The Ghana Black Maidens are roaring in Uruguay, and it gets louder with each match. The Ghanaians remain the only African side at the 2018 FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup hoisting the flag of the entire continent.
More so, Evans Addotey's side have demonstrated some surreal soccer skills, attracting praise from some of football's big guns. Fatma Samoura, the FIFA General Secretary -after the Black Maidens 3-1 win over Finland - claimed the team's 'joy was contagious'.
Led by skipper Mukarama Abdullai, the best player at the tournament, one sentence best encapsulates the Black Maidens campaign so far - Organized, gallant, exciting and ruthless.
Meanwhile, the story back home of their seniors, the Black Queens, is at odds.
Total farce of a campaign that has seen the first hosts disappointingly booted out of the 2018 AWCON after a lackluster performance. Nothing close to what the Maidens have exhibited in far away Uruguay.
I beg not to discredit the Maidens, but this has been a familiar rendition of Ghana’s youth teams.
Our credentials at junior levels are well documented in world football’s history.
In terms of laurels and achievements, boastful to say Ghana has outperformed super-power nations like Germany, Croatia, France, Denmark, Belgium and Portugal at the youth levels.
Some of Ghana football's famous victories have been marked at this stage, as well as the individual bombing to prominence by some of our stars.
The 1991 U-17 champions win in Italy, where the country's twinkle little stars introduced a brand of football never witnessed by the world at that level which essentially led to revolution of the game back home.
There was also the 1995 title win under Sam Arday in Ecuador and the 1992 Olympic bronze in Barcelona and recently, the 2009 world title at Under-20 level in Egypt.
Like the Maiden's campaign in Uruguay, the performance of Ghana's youth sides at global competitions is demonstrable of the country's abundant talent base.
The groups appear palpably dedicated, assiduous, organized and disciplined. At the 2012 Women's U-17 in Azerbaijan, the Maidens posted a similar 5-0 victory over Uruguay, before edging almighty Germany to win bronze.
But would they have the capacity to stand Germany at senior level, assuming same squad is allowed to transit to the stage? Your guess is bad as mine.
When Ghana's super brilliant youth teams of Black Starlets, Black Satellites and Black Maidens grow to become Black Stars and Black Queens - where it matters most - the narratives are unfortunately different.
A myriad of known factors have accounted for this discrepancy, and also a legion of mystery that will never be unraveled. Some o the known, I would try to address in this piece;
Funding is a challenge in Ghana football, but one of the greatest drawbacks of our progress in the sport, has been age-cheating. According to a recent CIES report, despite fielding the youngest players in A national teams at international tournaments, Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon continue to remain underachievers due to endemic age cheating. The Swiss-based Football Observatory cast doubt on the declared ages of Ghanaian footballers.
Many Ghanaians, despite celebrating the Black Maidens, have questioned the authenticity of the ages of the players in Uruguay. Notwithstanding our blatant refusal to make a solemn admission, most footballers born in Ghana tend to be older than they claim to be. We are constantly faced with this reality.
CAF Medical Committee Member, Dr. Prince Pambo, who has over the years tried to help reverse the trend, says, “It has been a big challenge that we have been trying to eradicate or at least lessen”.
“Lying about age is a common practice here if I’m being blunt. We may feel we have paraded a young team for a competition but the players may be far older than their opponents and that implies a competitive advantage.
Take the Black Maidens team for instance, because there is no MRI checks at that level, it’s enormously difficult to discover the real ages of the girls and so if they are older than the other competitors, they will definitely be physically stronger and faster.
“There is a medical correlation. At some age, the older the stronger the faster. But after some years. If same teams compete, for instance at peak ages of 23-27, there is no physical advantage again and we tend to be weaker because we are older than what we claim to be”.
Basically, the transition from the youth, like Black Maidens to Black Queens, demands a lot in nutrition, training facilities, programmes and disciplinary measures which may be lacking.
But in same vain, their compatriots in New Zealand or Germany or Belgium, whom they may have beaten in Uruguay, will be better graduates at senior level because they are well transformed”, he adds.
Pambo asserts that Age fraud is endemic here, of which he is right. It also a counterproductive practice, to which our football has been a profound victim.
If the Black Maidens are over aged than the opponents they have brushed aside on their way and we are overawed, it is simply a glorification in vain
Ghana football has been stuck in a time warp, for one main reason. Mediocre leadership, with men and women whose conduct are increasingly clear to be out of touch with reality. Lax leadership coupled with unconstrained corruption means focus is shifted from investment in development to personal aggrandizement. Recent uncovering of widespread corruption in the Ghanaian game was testament of how individual leaders look sophisticated than facilities.
Authorities choose a quick fix to problems and have no clue what the future hold. A Ghana football leader may for example invest and glorify winning the infinitesimal FIFA U-17 World Cup over a investing in a grand scheme to achieve a similar feat at A Level. It is the opposite elsewhere.
There’s a clear lack of policy direction for Ghana blueprint. To the best of my knowledge, the country’s football has been run without a distinct blue-print at least for the past few years.
