Stars back to salt mine …as search for AFCON trophy enters 41 years

The dust surrounding Ghana’s shocking elimination at the group stage of the ongoing African Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Cameroon is yet to settle.

A hundred and forty-four hours after that ignominious exit of the Black Stars, Ghanaians are still down in the dumps, lamenting the team’s lame performance and wondering whether they can resurrect from a never-to-be-forgotten campaign that saw them record just a solitary point – and finishing last in Group C.

It is, indeed, Ghana’s worst performance in Nations Cup history – since the Stars’ journey began in 1963 when they hosted and won their first Holy Grail.

Of course, it was not the first time Ghana had crashed out in the opening round of the AFCON; but in all the three off-putting occasions they exited, they staggered out with at least one victory along the way.

The slump started in 1980 where they drew 0-0 against Algeria, beat Guinea 1-0 before losing to Morocco 1-0. Four years later in Cote d’Ivoire, in what is to be known as the Bouake debacle, defending champions Ghana pipped Malawi 1-0, but lost 2-1 and 2-0 to Nigeria and Algeria respectively. The 2006 tournament also saw the Stars lose 1-0 to Nigeria, accounted for Senegal 1-0 and astoundingly fell 1-2 to Zimbabwe.

So, you see, the ongoing Cameroon tournament is Ghana’s darkest moment in continental football. And, it is the reason Ghanaians have been writhing in pain, all this while.

As it stands now, Ghana’s search for an AFCON glory will stretch to 41 years in 2023 when the next tournament is hosted in Cote d’Ivoire, who at the moment are gunning for their third continental conquest after the feats of 1992 and 2015.

At the time of pushing this piece, the Ghana Football Association (GFA) and the Ministry of Youth and Sports were meeting to have a post-mortem of Ghana’s miserable AFCON participation and also determine the future of Serbian coach Milovan Rajevac – the sweat merchant who led the Stars to the Cameroon fiasco.

Milovan Rajevac

In September last year, the GFA reappointed the 67-year-old Milovan Rajevac as coach of the Black Stars, returning to the team after an 11-year hiatus to take over from Charles Akonnor.  Akonnor was relieved of his post after an erratic start to the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

In his first assignment, Milo – as he is popularly called, led Ghana to two straight wins in a Group G double-header against the Warriors of Zimbabwe, to get the nation’s Qatar 2022 World Cup campaign on track, before upstaging South Africa. That crucial victory over Bafana Bafana spearheaded the Stars to a play-off stage of two legs – which would take place in March.

Ahead of the Cameroon 2021 Nations Cup, the Stars camped in Doha, Qatar, and were engaged in one trial match against Algeria, losing 0-3. The result was ominous, as many saw a Ghanaian team that was not hungry for honours.

Tournament

Predictably, in the tournament proper, Ghana got off to patchy start when they conceded in the 84th minute to lose 1-0 to Morocco before drawing 1-1 with Gabon and surrendering a skipper Andre Dede Ayew 18th minute spectacular lead as late as the 88th minute.  It was a throbbing result at the Stade Roumdé Adjia, Garoua.

With a solitary point from two games, the Stars were tipped by the experts to run over minnow-side Comoros and sail through to the round of 16 as one of the best third-placed sides. Wrong!  Believe it or not, the tiny Island country of less than 900,000 people and ranked 132 by FIFA, supervised the exit of the four-time African champions.

Comoros, AFCON debutants, stole the lead after four minutes through Ben Mohamed who tore through a ball-watching Ghanaian backline before Ahmed Mogni added a second, just after the hour-mark. Things got worse for the Stars when skipper Ayew was shown the marching-off orders for a lunge on the keeper, which was checked by VAR and confirmed. It was a harsh decision as the captain dashed firstly straight for the spilt ball.

Down by two goals – and playing with 10 men for 65 minutes, the Stars demonstrated great derring-do that saw Richmond Boakye and Alexander Djiku complete the team’s concerted effort to make it 2-2. Great comeback, it was. Sadly, Ahmed Mogni  – who features for French third division club Annecy, took advantage of a drained paper-thin backline to claim his second of the game with five minutes left  – sealing a famous win for Comoros – and a historic place in the 1/16th stage of the competition. What a tournament the Islanders have had!

General performance

Truth is that, the Stars did not fight enough for progression.  They played in a hail-fellow-well-met fashion, only showing enough seriousness in the final group game when they realised the die was almost cast. For a team that has not won the title for four decades, one would have expected to see some piercing battle from them right from the get-go and not waiting until elimination starred them deep in the face.

Elatedly, even in the cauldron of defeat, there were a couple of Ghanaian talents that showed copiously that the future was dazzlingly bright. Youngsters like Fatawu Issahaku, Kamaldeen Sulemana, Joseph Paintsil and 25-year-old FC St Pauli striker Daniel-Kofi Kyereh gave the nation something to cheer about, whilst Arsenal’s Thomas Partey and Crystal Palace’s Jordan Ayew distressingly failed to glitter.

Lesson

Evidently, the Cameroon tournament has thought us that African football is increasingly coming of age and the gap between the so-called Gullivers and the minnows has narrowed drastically. That, defending champions Algeria – with all their class and elegance, were sent packing from a group that included less-fancied Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone, should be enough warning heading into the future. Until the stunning slump, the Riyad Mahrez-led Algerians had run a 35-game unbeaten streak that was first brought down to earth by the Equatoguineans.

Milo’s dismissal

Coach Milovan Rajevac’s future with the senior national team hung on a thin thread after the Stars’ calamitous exit as there were strong agitations for his dismissal with most Ghanaian fans going about it hammer-and-tongs.  They claimed the man who inspired the Stars to the quarter-final stage of the 2010 World Cup tournament, has lost the plot this time – criticizing his tactics including delayed substitutions.  The few who chanted his stay argued that with Ghana plunging into its next assignment (World Cup play-off with Nigeria) in March, it would be suicidal if he leaves now, insisting that he had picked some vital lessons from the abortive AFCON.  However, the Ministry of Youth and Sports thought otherwise, and after a somewhat marathon meeting with the FA on Friday, Milovan got the deserved big boot.

Way forward

As early as possible, we need Milo’s replacement and we must be ready to spend good if we really want to make any meaningful impact on the African terrain again. Indeed, irrespective of the AFCON embarrassment, we have still not gotten to the bear market and we need not throw our hands up in despair.  We need to take an exhaustively critical look at the team’s performance and do a snake-pit inquisition as regards the way forward.  

Of course, by now, we should have a fair appreciation of players that must not command first-team selection or should not be in the national team at all, as we scan around for formidable additions swiftly.

BY JOHN VIGAH

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