Sports

Let’s manage our expectations of the Stars

IF wishes were horses, beggars would ride. And indeed if the AFCON trophy were a horse, the senior national team, the Black Stars and for that matter, Ghanaians would be eager to ride.

Given that, it has been 37 years since the Black Stars won the African Cup at Libya ‘82, at the time none of the current members of the Black Stars was born – except the coach who incidentally was a member of the victorious team.

Perhaps, Coach James Kwasi Appiah would be more wishful than anyone else.

Ayew

It is, certainly his ambition, to become the third footballer on the African continent to win an AFCON trophy as player and as coach, after Egypt soccer legend Mahmoud El-Ghohary (1959 as player, 1998 as coach) and Nigeria’s Stephen Keshie (player 1994, coach 2013).

Fact is the youth of Ghana have never seen an African Cup land on our soil. Arguably, this may have resulted in soccer fans in Ghana taken solace in European football: crowding at pubs to enjoy what their national team could not afford them for the past 37 years, the benefit of good football and an AFCON trophy.

Three times, we came close to winning but lost out on the lottery of penalties in Senegal ‘92, Equatorial-Guinea ‘15 by the same side, La Cote d’Ivoire and by a lone goal to Egypt at Angola 2010.

Past Glories

Ghana and Brazil used to be the two dominant football nations in the world. In fact, the Black Stars won the AFCON in Accra for the third unprecedented time in 1978, just as Brazil had also won the World Cup for the third time – hence Black Stars were touted as ‘Brazil of Africa.’

Then again, when the Stars won the Cup for the ‘super’ unprecedented fourth time in Libya ‘82, our pride soared. All these are now lost glories!

It must be noted that the terrain in AFCON has since changed. Those days, the qualifying was not so tortuous and the participating teams were only eight qualified national teams, drawn into only two groups.

Now the tournament has since been expanded to 24 qualified teams drawn in six groups with so many highly competitive matches to play.

In the time past, the domestic league was very competitive; full of good, dedicated and committed players. The local coaches could easily identify and groom them into a winsome national team.

In contemporary times, coaches rely on professional players abroad, and overreliance on them comes with challenges. They have divided attentions and there is the tendency for them to be more committed to their clubs where they earn more than the national cause.

The forebears of the senior national team had played with passion and for the love of the game and their country.

They were mentally alert for the full minutes of the game, very strong, robust, stubborn, and tactically-disciplined on and off the field of play, committed to the national cause, no qualms about captaincy band, very humble, respectful with amazing team spirit.

The Black Stars go to the Egypt ‘19 unseeded. They are paired in Group F alongside Benin, Guinea-Bissau and Cameroon whom Ghana had never beaten in recent past AFCONs.

The Indomitable Lions beat the Stars at the semi-finals of AFCON ‘08 in Accra one-nil, to dash our hope of host-and-win, and repeated the dose at same semi-finals of AFCON 2017 in Gabon.

They earlier held the Stars one-all at AFCON 2000, co-hosted by Ghana Nigeria.

Will the Indomitable Lions continue their dominance over the Stars or will the Stars break the jinx in Egypt ‘19?

Soccer analysts have tipped host nation, Pharaohs of Egypt, seven-time winners; Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, four times champions; the best ranked team on the continent, Teranga Lions of Senegal; three-time champions Super Eagles of Nigeria; Cote d’Iviore, twice champions; the Atlas of Morocco, Algeria, champions in Algeria ‘90, as favourites.

Do we have the men to prove the skeptics wrong by winning the tournament in Egypt to restore our pride as forebears of African football?

They say football is won from the midfield. If so, then we have in the Black Stars squad, one of the best midfielders in the world in the person of Thomas Partey – a veritable steam engine.

Will Partey, Ghana’s current best sportsman bring his huge influence to bear on the team, as he does for his club Atletico Madrid in the Spanish league?

Recall

Perhaps, there is the need to recall the journey to Libya ‘82.

In the last qualifying match, the Stars were held to 2-2 draw by the Leopards of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) in Accra on July 22, 1981. All hopes appeared to have been lost in view of the away goals advantage to Zairians.

