Now that the chips are down, Defiant Black Stars must earn their keep

No rally, no barrage, just a meek wilt, and surrender: The Black Stars have a lot of soul-searching to do going forward.

Defiance.

It’s not the worst tool in the box, but it could be when wielded wrongly.

Three years ago, Ghana’s senior national team misused it spectacularly, defying the powers-that-be — and logic itself — in holding the nation to ransom at the Fifa World Cup in Brazil, refusing to play a minute of football till huge appearance fees owed them were paid in full.

It was a show of defiance the boys would get condemned for by their countrymen; an ill-timed, ill-advised display of guts they’ll pay for till this hurt and scarred generation is replaced by the next. The Black Stars have tried all they could in quest of redemption: they’ve been contrite, resolute, even brilliant on occasion. Heck, they even attempted winning the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations — coming desperately close, in fact — just to reclaim some love!

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What they hadn’t tried, though, was the one thing which got them entangled in this mess in the first place: defiance. They had a couple of chances building up to this failure to secure a World Cup berth in Russia next year to right their wrongs and perhaps warm their way into the hearts of Ghanaians again; the first – most probably the biggest – of which came against Rwanda in their final Afcon 2017 qualifier. It wasn’t an opportunity they were expecting, however, only one afforded them unwittingly by the Ministry of Youth and Sports’ reluctance to provide the usual luxuries on offer when international assignments were due.

Armed with the excuse that Ghana’s place at the following year’s Nations Cup in Gabon had already been booked, and that the result versus the visiting Amavubi would be no threat to the hosts’ position as Group H leaders/winners, the State arbitrarily decided to withhold funds allocated to be spent on the players’ ticket fares from their respective stations overseas (reasoning that such expenses could be spared if local players were called up instead, for the game) while slashing the usual winning bonus in half.

Were the already invited foreign-based professionals going to be coughing up their own travel costs? And were they even going to bother being at their best in a game which offered so ‘little’ in any actual gain (financial or otherwise)?

Well, to their credit, they did — and an expression of bloody-minded defiance was key, though for all the right reasons this time. The boys didn’t just show up against the Rwandans. They came with intent to win — even if Grant didn’t exactly put his strongest team out there, perhaps in assessing what alternatives he had with respect to squad depth ahead of an upcoming Russia 2018 qualifying game — and only a late equaliser from the east Africans robbed Ghana of a third straight home win in the Afcon 2017 qualifying series.

Not everyone was impressed, of course; an overwhelming majority of Ghanaians probably still considered the team a bunch of spoilt brats ever so willing to have their way. Still, they’d won some over, hadn’t they?

One venue the Black Stars felt they commanded a fair bit of goodwill was the Tamale Stadium which was going to be the ground the team was hoping get their World Cup Qualifying campaign off to a brilliant start. It wasn’t to be, as the doggedness of their first group opponents – the Cranes of Uganda – coupled with the harsh afternoon sun as one would expect at any venue in Northern Ghana – temperatures topping 37˚C as some points – meant the best Ghana could get from that game was a goalless soulless draw.

Not the kind of result you’d expect from a team with any fighting chance of making a Mundial more so, when Egypt – also housed in the same group and have been absent that the world stage for nearly three decades – was breathing down their necks, hellbent on wrestling that sole ticket the group had to offer from Ghana. A subsequent, almost inevitable defeat to Egypt in Alexandria were all the signs the Nation needed to realise situation was dire and that the time had come for everybody to put their shoulder to the plough and rescue our ‘beloved’ Black Stars from the quicksand it was in however traitorous we feel the team had been in the past.

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The nonchalance and a resolve not to forgive the players by a large section of the Ghanaian media and the general populace might have overstayed their welcome and probably left a tad bit too late when the final nail was all but driven into the Stars’ coffin after yet another damning draw at home to group minnows Congo Brazzaville. Now, with nothing to play for, a new-look Black Stars’ fight and defiance in Kampala in the penultimate group game won a few more admirers and left many feeling they could have done a bit more to help the team fight. Ghana has now finished the 2018 World Cup Qualifying series in third place – behind Egypt and Uganda – drawing four, winning one and losing the other.  Now the chips are down. Time to dress the wounds and pick the best balm to soothe and bring some relief going forward.

If the team’s rebelliousness in the past implied they didn’t give a damn about national interests, they’ve now oozed the same trait to show they do care after all.

With so many more battles to be fought — versus a fandom which remains largely skeptical of the Stars’ motives, a sports ministry growing increasingly hostile towards the team, and an FA caught in-between — in going forward, they’d have to ooze some more of that.