Progress of the Black Maidens team may be stalled, due to nonexistent programme to ensure a burnished transition. South Africa’s Bantwana Bantwana exited same competition without winning a game, but despite their lack of talent, SAFA’s project for the team is evident.
Ghana has a comparative advantage in football, with the player pool and lack of competing sports. A Ghanaian will perfect his shooting with merely a rag ball in a swampy slum and will already become a skillful striker. For China, President Xi knows talents are wanting, and national strategy is for the game taught in 50,000 Chinese schools by 2025. China is trying an ambitious project of round-the-clock training and relentless drilling to get the nation at the top by the targeted year. Such long-term projects are allergic to Ghana.
During my recent visit to his Football Academy base in the Central Region of Ghana, Nii Odartey Lamptey, a former internatonal, admitted the country has a huge pool of talent but barely tapped.
Money that could be spent on scouting and infrastructural development is lavished on officials instead. In a conspicuous waste of scarce resources, the Ghanaian government, upon the federation’s ill-advise, flew over 120 member delegation to Brazil for the 2014 World
Where is Ghana’s plan for the future of the Black Maiden’s and for national football?
With the Black Maidens being a case study for this piece, the team’s campaign has so far, gone according to plan without any controversy reported yet. Same story was for the 2012 group that achieved bronze, the Black Starlets team that won silver at the recent Africa U-17 Champions and even for the 2009 U-20 World Champions.
A member of that 2009 group, Jonatahn Mensah, in a recent interview, told me the common denominator that bonded the team was unity and focus. “We weren’t thinking about anything else. All we wanted to do was to play football, take it game by game with sight on the ultimate”.
We were so focused that even at that age, we held meetings at the dining room just to correct our individual mistakes and harden the bond.
The Columbus Crew defender is unfortunately one of the few surviving members of that Satellites squad in the Black Stars - team completely opposite in terms of collective interest.
Management of senior teams at tournament has always proved suicidal. Ghana has had its chances at several competitions has been marred by controversies arising from mismanagement and lack of discipline.
Kudjoe Fianoo, one of Ghana football’s longest serving administrators, who has managed national teams across all the levels, says “the problem is not about the growth of the footballers but the growth of their egos”.
When they are in the junior teams, the ambition is different and supervision is easier. Once the players are invited into senior levels, the focus is shifted to how much of incentive is on the table. It is all about money and the ego is so bloated at that stage that management becomes difficult.
German football’s recent dominance was not only attributed to the seamless production of star players but largely due to the massive overhaul of talent management strategies. Committing resources to develop the players, without same to the team that manages such talent is suicidal.
Personnel who are put in management positions of National Teams must be well-equipped and be abreast with modern talent management practices to avert possible camp break. Observing team metality and cutting off potential disruptors has been one of the schemes used by German in transiting players from junior teams to seniors. As Oliver Bierhoff explained why Kevin Prince Boateng was eaxed from German camp at the 2007 European U-19 Championship
Ghana’s management is by default. Often, friends and cronies are assembled to manage national teams despite not having any basic knowledge nor familiar with the teams they are supposed to lead.
A lot of these people engage in intensive lobbying for post just to enjoy the luxury of travelling on government purse.
As a result, Ghana’s teams are not led by the best managers for the job but by those who have the means to lobby the powers that be. Not surprises that in 2014 Ghana had to fly $3m of unpaid bonuses by courier to avert a players’ strike. A clear situation of mismanagement.
Navigating dressing-room politics is trickier and as such there is a need to overhaul Ghana National Team Management bodies so as to keep talents in shape at all levels.
The Black Maidens should be potential world beaters when they are Black Queens. The team, just like other juniors, have proven beyond doubt what we are capable of, but there lies upon us, a very daunting task to address the challenges and reverse the trend that has ensured that Ghana only excels at the inconsequential junior tournaments.
LACK OF PLANNING
Assembling talents may be one of the easiest jobs in Ghana, but setting them up for a mission driven by a well-defined project is the real. Gathering twenty-two teenage players for a two-week tournament may be accomplished by default, but harnessing, monitoring and creating an ideal environment for such talents over a long period may require investment, commitment and will.
This year's Africa Women’s Nations Cup (AWCON) has served as a reflection of the planning problems we face. The level of play of the Black Queens was poor. It was apparent before the tournament kicked off, that the team had never been a project of a positive long-term development. The team that was actually hosting the tournament were in absolute doubt of a clear preparatory plan with weeks to commence, an obvious death knell.
In youth football there's always a balance between development and immediate
performance. Ghana’s football policy tends to target the latter, which destruct the progress. I know before the overhaul of the German youth system nobody cared about winning youth tournaments at all.
In terms of technical direction, for instance, the manner in which Football Association fired Yusif Basigi, then hired Mercy Tagoe, an inexperienced trainer who seemed to have been given the nod, only to accidentally appoint Bshiru Hayford, shows just how shambolic the planning.
These, and many more challenges, may come to face the Black Maidens and adversely same group of players who have shone, and showed the world just what they can become if the messes are tidied.