By Ebo Quansah
It was the night the top stars did not come to the party. National Skipper Asamoah Gyan, top scorer in Ghanaian football and Africa’s most prolific scorer in World Cup history, did not get a single shot on target.
On the Ivorian side, Captain Yaya Toure, four times African Footballer of the Year, was largely unanimous. So were Wilfred Bony, the most expensive African import in the English League, and Gervinho.
On a night of high drama, it was Ivorian second string goalkeeper, Boubacar Barry, who stole the headlines, as the three week-old 30th edition of the African Cup of Nations championship came to an emotional end at the Estadio de Bata in Equatorial Guinea.
Barry, forced into the Ivorian final line-up as a result of the suspension of the regular keeper, saved the last penalty kick from his opposite number, Razak Ibrahim, and then sent Ivorians singing in the rain by dispatching his own kick into the roof of the net.
Cote d’Ivoire were 9-8 winners on penalties. That was after 120 minutes of action on the field brought no goals.
It is Cote d’Ivoire’s second triumph in African continental football. Incidentally, when the Ivorians won their first championship in 1992, they battled the Black Stars of Ghana to a goalless draw in Dakar, before winning 11-10 on penalties – stand-in skipper, Anthony Baffoe, fluffing the last kick on the night.
As ecstatic Ivorian players and their fans celebrated their victory into the wee hours of the next morning, crest-fallen players of the Black Stars fell flat on the turf, inconsolable. They had given everything to the game, and did not deserve to end on the losing side. But that is football, the game that excites the world and knows no logic.
The fact that Christian Atsu, the man with the sweetest of left foot in African football, won the Most Valuable Player of the Tournament, and Andre Dede Ayew top scorer in the tournament, were no consolation for failing to win the trophy that has eluded Ghana since the Black Stars returned from the Desert heat in Libya in February 1982 with the African Unity Cup.
Since that triumph, the Black Stars have contested the finals three times, losing to Cote d’Ivoire in 1992 and 2015, as well as playing second fiddle to the Pharaohs of Egypt in 2010, when the Ghanaians lost the final 0-1.
Sunday’s final was undecided until the last kick, when Ivorian keeper Barry became the unlikely hero. The Black Stars were the better side throughout the 120 minutes.
But their efforts on the field were undone, in my opinion, by the bench. Experienced Coach Avram Grant has done a great job motivating the players who went to Equatorial Guinea, with fans back home looking on with a lukewarm attitude. But when it mattered most, the coach and his technical handlers failed every Ghanaian.
It was obvious that in spite of all their stars, the Ivorians were tiring, as the game meandered to the end. From the proceedings, both Ghanaian strikers, Skipper Asamoah Gyan, who went into action half-fit, and rookie Kwasi Appiah of fourth tier English Cambridge United, were largely ineffective.
The conventional wisdom at that stage in the contest was to replace both and get fresh legs in the strikers’ roles. It took a while to introduce Jordan Ayew. But, instead of another striker, probably Mahatma Otoo, Avram Grant introduced another rookie in mid-field, Frank Acheampong.
On the day, I thought Christian Atsu appeared to be the Black Stars main source for goals, if there were going to be any. I still do not understand why it was Atsu who had to be substituted, except perhaps, he was injured. From the way, he strode to join the bench it never looked like he was carrying an injury though.
The end result was that with all the Ghanaian dominance at the closing stages of the game, goalkeeper Boubacar Barry was hardly tested.
That aside, I thought the Ghanaian bench also failed to read the game during the penalty kicks. After the Ivorian side had fluffed their first two kicks, Ghana led 2-0. At that stage, all the Black Stars needed to do was to convert their next two kicks.
I thought Dede Ayew and Emmanuel Agyeman Badu, who had previously exhibited their skills from the spot, would be drafted in to complete the coup-de-grass.
Rather, the coaches left the fate of Ghana in the hands of two rookies, Acheampong and Afriyie Acquah, who both froze as they inched towards the 12 yard line spot. To the relief of the Ivorians and their followers, both players fluffed their kicks.
As it is, the Black Stars and their teeming supporters back home are still counting the number of years we, at the Centre of the Earth, have to wait for Ghana’s fifth triumph in the African Cup of Nations. Naturally, the failure of the Black Stars has worsened the gloom back home, after nearly three years of power outages. On Sunday night, the Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG) managed to get extra megawatts from somewhere to shore up power supply.
If the ECG could make such arrangements when the chips were down, why has the company subjected Ghanaians to ‘dum dum’ all these years? On the evidence of their performance in Equatorial Guinea, the Black Stars have surpassed all expectations.
When they left for the championship, not many gave the Black Stars a dog’s chance. When they began with a 1-2 loss to Senegal, many at the Centre of the Earth, virtually, gave up. But their revival, with skipper Asamoah Gyan rising from his hospital bed to send Algeria to sleep in the second game, gave some hope to many citizens virtually sleeping in the dark.
A 2-1 victory over South Africa in the final preliminary game ensured that the Black Stars played in the quarter-finals. It was from the knock-out stage that fans back home started believing in the Black Stars. A 3-0 defeat of Guinea was followed by another 3-0 dismissal of the pretenders of Equatorial Guinea.
Fans along the Equator rioted on a night that shamed African football. But for the Black Stars, it was another good day at the office, and even though the final result is not what many people envisaged when the Black Stars lined up against Cote d’Ivoire, the players have really done this nation proud.
The national team went to Equatorial Guinea, fourth in Africa. On the evidence of this display, Ghana should be ranked at least second in Africa and improve considerably on the 37th world rating. One thing is certain. The performance of the players in Equatorial Guinea has demonstrated that this nation of 25 million Ghanaians is never short on football talents.
When Sulley Muntari, Michael Essien and Kelvin Prince Boateng were sidelined for disciplinary reasons, many were the Ghanaians who shuddered at how the young and mainly inexperienced players drafted in to replace them would perform in the cauldron of continental championship. To add to the problem, this nation’s most prolific performer, Kwadwo Asamoah, was also ruled out with injury just before the first game was kicked on the Equator.
Yesterday, it was announced that the players were returning home to Accra, before returning to their bases in Europe. It is my hope that Ghanaians would appreciate their performance in the championship and accord them their rightful place in national history. Their output in Equatorial Guinea has established a case for Ghana football.
It is up to the Ghana Football Association and its technical men and women to build on the success in the 30th African Cup of Nations, and work hard to establish this nation as the best Africa can offer, when it comes to association football. There is hope for this nation even in the era of ‘dum dum!’
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