Why Michael Essien's Generation is Ghana's Greatest!

Sat, 28 Nov 2009 Source: Pryce, Daniel K.

As a former player, midfield dynamo and captain, at least at the collegiate level, I understand the intricacies of the world's most popular sport: soccer. In fact, I have followed with unabashed enthusiasm the game of soccer all of my life, with Asante Kotoko being my favorite team in Ghana since I was about 7 years old. I can recall rather quickly the names of Kotoko's most outstanding stars of the past, and whether or not they were part of the 1971 and 1983 squads that won the African Clubs Championship. Ghana's first properly constituted national soccer league took place in 1958, and there were eight teams – Asante Kotoko, Kumasi Cornerstone, Accra Hearts of Oak, Accra Great Olympics, Sekondi Hasaacas, Sekondi Eleven Wise, Cape Coast Mysterious Dwarfs and Cape Coast Venomous Vipers – with Hearts of Oak taking the maiden title. Many talented Ghanaian players have come and gone since 1958, but Michael Essien and his fellow Black Stars teammates are arguably the greatest set of players Ghana has ever produced, because they are the only ones who have taken us to the FIFA World Cup.

It is true that Ghana has won the African Cup of Nations four times (1963, 1965, 1978 and 1982), and for a while, this record stood – but Egypt has since overtaken us with a record six titles! For many soccer pundits, winning the African Cup of Nations is a great achievement, but there is no greater laurel than qualifying for the FIFA World Cup, which had eluded us until 2006, when Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, Asamoah Gyan, John Mensah, John Paintsil and the others finally gave Ghana a berth at a FIFA World Cup tourney. For those who are very young, I wish to remind you that Africa, for a while, had only one or two representatives at the FIFA World Cup, so qualifying to this premier event was quite an achievement back then. Some may argue that were Africa still getting only two places at the World Cup, would Essien and his teammates have taken us there? Well, no one knows for sure, but what is evident is that Essien and his teammates not only took us there in 2006, they are taking us there again in 2010, with Ghana becoming Africa's first to qualify for South Africa 2010!

Ghana has always produced an avalanche of virtuosic soccer players, and the likes of Aggrey Fynn, Kwao Baffoe, Ofei Dodoo, Dodoo Ankrah, Dogo Moro, Baba Yara, Edward Acquah, Kwadwo Mfum, Jones Attuquayefio, Malik Jabir, Kofi Bruce, Amusa Gbadamoshie and Ibrahim Sunday gave us so much joy and titillation on the field of play. Other great players of the past, who also made Ghanaian soccer lovers very proud, would include Osei Kofi, Robert Mensah, Oliver Acquah, Addoquaye Laryea, Atta Kwame, Kwasi Owusu, Joe Ghartey, Peter Lamptey, Ofei Ansah, Abeka Ankrah, Mohammed Polo, Dan Owusu, Sam Ampeh, Adolf Armah, P.S.K. Paha, Robert Hammond, Opoku Afriyie, Anas Seidu, Emmanuel Quarshie, Abdul Razak, George Alhassan, Kofi Abbrey, Opoku Nti, Ahmed Rockson, Albert Asaase, Papa Arko, Seth Ampadu, Abedi Ayew, Anthony Yeboah, Kwesi Appiah, Kofi Badu, Emmanuel Armah, Kuuku Dadzie, Tony Baffoe, Emmanuel Ampiah, Frimpong Manso, Owusu Mensah and Addae Kyenkyenhene.

While this writer cannot name all of the prolific stars of the last few generations, for obvious reasons, my argument is mainly about which group of players has achieved the greatest for Mother Ghana. Certainly, we had the young Abedi Ayew and others win the 1982 African Cup of Nations in Libya – Ghana's fourth – but we have been unable to win another since. Yes, several players have come and gone, but that fifth trophy remains elusive up to now. Perhaps, the nearest Ghana had come to winning its fifth trophy was in Senegal, which hosted the 1992 edition of the African Cup of Nations, but several fissures in the playing body had contributed greatly to our loss to Ivory Coast in the final match. For those who may be unaware of this fact, Kotoko's stalwart defender, Kwesi Appiah, had been captain of the Black Stars for a period, until the captaincy was taken away from him, under false pretenses, and given to Abedi Ayew, which led to a schism in the team, with Abedi Ayew and Anthony Yeboah becoming factional leaders.

This rift could be blamed both on Abedi Ayew's huge ego and the then-leaders of the Ghana Football Association, who would humiliate Kwesi Appiah by taking the captain's armband away from him. While some of the post-1992 tournament players would remain in the team and take part in several succeeding African Cup of Nations tournaments, the fissures were never completely healed, and Ghana became the poorer for it.

