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Friday, June 21, 2024

Ghana, a footballing nation in turmoil after another AFCON failure

At around midday on Monday, it was difficult to know whether Ghana’s footballers waiting in the team hotel were focused or utterly miserable.

This was before their key game with Mozambique, where a draw left them needing miracles from other results in the remaining group games to qualify for the round of 16.

Those miracles never came. Ghana were out and their head coach Chris Hughton was sacked.

Ghana had been sharing a base with Nigeria, who went through to the knockout stage on the same evening after beating Guinea-Bissau.

Since their win against Ivory Coast in their second game, there has been a notable uplift in the mood of the Nigerian players. This has been evident in the way they interact in public spaces, as well as the informal way they communicate with any guests who wish to speak with them.

Ghana? That’s a very different story. Eight hours before kick-off, as they waited for lunch, they were barely talking among themselves, let alone allowing anyone else to join the group.

There has been a quietness to Ghana over the last fortnight, as well as a slowness. In the Plateau’s Pullman resort, where they were staying, there was not a sense of confidence, enthusiasm, togetherness or belonging.

The four-time AFCON champions’ campaign was miserable. They have not won the trophy since 1982 and this was their second successive exit at the group stage.

Andre Ayew after Ghana’s draw with Mozambique (Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images)

Through conversations with sources (some of whom have been stationed at the team hotel) who would like to remain anonymous to protect their employment statuses, The Athletic has been told why things have unravelled in such a disappointing manner.

Some of the problems go back years, others are more recent and at the heart of it all are bubbling tensions between the team, the FA and the Ghanaian public. 

Eight nations have been based in Abidjan during this tournament and when it comes to each of their fans, the Ghanaian supporters have been the most sceptical, critical and downbeat of the lot.

Even the ones who were paid to be here by the country’s football association were disgruntled. It has been convention for these fans to be flown into tournaments to create an atmosphere inside the stadiums through music and dance. 

Yet there’s rarely much public clarity about this process regarding how they are treated and paid.

For this AFCON, 202 supporters were driven from Ghana to Ivory Coast. Normally, their transport and accommodation are taken care of and they have the option to be fed every day or given money to sort meals out themselves.

Three days into this trip, the money had not come through. This led a member of the supporters union to threaten to boycott the tournament. The person was acting alone, however, and when the union found out, it organised a press briefing where it stated that there was no collective boycott threat.

Instead, the members reaffirmed their commitment to the competition and said they would do their best to help the team.

It was then revealed that the supporters had been promised $400 (£313) each for their 14 days in Abidjan. The reception to that information in Ghana has been bad. There are deep economic problems in the country and Ghanaians could not believe that fans were being paid so much money to essentially go on holiday for a fortnight when teachers and doctors were being paid less.

And to top it all off, as of Monday evening, the supporters were still waiting for their money.

The divisions over money increased on Wednesday when Sam Okudzeto Ablakwa, the former deputy minister for education, claimed that filed documents showed that almost 30million Ghanaian cedis (around $2m; £1.6m) had been spent on salaries, travel and expenses in the months before the tournament, something he said did not sit right amid the backdrop of an economic crisis in the country. 

Regarding the team itself, there has been a breakdown in trust at almost every level, with one bizarre incident involving Ghanaian journalists summing up the tension.

After drawing with Mozambique in Ebimpe, some Ghanaian journalists were in tears at the state of their country’s football team as they tried to access the ground floor of the stadium to interview players.

After waiting for half an hour, many of the journalists realised none of the squad were coming as mandated but instead were heading straight to their team bus. The CAF (Confederation of African Football) media officer then set up barricades so that the team could avoid the journalists.

The journalists refused to move, standing in the way of the bus as it attempted to leave. This led to more security forces arriving, before the journalists were contained by more barricades.

After an hour, the police realised the journalists were not going to move and this led to the players walking through the mixed zone area where interviews take place.

Some journalists, so incensed, decided to boo them rather than ask questions.

For many followers of Ghanaian football, it all started to go wrong after the team reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 2010.

Ghana’s team at the 2010 World Cup (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

The fact that star midfielder Michael Essien missed out on that tournament through injury and the team still reached the closing stages reflected the togetherness and the ability that existed at that time.

Essien, Sulley Muntari and Stephen Appiah had all progressed through the youth levels in Ghana, graduating to the senior setup at roughly the same time.

The success at the World Cup in South Africa had been eight years in the making — those in the squad had featured in tournaments together, including the 2004 Olympics and 2006 World Cup.

The country did not have a particularly cohesive football infrastructure, with a distinct lack of facilities. Yet the talent and sense of brotherhood among the squad was so strong that it didn’t seem to matter. 

