It is a story that lends itself to poignant contrasts. There have been several theories used to explain away this phenomenon but African youth stars not being able to live to their initial hype is still quite troubling.
I need not remind anybody that the Black Satellites of Ghana are the first and as at the time of writing this, the only African team to ever win the FIFA U 20 world up. I need not remind anyone that at the third time of asking, wild celebrations; players running into one another with fists punching the air; members of the technical staff and substitutes locked up in warm embrace, characterized an evening that saw the young brave Ghanaians climb their way through the turnstiles of the Cairo International Stadium to receive their medals and trophy from the now suspended Ex-FIFA president Josef Blatter. Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu’s strike from twelve yards out, gave the Black Satellites victory in sudden death after all five compulsory penalty kicks and 120mins of football failed to separate the two sides.
Almost all the pre match talks and analysis that typified expectations building up to the dream finale between Ghana and Brazil gave the fixture the right to be described as a David versus Goliath encounter. Ghana – two time losing finalist – locking horns with perennial world champions Brazil was somewhat an apt climax to what was a largely entertaining tournament in Egypt. They were two of the most exciting teams in the entire tournament but on paper were not as evenly matched as performances in previous competition would have people believe – one team simply didn’t have enough in itself to win a final match while the other had on four previous occasions, steamrolled over their opponents in an U-20 final.
“It’s a fantastic feeling when you reach the Final” Sellas Tetteh, the Ghana coach told Fifa.com with a simper, cutting the image of a coach deeply satisfied with the turn of events. But he was quick to admit his side’s shortcomings and was in no mood to underestimate the enormity of the task ahead. “We’ll do whatever it takes to win the trophy now. We’re not favourites and we’re up for the challenge. We’ve played good football throughout the tournament. We have no reason to be nervous. We have the required fitness, and we have the necessary determination.” Coach Sellas ended by saying.
The stage was set; the man with the whistle, book and cards sounded his whistle and a roar from the teeming fans – mostly Egyptians – got the game started.
The match started well for the Black Satellite, as Ghana impressed in the early exchanges. At least until the 37th minute when a moment of [in]decision from defender Daniel Addo resulted in a red card and that meant a further gulf had been added between the two teams. Down to 10 men, the Black Satellites held their own against their more accomplished opponents for well over eighty-three minutes and the game had to be decided through the lottery of a penalty shoot-out.
Speaking of a gulf in class, the occupants of the award podium at the end of the tournament painted and entirely different picture. Brazilian duo Alex Teixeira and Giuliano came second and third respectively to the golden ball winner Dominic Adiyiah, whose eight goals, electric play, good work ethic and a healthy level of confidence exhibited throughout the competition made him easily the most identifiable member of the Ghana squad. That was the birth of a golden generation, headlined by Andre Ayew and Dominic Adiyiah; the telltale signs, there for all to see.
One would have been forgiven for imagining that, in a few years’ time, the Black Stars should be able to slug it out against the Seleçao of Brazil in any competitive fixture. After all, did we not beat them with a man down for close to 90 minutes at the U20s?
Unfortunately, nearly anytime Africa has excelled at a global youth football event, the story has largely remained the same. There has always been a clogged progression from promise to fully formed National stars – if ever they become one. The stories of Philip Osundo, Wilson Oruma and Macauley Christiantus to name a few have shown that the disconnect still remains.
But when does the bottom fall out and everything go all south?
It is a story that lends itself to poignant contrasts. There have been several theories used to explain this phenomenon: age-cheating and wrong career moves being so far the most posited.
Let’s take for instance, Sani Emmanuel, the 2009 U17 golden ball winner, though just turned 23, has been released by Bosnian outfit FK Sarajevo after similarly unsuccessful stints with six other teams in Europe. Then the news of Yussufu Yaffa whose age is being wildly disputed by AC Milan after the Italian giants accused the Gambian of falsifying his documents to appear 19 when in fact, he was 28 years old. The footy landscape is replete with several examples of players of African descent, who for all the promise they showed in their purportedly youthful stages have flattered to deceive on a grander stage. The thin thread that runs through all of these is that, the ages simply do not correspond to the levels of performance or measure up to the initial hype of most of these players. World class in their burgeoning years and alarmingly poor even before they blow off the candles on their twenty-fifth birthday cakes.
Then again, the other theory that springs up in many conversations bothering on the failures of many of our youth stars is that, they simply don’t make the best of career choices in the wake of a brilliant youth competition.
Of the eleven that started for Ghana in the finals against Brazil, only Andre Ayew and to some extent Jonathan Mensah and Rabiu Mohammed have their careers still on track. Dominic Adiyiah, Ranford Osei and Abeiku Quansah who between them scored 16 goals in 7 games at the world cup are currently without clubs. Daniel Addo, latif Salifu, Opoku Agyemang and Samuel Inkoom struggling to linger on in the consciences of football fans in Ghana. Daniel Agyei whose heroics in the penalty-shootouts got us the trophy recently returned to Accra based Liberty after failed spells in South Africa. Never mind those who were on the substitutes’ bench. There aren’t many positives to be gleaned from their stories.
A few days ago, it was reported that Liverpool FC were lining up a €38m bid for Alex Teixeira who was part of the losing Brazilian team on the night. Douglas Pereira dos Santos, now with Spanish giants Barcelona, deputizing his compatriot Dani Alves for the right-back slot. Maicon Marquez just recently made a big money move to Locomotiv Moscow in Russia while Josef de Souza Dias, at present, is a regular fixture in the Fenerbahçe line up; Douglas Costa has now assumed an integral role in Pep Guardiola’s FC Bayern Munich and I could go on and on.
The underlining reason for this apparent gulf in class of the clubs players of these two sets of teams are playing is the choices they made after the Mundial in Egypt. While Dominic Adiyiah jumped at the opportunity to join AC Milan – now without a club – his Brazilian counterpart, Douglas Costa stayed with his boyhood club Gremio before moving to Shaktar Donetsk to properly develop his craft and then finally to Bayern Munich last summer.
And while some players may never really cut it at the highest level as the high attrition rate of the sport will have it, a bit of due diligence and a head firmly screwed on will see a lot more players veer off lanes of mediocrity to paths of greatness.