Black Stars Shine over Africa
A month before the biggest game in their history, Ghana’s Black Stars didn’t look too promising. Their African Footballer of the Year, Michael Essien, was still injured from January’s African Cup of Nations. At the same tournament, subsequent Champions League winner, Sulley Muntari was excluded for breaches of discipline. Meanwhile Ghana’s newly pledged Kevin-Prince Boateng was under fire even before playing for his father’s country after his FA Cup Final tackle on Michael Ballack ended the World Cup participation of the captain of Boateng’s country of birth and Ghana’s Group D opponents, Germany.
There were also concerns about their preparation, particularly after the first of only two warm-up games ended in a 4-1 thrashing by the Netherlands. “Like a knife through butter,” was how Ghana’s defense was described after conceding for the second time. Although Asamoah Gyan quickly capitalised on a rare Dutch mistake, they gave away two more and appeared to have no chance in South Africa. Following the inevitably downbeat pundit insights, Ghana Television’s host offered viewers consoling comfort, “Don’t be too sullen and don’t be too morose. It’s only a friendly. The Black Stars will be back!” However the countdown graphic on the screen’s corner showed that the Cup was only nine days away.
Clearly there were fears that familiar African concerns about disorganisation and disharmony would threaten a decent showing in what was widely trailed as “Africa’s World Cup”. This focus and expectation on Africa was a theme that was already being heavily promoted by the Cup’s mobile phone sponsor, whose “Africa United” campaign featured cameos by African players who had “answered” football’s call. Now, as featured in an accompanying cinematic commercial, they were returning from their cold, misty places of work (i.e. Europe) “to play at home, to play for Africa”; a golden continent that was bathed in the communication company’s corporate colours.
Although Ghana hadn’t qualified for a World Cup before 2006, they had their own expectations to live up to. In the 1960s “the Brazil of Africa” regularly reached the final of the Africa Cup of Nations, which they won twice. Those performances though hadn’t been matched until they were the only African nation to reach the second round in Germany before going out to the real Brazil. Since then they finished third and second in the most recent Cup of Nations and were the first African nation to qualify for 2010. Thus last week, after becoming only the third African team to reach the World Cup quarterfinals, there was much referencing to 1957 and Ghana’s leading role as the first African nation to achieve independence from colonial rule. Now its government was offering cash incentives of $50,000 per player to become semi-final pioneers while exuberant radio phone-in callers outdid each other about Ghana becoming Africa’s first World Cup winners. Not to be outdone, South Africa awarded their own prize to the Black Stars, a meeting with former president Nelson Mandela, for sparring the host nation’s and a continent’s blushes.
For all Ghana’s initial promise though, the country’s fortunes, like those of its football team, have wavered. There’s the shadow cast by it’s slave trade history while it’s mineral wealth and people continue to be exploited as was recently reminded when scores died after an illegal gold mine collapsed in the Central region. Also, the Black Star’s performances haven’t been good news for everyone back home as many have died in post-match incidents. Meanwhile an ongoing belief in superstition is prevalent with subsequent stigmatisation of the mentally unwell and disabled. Such issues aren’t exclusive to Ghana but along with poverty and a creaking infrastructure, there is a resigned acceptance among many to how things just are.
There’s also though an ongoing and at times, moving demonstration of faith that runs deep in people’s lives. It’s displayed on the signboard names of small businesses and on the backs of taxis, while TV presenters genuinely encourage viewers to pray, announcing the times of prayer services for the team. Similarly Black Star stalwart, John Pantsil’s public displays of faith and regular laps of honour at Fulham, have transcended cultural and professional barriers with the London club’s fans. Football as religion is a well-trodden cliche in a sport doesn’t lack for examples but from street alleys to beaches to oversized pitches with makeshift goalposts, football – after religion and families – is the nearest unifying force in Ghana where the Black Stars are a source of national pride that is mostly free of jingoism.
To reach the second round from a tough group there was admittedly a degree of fortune that their first two opponents, Serbia and Australia, had players sent off for penalty area handballs. Both incidents were crucial and led to Gyan-converted penalties, which were their only group stage goals. This raised questions about their ability to score in open play and would also prove to be a significant premonition of their eventual exit from the tournament. But if the Black Stars hadn’t been convincing in the group stages, which they qualified from despite losing their third game to Germany, it was in the knock-out stages that they truly shined.
