Taking Over – shine on bright Black Starlets

Shatta Wale’s Taking Over isn’t just the most wildly trending song on Ghanaian radio today; it’s also the ‘official’ party song for the Black Starlets, Ghana’s national U-17 team, as they’ve marched from victory to victory at the ongoing Nations Cup in Gabon.

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Indeed, the Starlets have exuded much promise and maturity since their first game at the tournament when they beat Cameroon — incidentally the very nation responsible for Ghana missing out on the last edition of the event — 4-0. They went one better in their next outing, thumping the sorry hosts and qualifying for the knockout stages — and the Fifa World Cup to be held later this year — with a game to spare. That third fixture, versus Guinea, ended in a goalless draw, but on parade was a different Ghana side, one that had nothing to play for. The stakes were considerably higher, though, when the Starlets took on Niger (a team they had comfortably beaten in a two-legged friendly just before the competition) in the semi-finals. Again, the goals failed to come, stretching the affair to a series of spotkicks where Ghana’s superiority gave them the edge in a 6-5 victory.

 

Ghana’s ability in front of goal may have waned somewhat in those two matches — a reason for which many Ghanaians tinged their initial optimism with caution — but at least they have been consistently impervious in defence. The Starlets are the only team thus far not to have conceded, and that’s a run head coach Paa Kwesi Fabin would love to extend and preserve in the final against Mali. The Malians themselves are something of a free-scoring side, having put past opponents just one goal less than Ghana’s nine. Like Ghana, too, Les Aiglonnets booked their ticket to the final via a penalty shootout, albeit one of the worse you’d ever see, with neighbours Guinea missing four of their spotkicks to ease the former’s passage.

And, oh, again like Ghana, who seek to become the first nation to win the trophy for keeps (a feat to be sealed by a third triumph in the competition), Mali aren’t without extra incentive, namely, the quest to become only the first team to successfully defend the title and simultaneously pull level with Ghana, Nigeria and Gambia on two conquests. Clearly, Mali — hosts of the first ever continental U17 championship’s back in 1995, the current holders of the trophy, and [losing] finalists at the last World Cup — would be no easy prey.

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All of that makes Mali the most formidable, most motivated team Ghana could face at the tournament. All of that, too, makes this the one game Ghana have little option but to win. Per the expectations of the many Ghanaians who have waited 18 years since the country last won the trophy — and 12 after their most recent appearance in the final, when a goal scored under controversial circumstances saw them overcome by Gambia — the Starlets are obliged, not just to triumph, but to do it in style and with character. It’s the only climax that the creative brilliance of Emmanuel Toku (touted as the brightest among the bunch), the goalscoring prowess of skipper Eric Ayiah (joint leading scorer at the showpiece), the remarkable confidence of Idriss ‘Tampico’ Mohammed (scorer of that peach of a panenka versus Niger), and the entire team’s collective brilliance deserves. Winning may not be the prime objective at under-age competitions — though that is a point not quite drummed home fully to folks this side of the Atlantic — but it’s a reward that wouldn’t be rejected.

Glory beckons, and there could be no better time for the Starlets to do just as Wale said in the song referred to at the outset — show Ghana, go harder, and take over.

Jesus! Our Emmanuel – Closer than You Think

In these fast-paced times where we contend with life’s rough-and-tumble hitting us thick and fast, I cannot begin to estimate how many times I have attempted to encourage someone with the assurance of God’s nearness to their situation: God is with you. God is near. God is among us. As a Christian, it is an astonishing attribute of the God I profess, a comforting attribute that voices long before my own confessed: “God is our refuge and strength,” writes the psalmist, “an ever-present help in trouble.”(1) “The Lord is near,” the apostle tells the Philippians, “Do not be anxious.”(2) That there is one who draws near is a vital part of the story of Christianity, one in which Christians understandably draw hope. But it is not automatically hopeful to everyone. I was reminded of this when my assurance of God’s presence in the life of a struggling friend was met with her honest rejoinder: “Is that supposed to encourage me?”