More on Ghana

Yet, rather than capitalise on this moment by using newfound interest, popularity and funding to create an infrastructure that increased the chances of this happening again, Ghana squandered the opportunity by ignoring the youth structure and focusing instead on the immediate needs of the senior side, and the brand of “the Black Stars”.

As a golden generation of Essien, Muntari and Appiah aged out of the side, a steady decline began. The 2015 AFCON final — in which Ghana were defeated by Ivory Coast on penalties — represents the last time the nation could call themselves one of the strongest in the continent.

The years that followed have seen Ghana attempt to reconjure past glories — going so far as to rehire 2010 World Cup coach Milovan Rajevac in 2021 — while a new generation of players toiled in AFCON tournaments.

Andre and Jordan Ayew have gone from promising youngsters supplementing Ghana’s golden generation to divisive elder statesmen in a group that has followed up a historically bad AFCON campaign in 2021 with another group-stage exit. 

At the heart of the problem is a lack of talent coming through the ranks. This is something not helped by the country’s centre of excellence — which is now unfavourably compared to the equivalent in Morocco which has been widely praised. One source close to the national setup suggests: “You wouldn’t even give it to a second-division team in Ghana.”

The nation has not reached an Olympics in 20 years — the tournament features under-23 players and three overage players — and they haven’t qualified for an Under-20 World Cup since 2015.

Ghanaian fans could feed off the unity that existed in the past. They saw a team that understood what it was supposed to do tactically, while there was room for individual expression within that framework.

Under Hughton, a 4-3-3 changed to a 4-2-3-1, with two holding midfielders that did not do much in a creative sense. The football was dour. Maybe the fans would accept that if there was something to cling to in terms of results but 14 years after 2010, the players seem to act as individuals both on and off the pitch.

Ex-Ghana manager Hughton (Ulrik Pedersen/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

The Ayew brothers are often lightning rods for criticism because they are judged against their father, Abedi, the legendary attacking midfielder who helped Ghana win AFCON in 1982.

The squad isn’t without talent but it lacks cohesion and cultural understanding of one another. They come from all over the world and most of them haven’t played together for more than six to 12 months.

Fans of the national team have questioned the construction of Ghana’s squads and starting line-ups. Richard Ofori was Ghana’s goalkeeper for all three group games despite being the third choice for his club side Orlando Pirates. Lawrence Ati-Zigi — starting goalkeeper at the 2022 World Cup — was left on the bench. It was Ofori who needlessly gave away a corner in the dying moments against Mozambique that Ghana then conceded from to draw the game and ultimately knock them out of the tournament.

Ransford Yeboah-Konigsdorffer, who plays for Hamburg in the second tier of German football, is seen as a symbol of a confused culture. He was born in Berlin and in September 2021, he made his debut for Germany Under-21s.

A year later, he made his debut for Ghana’s senior side before he was excluded from the World Cup squad, describing himself as “disappointed”. He has only played once since but was selected against Cape Verde in the opening group game. Suddenly, he was playing as a No 10, which isn’t his natural position, as a replacement for Mohammed Kudus, the team’s best player, who was injured.

This meant Konigsdorffer was getting judged against the team’s only world-class player. Those with sympathetic minds can see this is not his fault, but he has faced lots of criticism.

Blame is also attached to the federation, which has been accused of caring more about making money than  ensuring productivity.

Ghana Football Association (GFA) president Kurt Okraku is known for referring to himself as a “Game-changer” who was dedicated to giving Ghanaian football a new identity since coming into the role in 2019 (he was re-elected unopposed in October 2023). Yet the country’s national stadium — the 40,000-seater Accra Sports Stadium — failed a FIFA inspection last month. 

The GFA had previously launched a campaign called “Bring the Love back” so at least it recognised there were problems to tackle. Yet in that context, how could it allow the stadium to fail?

It was happy to spend money on an advertising campaign but not the infrastructure that mattered. “So much energy has been wasted,” says one source close to the organisation.

Ghana goalkeeper Ofori (Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images)

Amid all of that, the federation created a football blueprint, which detailed the vision for the next 15 years across all levels. The person who helped produce that was technical director Bernhard Lippert, a German who left his role suddenly at the end of last year.

This was the organisation that, in 2018, was dissolved after its former president Kwesi Nyantakyi was pictured taking £48,000 from an undercover reporter pretending to be a businessman keen to invest in Ghanaian football. Nyantakyi was also the vice president of CAF and a member of the FIFA council.

With trust eroding, the representatives of some players who have been approached to play for Ghana say their clients are reluctant.

Some of this stems from the treatment of Kevin Prince-Boateng, who was removed from the 2014 World Cup squad before a key game with Portugal after campaigning for better conditions. He found out about this development after opening a letter from the GFA slipped underneath his hotel room door in the middle of the night. 

Ten years later, things look more desperate than ever.

(Top photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images)

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