At the Under-20 World Cup tournament held in Argentina in 2001, Ghana's silver medal-winning team would show the world that it had what it took to do well if allowed to remain a strong unit; just five years later, this group of dedicated Ghanaian professionals would take us to our first FIFA World Cup tournament: Germany 2006! In fact, of the 2001 silver medal-winning squad, Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, John Mensah, John Paintsil and others would all make it to Germany 2006, and it is no surprise that these men are still first-choice players in the current Black Stars squad. The fact that these guys are still doing well for their clubs and country is a testament to their overall dedication to the sport and to Mother Ghana.

Abedi Pele is arguably Ghana's greatest midfielder ever, and Anthony Yeboah may easily win the best striker accolade any day, but the Black Stars squads that both men led for over a decade were underperforming teams that won no trophies. In fact, Ayew's and Yeboah's Black Stars only made us purchase too many bottles of Pepto-Bismol to assuage the heartburn we suffered due to one setback after another on the field of play. Edson Arantes Do Nascimento (Pele) and Diego Maradona are continually touted as the best that the sport of soccer had ever produced, but the truth is that these tributes are for both personal and team achievements: Pele won three FIFA World Cups (1958, 1962 and 1970) and Maradona one (1986).

Apart from the 1982 edition of the African Cup of Nations, where a young Abedi Ayew was a substitute in some of the games, Ayew and Yeboah did not win any trophies for Ghana and did not take us to the FIFA World Cup. Below is the Ghanaian team that won the 1982 African Cup of Nations on Libyan soil: Michael Owusu Mensah (Hearts), Haruna Yusif (Kotoko), Charles Kwame Sampson (Hasaacas), Sampson "Gaddafi" Lamptey (Hearts), Kwadwo Addae Kyenkyenhene (Kotoko), Albert Asaase (Kotoko), John "Zion Train" Essien (Hasaacas), Emmanuel Quarshie (Shell FC, Gabon), George J'air Alhassan (FC 105, Gabon), Kofi Badu (Kotoko) and Windsor Kofi Abbrey (Eleven Wise). The reserves were: Joseph Carr (Kotoko), Hesse Odamtten (Hearts), Abedi Pele (Real United) and Samuel Opoku Nti (Kotoko).

Ghanaians must be grateful to Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, John Paintsil, John Mensah and the rest of the current Black Stars squad for both taking us to Germany 2006 and qualifying us for South Africa 2010. No other generation of footballers has done anything close to the aforementioned achievements, which is why I consider recent calls by some soccer fans for the ouster of Essien, Muntari and Asamoah Gyan, just because they missed a meaningless game three days after all three played in a grueling final World Cup qualifying group match against Mali, ludicrous and exasperating. Perhaps, the wrath of the fans ought to be directed against those clueless leaders in charge of the Ghana Football Association, who, in their quest to claim more emoluments, senselessly scheduled a friendly match to be played thousands of miles away from Europe, where most of our players ply their trade. Does anyone remember the needless loss in September 2009 to Japan in a friendly right after another grueling World Cup qualifier? Do we care about the health and wellbeing of these dedicated players?

This writer is against indiscipline in the senior national team, but the team's leaders and handlers ought to use their God-given cerebrums to make sensible decisions that take into consideration the welfare of the players. For once, I am throwing my support behind Essien and his teammates for refusing to take part in a meaningless game and going on to play for their respective clubs the following weekend. For those who may not know, Chelsea pays Essien a lot of money, so it behooves the player to demonstrate deep loyalty to his club. Obviously, this issue was not even one of those headache-inducing matters pitting club against country. The fact that Michael Essien, Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and John Mikel Obi will be leaving for the African Cup of Nations early next year is enough agony for Chelsea's coaches, so Essien did the right thing by returning to England and scoring two goals for Chelsea in the team's next Premiership game. Please, stop vilifying Essien, Muntari and Gyan over such an inconsequential matter, for these guys have shown greater dedication to Mother Ghana over the years than the likes of Abedi Ayew, Anthony Yeboah and Odartey Lamptey. Sometimes, a man must do what is right, and Essien and his mates did the right thing by not traveling to Angola to play in a meaningless game – and they may have avoided injury in the process, who knows? Perhaps, the team's head coach should, henceforth, give several fringe players a chance to claim a spot on his roster for the Angola 2010 and South Africa 2010 tournaments, for the team needs depth to conquer Africa and, possibly, the world. Let us learn to honor our heroes, for Ghanaians have a propensity for exhibiting contempt for their heroes, even after just one wrong deed by the latter. For God's sake, let us remember the numerous sacrifices that these lads have made over the years for Mother Ghana!

The writer, Daniel K. Pryce, holds a master’s degree in public administration from George Mason University, U.S.A. He is a member of the national honor society for public affairs and administration in the U.S.A. He can be reached at dpryce@cox.net.

Columnist: Pryce, Daniel K.