“Then came the crucial return leg decider at the ’20th May’ 80,000-capacity stadium in Kinshasa on August 2, 1981.

The Leopards reportedly started the game on a very fast note and the Stars were reeling under pressure.

Disaster struck the Stars in the 34th minute when their midfield supremo, skipper Adolf Armah, was stretchered off the field after he picked an injury.

Coach C.K Gyamfi (now late) threw in Abedi Pele Ayew (his debut) to replace Adolf Armah, whom Abedi looked up to and served as his ‘master’ in camp.

The then 16-year-old student of Ghana Secondary School in Tamale, proved the skeptics, who considered him young for such a big battle of strong-hearted, wrong by enlivening the stadium with his nick-name ‘Petit Pele’ resonating among the Zairian fans.

This is how Emmanuel Amoako reported it in the August 5, 1981 issue of the Ghanaian Times: “Abedi was full of running with his one-touch, inch-perfect distributions; he helped increased the team’s depth of play upfront.”

This was a match young James Kwasi Appiah was given a very difficult role to ‘police’ the Leopard dare-devil striker Mayele, from where he got his nick-name ‘Mayele.’ Substitute Mobati scored for Zaire in the 51st minute and the stadium went agog. But that was short-lived!

Two in-swingers from overlapping right-back, Haruna Yussif and winger John ‘Zion Train’ Essien in the 65th and 67th minutes saw George ‘Jairzinho’ Alhassan soar above the Zairean defence to head home two quick goals for Ghana.

The disappointed Zairian soccer fans besieged the Stars, at the end of proceedings to vent their anger on them, but the players were sneaked out of the stadium at midnight to the airport, to enplane back to Accra. The Stars have qualified to go to Libya!

The military junta of the December 31,1981 Revolution, led by Flt. Lt. J.J. Rawlings, overturned an earlier decision of the Hilla Limann administration not to participate in the Libya ‘82 AFCON, because of political differences between former President Limann and the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.

The Ghanaian economy was in difficulties; the sports authorities had challenges in resourcing the national team within the shortest time. Thanks to the ingenuity of the then Secretary for Youth and Sports Zaya Yeebo, who mobilised support from the private sector to help procure logistics for the Stars.

Brilliant display by the unchangeable first set team of third choice goalkeeper Owusu Mensah, Haruna Yussif, Kwame Sampson, Sampson ‘Qaddafi’ Lamptey, Seth Ampadu, Isaac Paha, John Essien/Windsor Kofi Abbrey, Albert Asaase ‘J’ Kofi Badu, George Alhassan Opoku ‘Zico’ Nti, Abedi ‘Pele’ Ayew, who went to Libya “ill-prepared, saw and conquered,” beating Qaddafi’s Libya on penalties in the grand finale, after taming Africa’s representative to the ‘82 World Cup, Cameroon and Algeria whom they defeated 3-2 at the gruelling semi-finals.

Earlier, the Stars drew one-all with host Libya, held Cameroon to a goalless draw and defeated Tunisia one-nil.

Great defender he was, Kwasi Appiah, had limited playing time in Libya ‘82 due to the impeccable solid defence of Mensah in goal, Yussif/Sampson at the right back, Sampson ‘Qaddafi’ at the left back, and the central defence pair of Ampadu and Paha, which Coach Gyamfi found it difficult to vary.

Then came the moment! And when the jet carrying the Stars landed on the tarmac at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra on March 23, 1982, Ghana’s sense of pride, happiness and joy reached a crescendo, as skipper Emmanuel Quarshie (may his soul rest in peace), variously known as ‘Montreal’ ‘Black Panther’ holding the Cup aloof, descended on the gangway, closely behind him was Deputy Skipper Yussif, displaying the Fair Play Trophy the Stars also earned.

“Your greatest achievement in winning the African Cup has lifted us all in Ghana,” the Head of State, Flt. Lt. Rawlings was reported to have remarked.

Earlier, Skipper Quarshie had assured the nation that: “Nobody can stop us, victory is our battle cry. We cannot afford to fail the nation.”

Can history repeat itself 37 years, four months on?

BY SALIFU ABDUL-RAHAMAN

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