recognizable pattern of play.
The importance of a solid spine, the goalie through central defense and midfield to the striker, cannot be overemphasized. Unfortunately most of the established stars in the Stars have been bogged down by injuries or dipped in form; hence the spine of the team has been shaky. Goalie Razak Brimah has been average at best, the central defensive pairing of Jonathan Mensah and John Boye has not been water tight, with Mensah especially not quite tip top. The midfield combo of Afriyie Acquah and Mubarak Wakaso do not have the steel and verve like they did at the last AFCON in 2015. Due to captain Gyan’s fitness issues, the attack has lacked bite and is in dire need of a swashbuckling attacker that can disturb defenses with sheer grit or craft. That is why I was surprised Grant dropped the two genuine striking options he had in Rapheal Dwamena and Adbul Majeed Waris, further reinforcing Grant’s unwillingness to dare, embrace change. Instead, he has stuck with the same old feet, failing to give them competition to make them improve. Realizing this late on, he invited a number of new boys in the lead up to this tourney but when he announced the final 23 man squad, he kept faith largely with the old guard.
If Grant did a quick research into the times the Black Stars thrived in the last decade, he would have realized that players like Shilla Illiasu, Habib Mohammed, Anthony Annan and even Wakaso were given opportunities when they were unproven but excelled when given the chance. Current Captain, Gyan, was given a similar opportunity way back in 2003 when he was only 17, then playing for Liberty Professionals. Grant has to learn to take risks on the relatively newer or junior players like Ebenezer Ofori, Samuel Tetteh, Bernard Tekpetey and Thomas Partey; make changes early; switch formations in-game, rather than overly sticking to the high profiled names to the detriment of high work rate and hunger to make a name. These attributes are what the newer boys possess in abundance just like the 2010 AFCON silver winning team had, having included players from the 2009 junior world cup winning team.
Play from the heart, not to the bank
“Black Stars players want $10,000 winning bonus restored” The headlines screamed. This was after the players met members of the then transitional team just before the new government took power. I shook my head. You would think that after the 2014 World Cup appearance fee embarrassment, the Black Stars would have learnt. They would have learnt that no amount of money can buy honour. That the bonus paid them is exactly that, a bonus, it is not a salary for work done. That it is a privilege to play for the nation; that Naa and co. have long divorced the Black Stars because of such perceived insensitivity on the part of the players. That they would be best served by sending out right sound bites and optics that show they are “sacrificing”.
There is an allegation out there that the continual negotiation of higher bonuses is actually not at the instance of the players, but rather officials of the team who could benefit indirectly. Now that seems a long shot and isn’t verified yet, but either way, whether at the instance of the players or officials, it is time these negotiations cease, bonus or token accepted and focus redirected to the core business of serving the nation with pride and bringing honour. If the negotiations drag, it would only divert attention, portray the players as greedy and that would further alienate the team from the fans and nation at large. Besides, the size of winning bonuses has never had a direct relationship with winning championships, if it had, Zambia would never have won the AFCON in 2012; if it had, the Black Stars should have won at least 5 titles in the last decade, as the Stars are one of the highest paid in Africa and even globally, where the average winning bonus of national teams is $5,000. What then, wins championships? Sacrifice, team unity, and collective sense of focus and purpose, is what does. You will find these buried in our hearts; they are free; they don’t cost a pesewa and they aren’t found in the bank. In my mind’s eye, I could almost see Naa nodding with glee, and restraining herself from uttering “onaapo!”
Nii Ayitey Tetteh