Defiance.

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Time Out! – John Paintsil needed this latest sack.

It’s just what the doctor prescribed for John Paintsil: a fresh start.

Days after announcing his decision to retire from active football and stating his intention to go into coaching, the veteran Ghana full-back landed his first managerial gig — and, given his next-to-no experience in management, it could hardly have been bigger. The former Berekum Arsenal man was unveiled as one of the new faces who was to grace the technical bench of South African giants Kaizer Chiefs nearly a year ago, joining the Amakhosi as assistant to head Steve Komphela. That was really no more than the merits he could legitimately claim after all he’d been through in recent years.

Paintsil, a two-edition Fifa World Cup participant and 89-game member of the Black Stars over several years, received his last Ghana call-up in 2012. His club career — the heights of which saw him represent Fulham and West Ham United in the English Premier League — dragged along to a slow, painful death not long afterwards, eventually ending unceremoniously in the same country where he launched his coaching journey.

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Disturbed thus in his public business, there’s been precious little solace from Paintsil’s private life where a troubled marital relationship has only gone downhill since Paintsil was nabbed by the police in 2013 for allegedly assaulting his wife physically. For a man who’s had so little to celebrate over the years (albeit having himself to blame for some of it) and who has suffered a sudden demotion from being the lovable flag-waving patriot whose victory laps decorated almost every major Ghana win in his time to a deeply-loathed, woman-abusing villain, Paintsil deserved that big break he would have been the first to admit he’d barely earned.

Being at continental heavyweights Chiefs in his fresh role wasn’t necessarily going to cast his demons out, of course. Nor was it going to make him husband-of-the-year. It surely wasn’t going to rid him of the personal demons that seemed embedded in his worryingly worsening attitude… And so, it proved. After twelve months with the South African club, these same news worthy activities, that have come to typify john Paintsil as we’ve come to know him for so long came back to haunt him. The vicious cycle of getting into the headlines and featuring on the frontpages of newspapers for all the wrong reasons wasn’t something those in the helm of the Amakhosi were going to be taking lightly. This latest episode came with a prize tag he could barely afford to pay (all puns intended).

Having been relieved of his duties now, this new phase in his life, instead, represents a clean slate Paintsil would be a fool not to fill with glory. Should he make good use of this me-time, Paintsil could prove even better at coaching than he was at playing; mess this golden opportunity to regroup and restrategise up, though, and his mission of self-ruin would be complete.

Over to you, Jeonju Man.

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.

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.

EARNED IT!: Chrissy Atsu Deserves Newcastle United Stay

When English giants Chelsea, around the beginning of the current season, sent Christian Atsu on the Ghanaian’s fourth loan spell since his move to London from Oporto, few held any hopes for a young man who had increasingly drifted towards the periphery of the picture envisaged by the men who plotted his arrival at Stamford Bridge.

Only the first of the temporary transfers Atsu had been farmed out on — to Dutch outfit Vitesse Arnhem, where he was voted by fans as that club’s best player for the 2013/14 season — brought real success. The experiences that followed, at English Premier League sides Everton and Bournemouth, yielded very little due to a dire lack of opportunities and fitness issues respectively. The next adventure, at Spain’s Malaga, wasn’t so bad — but it wasn’t so good either for a man who is yet to start a competitive game for his parent club.

The stint at St James’ Park thus seemed, at worst, one loan move too many; at best, it represented Atsu’s entry into last chance saloon, with respect to his prospects as a future Chelsea star. Thankfully, it’s a chance he clutched with little hesitance.

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Opportunities for Atsu were sparse at the beginning, but his undoubted brilliance filtered through, easing him gradually into the plans of Rafael Benitez, the Magpies’ manager, as well as the hearts of the club’s faithful. Before long — especially in the latter half of the season — Atsu started to earn more minutes and greater trust, contributing enough to merit all that has come his way of late. On Monday night, when his countrymen were reliving Lionel Messi’s Clasico moment of genius and Wayne Rooney’s return to goalscoring on Sports Station and/or Highlights on Ghanaian television, Atsu played perhaps his biggest role yet in a Newcastle shirt. Against Preston North End in Newcastle’s penultimate home game of the season, Benitez’s charges let slip an early lead, only for Atsu to restore it with a fine finish shortly before recess. It was an advantage the Toon Army never relinquished, not even after Atsu left the pitch to some applause with a third of an hour to go. By the time the winger had signed off, Newcastle had wrapped up a 4-1 victory, sealing a return to the English top-flight at the first time of asking, just days after Championship leaders Brighton & Hove Albion had secured their own ticket.

