This edition of the Africa Cup of Nations promises fans of Ghana’s Black Stars potential thrills but also raises the specters of recent failures. The Black Stars (they play the Democratic Republic of Congo today in their opening match of Afcon 2013) must be seen as one of the favored teams and are under a lot of pressure to come away as champions. In recent years they have been a regular continental power house though they have not won the Afcon since 1982 (when Ghana beat Libya on penalties in the final; the teams were tied at 1-1 after normal time).
Coach Kwesi Appiah, a former national captain, replaced Goran Stevanovic after the Black Stars’ shocking and disappointing loss to eventual champion Zambia at Afcon 2012. Appiah is still largely untested though he is trying to create a new atmosphere for his team both on and off the pitch. This time out they are missing a number of their best known players including Andre and Jordan Ayew, John Mensah, Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, and Kevin Prince-Boateng.
South Africa’s hosting of Afcon returns the Black Stars to the site of the triumphs and disappointments of the 2010 World Cup. They came within a Uruguayan fingertip of becoming the first African team to qualify for the semifinals, in the process winning fans from Lagos to Nairobi to Brooklyn and becoming the darlings of the continent.
With its Ghanaian coach and players based in various locales, this Black Stars team forecasts a new direction in African international football that is less focused on Europe. The roster has 10 players participating in their first major tournament. It is creatively put together with a number of players from Ghanaian, North African, and Middle Eastern clubs as well as up-and-coming players from European sides. They show hints of grit and cohesiveness after two tune-up victories over Egypt 3-0 and a 4-2 come-back win against Tunisia.
This 2013 Black Stars team are captained by the sensitive and brilliant striker Asamoah “Baby Jet” Gyan. The 2010 World Cup announced his international stardom as he scored a number of crucial goals and celebrated with signature post-goal dance celebrations; though his missed penalty kick in the quarterfinals nearly tore the nations heart out. After another crucial missed penalty against Zambia at Afcon 2012 Gyan was publicly insulted up and down Ghana’s streets and internet highways. He swore off international football only to be coaxed back to the national team. In the meantime in Ghana, he has become known as an aspiring musician, notably collaborating with hiplife rap star Castro on the hit track African Girl where he shows off his famous dance moves. Recently he has also started promoting boxing. Gyan seems to have matured as a player and is ready to embrace the responsibilities of being the Black Star leader, though he claims that he will not take penalty kicks for the team this time around.
Stalwart defender John Pantsil of Israel’s Hapoel Tel Aviv is the team’s most experienced international player with 81 caps for the Black Stars since 2002. His experience should provide stability. Though, he is perhaps best remembered for stirring up a minor international controversy at the 2006 World Cup in Germany when he waved a small Israeli flag in support of his home club team during a celebration in Ghana’s victory over Czech Republic. The Ghana Football Association was forced to apologize and explain that they were not weighing in on the Israel-Palestine conflict, Pantsil was unaware that the flag would cause controversy, and the whole situation was, in fact, completely apolitical.
Two players that must contribute for Ghana to go far in the 2013 tournament are midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah and winger Christian Atsu Tswasam. Asamoah has recently played well for Italy’s Juventus and seems determined to prove himself for the national team. He got his start with Accra’s Liberty Professionals, the club notorious for grooming future international players. His play in the midfield will be crucial if Ghana is to move the ball effectively. He is multi-talented and can work effectively on both offense and defense. 20 year-old Atsu of FC Porto is being tapped as one of the rising stars of African football. I have heard him called the Lionel Messi of Ghana. He has 5 caps for the Black Stars since mid 2012. Look for him to have a break-out tournament.
There are also a number of intriguing young players to watch. One Black Star playing in his first major event who has the potential to shine brightly is Albert Adomah of Bristol City who scored his first goal for the Black Stars in the warm-up against Tunisia. Another player I like is Harrison Afful, a soft-spoken, slim defender whom I have known since he was first called up by the Black Stars when he was still playing with Asante Kotoko in Ghana’s premiere league. He has played with determination since his move to Tunisia’s Espérance Sportive de Tunis scoring the only goal to win the 2011 CAF’s Champions League trophy. Even though he has not performed well for the Black Stars in past outings, he has guts. Young winger Solomon Asante and left-back Richard Kissi Boateng both of Ghana’s Berekum Chelsea club are also intriguing unsung players. If given a chance to get settled, they could provide some excellent energy.
Ghana is put together to play as a team rather than be a collection of individual stars. They begin play against DR Congo on 20 January in Port Elizabeth and also face a rejuvenated Niger team and a tough Malian side in group B. They should emerge from the group stage, though Mali presents a challenge. If they can, as a number of the Black Star players have been indicating, side-step the stress of past near-misses, play with excitement and single-minded determination, I predict they can overcome tournament favorite Côte d’Ivoire and win for the first time since 1982. But for the Black Star this is a foremost a psychological battle. Ghana’s loss to Uruguay at the 2010 World Cup was a disaster and continues to haunt people. While in football as in any sport you are only as good as your last victory, losses linger in the collective memory until they are exorcized. On the fateful night of the 2010 World Cup quarterfinals, jubilating crowds had filled Ghana’s streets in the wild hope of their team’s historic elevation to the semi-finals; viewing parks across South Africa; new and old fans filled bars in New York and London and across Africa. Luis Suarez’s hand ball and Asamoah Gyan’s missed penalty denied millions of fans a celebration they so desperately wanted. The sudden reversal of fortunes somehow seemed personal, somehow an intentional denial easily tied to so many historical betrayals. In Accra, thousands wandered off in bewilderment. For days, a quiet depression descended on the city. Accra’s call-in radio programs featured numerous distraught fans lamenting what almost was; rumors circulated of people so sad they could not eat, even of an increase in heart trouble among older relatives. While fans are confident in the 2013 team’s skills, until the Black Stars are able to earn a major victory, a sense of historical foreboding will weigh on them.
* Jesse Weaver Shipley is the author of Living the Hiplife: Celebrity and Entrepreneurship in Ghanaian Popular Music (published by Duke University Press in 2013).