Much was made during their final week in South Africa of the unity and ease with which younger players had integrated with the experienced. Much praise for achieving that was given to an unlikely Ghanaian hero, Milovan Rajevac, their Serbian coach who showed no split loyalty when facing his native country. Though he needs a translator to communicate with Ghana’s English speaking media, local reports credit him for asserting authority over the European based egos such as Muntari, who was reportedly close to being dismissed again. Reason prevailed though Rajevac was also fortunate to have many of Ghana’s 2009 Under-20 World Cup winners in the national squad as he did earlier in 2010 when finishing runners-up at the Cup of Nations in Angola.
The breath-taking victory against America with home support in Rustenburg was astonishing enough though perhaps not surprising to some when it was later revealed that no less than the President of Ghana, John Atta Mills, visited their dressing room to lead the Black Stars in pre-match prayers. That is before they then – to appropriate the language of Mills’ counterpart – kicked US “ass” for the second time in consecutive World Cups with open play goals from Boateng and in extra time, Gyan.
The quarterfinal against Uruguay in Johannesburg’s Soccer City was a different level altogether where instead of an early goal cushion, the Black Stars were close to being outdone by Diego Forlan’s probing passes and corner kicks. Here Ghana had it’s veterans to thank as goalkeeper Richard Kingson withstood heavy pressure as he had done throughout the tournament in conceding less than one goal per game. Then in first half stoppage time, when the Uruguayan goalkeeper booted upfield and a further attack wasn’t expected, up stepped the outcast. Starting at last due to player suspension, Muntari struck clinically with a long range, swerving drive to score inside the post. Ghana had been second best but now with their influence increasing, they were ahead! Although Forlan equalised in the second half through a free kick, the game never seemed beyond Ghana and for the second game in succession, they would play extra time.
Win, lose or penalties, this would be historic and I went out to see what was happening nearby. Outside Accra along the road between Adenta and Madina, numerous small enterprises are located and at night it’s hard to tell where they start and the road stops. Although listening on the World Service, I dare not go too far in case something happens in the game. Also while the roads are quieter than the usual Friday evening chaos, I don’t want to risk driving too far as I can imagine the reaction to a Black Stars victory.
There’s a popular bar further along but then I see the unmistakable outline of a green pitch projected against an apartment complex. This will do and after parking, I move closer until I’m alongside the wall that’s screening the game. The score hasn’t changed though I’m as interested to see the hundred or so people who are watching, mainly men on plastic chairs with boys sat on the floor and more rows standing behind. As the only white face, I’m invited to sit with some of the excited local youths who delight in my shared support, though that’s not hard when they’ve played so well. We sit and wait, and wait some more. The Black Stars look good though it also looks like there will soon be penalties. I gradually move forward in case there’s a photo moment to capture.
Then Ghana are in the Uruguayan penalty area and the ball bounces between players in front of goal. Pandemonium breaks out as boys and men rush the screen. It must be a goal! It sure feels like one as I’m lifted by the waist and carried by a man that I’d earlier been speaking to. But then we realise it’s a penalty and everyone sits down again. With only a goal needed I don’t question why because surely the Black Stars are about to win. And yet the ball then skims over the crossbar. Back to how we were but wow, that was close! Clearly Ghana have been the better team but how will they respond now?
After their last game, Ghana Football Association’s vice-president Fred Pappoe told Reuters that the players were not nervous “because they have faith in the coach and believe that if they play by the rules all will be fine”. He was sure as well that they had the mentality and support to get to the semi-finals but that was before Luiz Suarez, Gyan’s first penalty miss and then penalties. And then it was over and everyone drifted away.
As well as being Africa’s first World Cup, this was effectively the first social network World Cup. Here in Ghana, internet access is patchy but mobile phones are widespread and generally cheap. Before England’s goal that wasn’t and the stadium broadcast of Argentina’s offside goal, FIFA may have felt certain that they could hold out against officiating with technology. But when announcing their reconsideration, even those dinosaurs must have realised how dumb they will look when in 2014 every team’s bench and all in the stadium will be accessing mobile phone replays.
Whether that would have prevented Suarez’s “save” or prove sufficient disincentive against future unsporting gestures is uncertain. What is true is that such incidents will only become ever more scrutinised and player’s actions will be ever-more exposed, making the use of technology long overdue. Technically Ghana’s biggest game was played and lost on penalties within the rules. Yet while the Black Stars proved to be no pushovers, if faced with a similar certain goal against them, it seems unlikely that with their faith, they would have stooped to blatant two-handed rule breaking.
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Tags: Accra, Black Stars, Football, Ghana, neate blog, World Cup