Atsu may yet have a part to play in what remains of Newcastle’s campaign, with rotation-obsessed Benitez likely to grant his fringe players — a category Atsu, despite his recent rise to considerable prominence, hasn’t entirely emerged from – game-time, and the 25-year-old would seek to add to his four-goal, three-assist haul before the climax. And then?

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Well, and then Newcastle could exercise the option they have to make permanent Atsu’s stay – at least for the player’s sake. A return to Chelsea, given the well-oiled juggernaut Antonio Conte has constructed that’s humming along just fine, won’t be in Atsu’s best interests. Remaining at Newcastle would, though, and Chelsea should be willing to part with the lad they apparently don’t regard too highly anyway for a reasonably modest fee.

Atsu has proved himself enough in 30 appearances (nearly half of them starts) to stake a claim for extended life on Tyneside beyond the current season, even if Newcastle decide to bring in reinforcements to ensure a better experience in the Premier League than their last. He’s found a home with the Geordies, fans who adore him already, and a manager whose unwavering belief in meritocracy would give him a fair crack at matching the hype that brought him to England four years ago.

Kwesi Appiah Back To Reinvent The Wheel

He may not have been as hugely popular and as well-remembered by posterity as his illustrious predecessor, but Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar lays claim to an achievement neither his uncle Julius nor all of the other Caesars can boast of. It’s a feat immortalized in the famous words: “I found Rome brick; I left it marble.”

It’s a statement newly re-appointed Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah would wish to echo in the future when his latest stint at the helm of the Black Stars ends. But for a truly terrible experience at the 2014 Fifa World Cup that really was no fault of his, Appiah — the only Ghanaian to have steered the senior national team to an appearance at the Mundial — would have had that luxury when his first tenure ended barely three years ago. Since then, during the stint of one-time Chelsea boss Avram Grant, Ghana have been bowed by two failed Nations Cup campaigns — the first heart-breaking, the second simply annoying — while, between those disappointments, the bid to qualify for a fourth consecutive World Cup is already two games-dead, with very little life remaining in it.

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The squad Grant bequeathed to his successor/predecessor is practically same as the one he inherited, many believe, but — in the opinion of this writer — the Israeli actually left Ghana even weaker than he found it. Quite a few established members of the setup have no right retaining their entrenched positions anymore, and others may need some competition to provide that huge kick up the backside to get them playing like worthy Black Stars again. In sum, Ghana needs rebuilding, and though Appiah may not have to do it all from scratch, he certainly has much work on his hands.

He starts on May 1, aided by a backroom staff that could likely be as good as new in composition. In truth, the task handed him might appear rather daunting: reaching Russia 2018 would surely be herculean, even improbable at this point, and 2019 — given how much work has to be done on a Ghanaian team that’s about entering a transition phase — is perhaps a bit too soon for the country to think of ending its long wait for a fifth Nations Cup crown.

But the real objective of Appiah’s appointment — never mind that the Ghana Football Association probably didn’t include that in the memo, at least not in so many words — is to build a solid squad that could last Ghanaians a lifetime and bring their wildest dreams to fruition, and that’s hardly impossible.

If Appiah could achieve that with a Ghana side which — at a lowly eighth in the African rankings of national sides — is a bit more brittle than bricks at the moment, he could well boast as Augustus did.

HIDDINK’S JOKER: MIKEL OBI’S REMARKABLE RISE TO PROMINENCE

The Nigerian has always enjoyed himself when Guus Hiddink’s
spent time as Chelsea’s interim boss, with his latest ride probably
the best yet

kickerghana

The Nigerian has always enjoyed himself when Guus Hiddink’s
spent time as Chelsea’s interim boss, with his latest ride probably
the best yet

This is really happening.
The manacles are coming off.
Six months is a pretty long time in footballing terms but the words
‘amazing’, ‘awesome’ and all their synonymous cousins have proven
quite apt to describe the rise and rise of John Mikel Obi at Chelsea
FC over the last couple of weeks, spanning the period between Jose
Mourinho’s second exit from Stamford Bridge and now.
There had been several reports in the tabloids that the London-based
club were eager to get Mikel off its books, and that they might even
consider slashing his asking price in a bid to generate interest, only
for Mikel to indulge sleights of body and mind to conjure up an escape
from the fetters of being frozen out of the club he…

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