13 February 2013

Ghana: Black Stars Need to Improve

The men have been separated from the boys in the 29th African Cup of Nations championship in South Africa. When the chips were down, the Elephants of la Cote d'Ivoire, everybody's favourites in the championship for the past decade, joined defending champions Zambia, host South Africa and 11 other teams home.

Tomorrow, the semi-finals begin with the Black Stars lining up against the Stallions of Burkina Faso, while the team of the moment, Super Eagles of Nigeria faces the Desert Eagles of Mali. At this stage, the men have been left to contest the championship, while the boys have left for their respective countries.

Once more, it was a gigantic failure for the Elephants of Cote d'Ivoire with all their array of stars - skipper Didier Drogba, Yahaya and Kole Toure, Salomon Kalou, etc.

For the fifth time in a row, the Elephants have failed to stamp their authority on the championship, echoing the failures of the Black Stars team of the late 1980s and 90s, spear-headed by Soccer Maestro Abedi Pele and Tony Yeboah.

With all the stars available to the Black Stars at the time -Tony Baffoe, Kwasi Appiah, Isaac Asare, Nii Odartey Lamptey - all great European professionals of the time, in addition to Tony Yeboah and Abedi Pele failed to win the African Cup of Nations. They did not qualify to participate in the World Cup either.

The current stars of the Ivory Coast are in the same category - all stars and no team. With their departure from the 29th edition of the Cup of Nations, it is going to be very difficult for La Cote D'Ivoire to raise a team capable of taking the continental crown to Abidjan.

On Saturday, the Elephants were undone by a Super Eagles team playing some of the best football the continental game has ever seen. What is interesting is that the Eagles had arrived in South Africa almost in confusion.

National coach Stephen Keshi had sensationally left out some of the more established names in Nigerian football. Peter Odemwinge, who is in superb form with West Bromwich Albion in the English Premiership and Obafemi Martins had been sidelined in a controversial decision that had left the Nigerian media fuming.

Keshi, captain of the 1994 Eagles winning squad, arrived in South Africa with a squad of 17 local stars, playing off John Obi Mikel, the defensive midfielder currently playing for Chelsea, and veteran goalkeeper Enyeamma, with Victor Moses also of Chelsea fame, leading the attack.

The sweet-flowing football Nigeria exhibited in defeating the Elephants of Cote d'Ivoire 2-1, vindicates the stance taken by Stephen Keshi. It also gives a clear indication of Nigeria's determination to win the African Cup of Nations championship for the third time.

Nigeria have won the Cup twice. Once before adoring home fans when Africa's most populous country hosted Africa in 1980, and the other triumph was a thrilling 2-1 win over Zambia in 1994, barely one year after the entire Chipolopolo team were wiped out in the air disaster off the coast of Gabon in 1993.

Football is an interesting game. While the world of football is celebrating Nigeria for their fantastic display against Cote d'Ivoire, former champions, Zambia, who thrilled the world on their way to the championship final in Gabon in 2012, are already home. Zambia could not even survive the heat of the preliminaries.

Like they say, all good things come to an end. The romance with Cape Verde ended at the quarter-final stage, but certainly not before giving the famed Black Stars of Ghana a good run for their money.

At one stage, it was difficult to believe that the minnows were those in the blue colour. So dominant were the Blue Sharks that the Black Stars, touted as the second favourite after the Elephants of Cote D'Ivoire, were made to look ordinary.

For long spells in the quarter-final engagement at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth last Saturday, the Black Stars were under pressure. It was only when Cape Verdian talisman, Mendy, got injured and left the field that the pressure eased a bit on the Ghanaian national team.

When your best player is a goalkeeper, you have a problem. Throughout the championship, the Black Stars have relied on the agility of Fatau Dauda in goal to sail through. Against the Blue Sharks of Cape Verde, Fatau had to be extra agile. For once, the defence, always solid, appeared jittery.

It was obvious that Christain Atsu, man of the match when the Black Stars defeated Niger 3-0, did not come to the party on Saturday. He was so unanimous that he had to be substituted. Atsu was not the only player who failed to perform on the day.

National skipper, Asamoah Gyan, was not the sharp instrument which cut through defences in the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 African Cup of Nations. So far, Asamoah Gyan has scored a lone goal, against Niger. The view out there is that the national skipper has slowed down.

I am not the one to dispute this assertion. It is obvious that the decision to leave Sunderland in the tough English Premiership for the relatively comfort of the Arab league in United Arab Emirates, has had an effect on his playing skills.

In England, Asamoah Gyan needed to be sharp to outwit defenders. When a player is confronted by the defence of Chelsea, Manchester City and United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham, among others, attackers need to be innovated to evade tackles which definitely is not the same in the United Arab Emirates.

It is obvious from his performances in South Africa that while the national skipper might have boosted his bank balance, his balancing act in front of defenders is not succeeding in producing the goals. So far, the Black Stars have shown flashes of what they are capable of doing particularly when the team ran riots against Niger.

Against the Blue Sharks of Cape Verde, however, the Black Star of Africa failed to shine. My understanding is that Coach Kwasi Appiah is worried about the state of the pitch in Nelspurit, where the Black Stars play Burkina in the semi-finals tomorrow.

I bet he would have to worry about the Burkinabes the more. As their name suggests, the Burkinabes are full of running. They are also very rugged and distribute the ball well.

The Black Stars' defence manned by John Boye and Isaac Vorsah in the middle, with John Painstil and Harrison Afful at the sides, would have to be firm to hold the Stallions in check. I am afraid, the midfield, usually the Black Stars' engine room, when the going is smooth, failed to gel against the Blue Sharks of Cape Verde.

The Island off the West Coast of Senegal, with a population of 500,000 might struggle to match the number of people in Nima and Accra New Town combined. In football, they mass around the opponent in their numbers.

On Saturday, the Black Stars' attacking machine lacked fuel. Asmoah Gyan was not effective. Even the introduction of Wakaso Mubarak did not improve things, even though he scored from the spot and got the Black Stars out of jail, with a last minute gift. All these put the national team on notice to improve before they take on our northern neighbours.

Mali, Burkina and Nigeria have done well to survive so far. South Africa are licking their wounds for exiting at the quarter-final stage after spending so much to host the tournament. Honestly, they need to do a lot on the confidence of Bafana Bafana.

Ethiopia set the championship alight in the beginning. In the end, their poor disciplinary record let them down. It is a shame that none of the North African teams -Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia survived the preliminaries. I suppose the Arab Spring has affected football in the Maghreb.

South African need to improve on spectatoring. It is not the very best that good football is played in empty Stadia. I shall return tomorrow with a preview of the Black Stars must win game with Burkina Faso. Nigeira and Mali are also billed to sell a classic in the other semi-final engagement.

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