Nearness in and of itself is not assuring. I had forgotten this in my well-meaning, though knee-jerk truism. An essential ingredient in the assurance that comes from nearness is the person who is drawing near. The degree of comfort and assurance (or wisdom and conviction) we draw from those near us is wholly contingent on who it is that has drawn near. For some, that God is near resembles more a threat than a promise. My friend’s perception of God in that moment was closer to Julian Huxley’s than King David’s. For Huxley, God resembled “not a ruler, but the last fading smile of a cosmic Cheshire cat.” For David, God’s nearness was clearly thought his good.(3)

Who is it that Christians believe is near? And what does this even mean?

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In Christian theology, the attributes of God are qualities that attempt to describe the God who has come near enough to reveal who God is. These self-revealed attributes cannot be taken individually, removed from one another like garments in a great wardrobe, or chosen preferentially like items in a buffet. They are not traits that exist independently but simultaneously, at times in paradoxical mystery to us. God is both near us and “among us” as the prophet Isaiah writes; God is also far from us and beyond us—in knowledge, in grandeur, in immensity, in position. “Am I only a God nearby,” declares the LORD, “and not a God far away? Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?” declares the LORD. “Do not I fill heaven and earth?”

Christians further believe that the one who dwells both among us and in the highest heavens is also good and wise and holy. The God of whose nearness Christians speak is infinite in being, glory, blessedness and perfection; all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, everywhere present, almighty, knowing all things, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth. Like this God there is no other. The God who draws near us is wholly other.

 

Yet after the candid response from my friend, I realized how important it is to attempt to clarify what I mean—and whom I speak of—when I say that this God is near; and my attempts will remind me that this is never a simple, casual knowledge understood. My friend needed not only to hold the knowledge that God is near but the relational trust that the God who is near is also kind. She needed more than a rational reminder that God is holding her and her situation, but the embodied promise that God is good. She needed to hear the “who” behind the promise, beyond the attribute. And I needed the candid reminder that the attributes we can study, the biblical promises we cling to, the words I count on to comfort or restore, are pale in comparison and meaningful only because of the one they describe. The promise that God is among us is only promising because it is this God who is among us.

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Christians hold this notion most specifically in the kind mystery of the Incarnation, the divine drawing near to the human plight in human form. Who is this God who comes near, who rends the heavens to stand beside humanity, who stands at the door and knocks as one of us? Who is this vicariously human, mediating Son of God so near?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man who attested to the nearness of God though confined to a jail cell, depicted the one beside whom he lived and before whom he prayed as a quiet companion, gentle and fierce, persuasive and patient on our behalf. He prayed:

“Lord Jesus, come yourself, and dwell with us, be human as we are, and overcome what overwhelms us. Come into the midst of my evil, come close to my unfaithfulness. Share my sin, which I hate and which I cannot leave. Be my brother, Thou Holy God. Be my brother in the kingdom of evil and suffering and death. Come with me in my death, come with me in my suffering, come with me as I struggle with evil. And make me holy and pure, despite my sin and death.”

What if it is this God who hears our prayers, the humanity of one who walked and suffered in Jerusalem, the Christ who came among us only to die and rise again? What if it is this God who is near?

 

(1) Psalm 46:1.
(2) Philippians 4:5-6.
(3) Psalm 73:28.

Higher, Higher! – Kwesi Nyantakyi goes Higher!

It’s sometimes easy to forget Kwesi Nyantakyi is only 48 — too young to even have witnessed Ghana’s first two Afcon victories and the nation’s attainment of Republican status — considering all that he has achieved in his career as a football administrator.

The ambition Nyantakyi exudes is infectious, a bug impossible not to catch if you ever get to interact with him on a personal level — a privilege I had sometime in December 2014. Across a table at the plush Best Western Premier Hotel — one of the finest in the Ghanaian capital — and in the company of a mutual friend of ours, recently deceased New Patriotic Party activist Kwabena Boadu, I engaged Nyantakyi in a lengthy discussion that dragged into the late hours of the night.

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That rare encounter came in the midst of perhaps the most challenging period of Nyantakyi’s tenure as head of the Ghana Football Association. It hadn’t been long since the Black Stars returned from a Fifa World Cup tournament where a series of incidents made the country an international laughing-stock. Instances of indiscipline by individual players — resulting in two of the team’s most high-profile members being dismissed before Ghana even played its final game at the event — and collective squad mutiny over unpaid fees shredded the nation’s image and left the team and its handlers hugely unpopular. The Stars’ coach at the Mundial, Kwesi Appiah, was fired after the competition — a decision that, though validated somewhat by a considerable measure of public opinion, didn’t go down well with everybody.

Nyantakyi had also [in]famously appeared before the Commission of Inquiry set up by government to investigate said mess at Brazil 2014, and some of his submissions on that platform convinced few of his integrity and the credibility of the organisation he runs. And, oh, need I include that, not long after this writer’s date with Nyantakyi, the Stars were due to participate at an edition of the Africa Cup of Nations that many feared could be the worst yet in the country’s proud footballing history?

Yet here Nyantakyi sat, talking about his personal ambitions after extensively addressing some of the controversies mentioned above. Though battling such an explosive cocktail of chaos, he didn’t possess the mien of a man overwhelmed by all that was going on around him. If anything, he looked like a leader calm and in firm control of what seemed a lost cause: picture the Titanic, half-sunk, but with its unruffled captain glued to a rare warm spot on the deck, with a glass of martini kissing his lips. Only that this ship, Nyantakyi’s, wasn’t going down — not on his watch. Much as Nyantakyi cares about Ghana football — and his passion about that subject is unrivalled, trust me — he knows he’d have a life to live long after he ceases to be the sports most powerful man this side of the Atlantic, and it’s a life he wishes to live while perched on much higher rungs of football’s political ladder.

It’s why, on this chilly December night, the one-time banker-lawyer shed light on his own goals, notably that of becoming president of the Confederation of African Football someday. Asked if he really had what it took to contest an office that had been one man’s since Nyantakyi himself was a teen, the boy from Wa simply shrugged, smiled, and said: “Why not?”

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That expression of belief in his prospects and abilities may have been surprisingly crisp, but it oozed sheer confidence. Three years later, Issa Hayatou finally got dethroned as Caf boss, but not by Nyantakyi. Egg on the Ghanaian’s face?

Hardly. Nyantakyi may not have had his name plastered on the big door, but he had been heavily influential –perhaps the most influential figure aside Fifa chief Gianni Infantino — in plotting Hayatou’s fall and anointing the despot’s successor, Malagasy Ahmad Ahmad. And, really, isn’t a kingmaker much more powerful than the king himself?

Shortly after Ahmad’s coronation, Nyantakyi secured for himself a four-year term on the mighty Fifa Council, the elite body which calls the shots in the game. Still, Nyantakyi, Oliver Twist with a Ghanaian passport, wanted more — and more is what he has received after his confirmation on Monday as the occupant of the office next to Ahmad’s at the Caf Secretariat in Cairo: that of the establishment’s 1st Vice-President. It makes him, by some distance now, the most successful football administrator Ghana has ever produced, even overtaking the late Ohene Djan.

And all of this Nyantakyi has achieved without the solid backing Djan enjoyed from his own country’s government. Rather, Nyantakyi has really been up against it on his home turf, having to dribble his way through a maze of controversy, harsh critics and vendetta. His opponents have had various tools to their advantage in pushing their cause, but Nyantakyi has used the one weapon he wields to such devastating effect: raw determination.

Love him or not, his comprehension of strategy is remarkable, and that brilliant ability to push his pieces into just the spaces now has him on top of his game. If politics were a game of chess as they say, call Nyantakyi a grandmaster and you wouldn’t be wide of the mark. Ghana, it seems, is a bit too small for him now. Nyantakyi has already announced he wouldn’t seek to extend his reign as FA boss after his 14th year in power ends in 2019 and, although there is already talk of him relinquishing his role even earlier after his latest international appointment, he wouldn’t mind bowing out anytime he’s required to; his record as the GFA’s longest-serving, most productive president is already etched in 24-carat gold.

On a continental/global level, though, he’s only just started, and it’s hard to predict when — and, indeed, where — he might stop.