“Are you confident that you can qualify?”
This was Ghanaian journalist Phrank Delali Awutey, asking Ghana captain Richard Ofori in the mixed zone after Ghana had drawn 2-2 with Egypt in their second Group B game at the 2023 Afcon in Côte d’Ivoire.
The Black Stars had lost their first game 2-1 to Cape Verde, and desperately needed a win in their final game against Mozambique after sharing the spoils with Egypt.
“Ah-ah?” Ofori responded, his lips parting in a condescending smile as if to say “Are you serious? Of course!”
“It [confidence] is an understatement,” the goalkeeper added.
Fast forward four days and Ghana was two goals up against Mozambique by the 90th minute, qualification all but sealed. Ofori was right after all.
Hang on. Not quite.
Then came a criminal capitulation of confidence and competence, which ironically had Ofori right in the mix. Mozambique’s Geny Caramo pulled one back by beating Ofori from the spot a minute into injury time. Three minutes later, Ofori, with the ball seemingly heading for a goal kick, hesitantly—and inexplicably—touched the ball, conceding a needless corner kick that dramatically ushered in a late Mozambique equalizer, a glorious glancing header from Reinildo Mandava.
The Black Stars, who had a 2-0 lead courtesy of two Jordan Ayew penalties, had found a way to bottle it.
It was unbelievable, yet strangely expected.
After the game, Mohamed Kudus, Ghana’s high-profile playmaker, was awarded the man-of-the-match award. But, like the match, it made no sense, and he knew it. The team had been outplayed and ousted. “I’m out of words,” he told a reporter, shaking his head, looking down.
The match, which signaled elimination for the team, brought outrage from fans in the stadium and across social media, a spectacular release of pent-up emotion. Even journalists lost their cool, booing the team in the mixed zone, and hurling insults. “Animals! … You’re fools!” It was most unprofessional, but the manner of the team’s failure—the story of consistency behind it—was also unprecedented. The Black Stars had reached the lowest of lows.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said veteran journalist Ken Bediako, who has been covering the team since the early 1960s.
A period of decline
Ofori’s assured response to Awutey four days earlier was an apt reflection of the false sense of entitlement that has plagued the Black Stars amid major mediocrity for at least the last seven years. The team has a track record that should inspire humility and hard work, yet it is often overlooked, replaced by a false sense of importance and even arrogance.
Since making it to the semi-final of the 2017 Afcon in Cameroon (Ghana’s sixth consecutive semi- final appearance), there has been a drawn-out decline. Afcon 2019 in Egypt saw the team win only once in four games, being eliminated in the first round of the knockout phase. Then came Afcon 2021 in Cameroon, which saw the team humiliatingly knocked out in the group phase after failing to win a single game, notably losing 3-2 to Comoros in their final group game. After a disappointing showing at the World Cup in Qatar, Côte d’Ivoire 2023 was supposed to be a platform for redemption for the Black Stars.
But wait a minute: was it really going to be?
There were ominous signs. The team was in bad, sad shape. They had struggled to qualify for the Afcon, needing a last-ditch goal in the last match of qualifying to make it out of a group containing Central African Republic and Madagascar, who only have one Afcon appearance combined between them. And so, it has all come to an end. Ghana, once the Godfather of African football, can now boast of a single win in their last 10 Afcon games.
A pampered brand
The Black Stars of Ghana is one of the world’s most recognizable football brands. Their dominance of African football in the 1960s, propelled by the pan-African push of Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah, and their impressive near-semi-final finish at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, are among the factors that launched the team into global prominence, marketing Ghana in a way that a few brands have managed in the country’s 67-year history.
The team is powerful and popular; pampered and prioritized. But there is a piercing problem: they do not deserve any of this, if performance means anything. The team has not won a trophy in over four decades.
Followers of the Black Stars would be the first to admit to the culture of reckless spending and poor leadership that has characterized the team and everything surrounding it for many years.
The government of Ghana, through the Ministry of Youth and Sports, funds the Black Stars, which, has to be said, is probably the only institution in Ghana that sees its every need met without questions asked. For a nation that struggles with many economic and development issues, the financial backing that the Black Stars gets is most certainly hard to comprehend, if not hard to justify.
With every tournament that comes around, millions of dollars are pumped into the team, with the justification being that they market Ghana, bring the nation together, and provide pride, patriotism, and purpose that can’t be quantified.
In 2019, the government reportedly blew $4.5 million (after budgeting over $6 million) on the team’s participation, which ended at the 1/16th stage. The prize money from CAF for winners of the tournament at that time was $4.5 million, and the Black Stars had managed to spend as much despite coming nowhere near the trophy.
It’s been the same story of wastage for years: members of Ghana’s ruling New Patriotic Party government accused their predecessors, the National Democratic Congress, of splashing $15 million on Ghana’s 2013 Afcon outing. In 2021, the government started a fundraiser to generate $25 million to win the 2021 Afcon and qualify for the 2022 World Cup. Ghana ended up not winning a single game at the Afcon or in the World Cup qualifying play-offs.
Before this Afcon in Côte d’Ivoire, the budget was shrouded in secrecy (not officially declared)—a glaring insult to the intelligence of fans. But an idea of how inflated it was would be revealed when the Ghana Football Association displayed what many considered an incredible lack of wisdom and unbridled extravagance: proposing to camp far away in South Africa for a tournament taking place in a neighboring country.
Thankfully, expected public uproar forced them to camp right at home. But imagine this: the Ghana Football Association (GFA) struggled to find a camping base for the team with the accommodation and pitch requirements, in an era where most African countries have state-of-the-art camping bases for their national teams. The Black Stars are veterans of four World Cup participations, each raking in millions of dollars. Notwithstanding, neither the GFA nor the Ministry managed to produce any meaningful amenities from that income.
A dead team
The Black Stars is the spoiled, favored child of the GFA and the government: both bodies struggle to fund sporting initiatives or institutions other than the Star. This would not have been a problem if the team was winning, achieving … even breathing.
But yes, the team is dead. Under the current Kurt Okraku-led GFA administration, which took over in October 2019, the Black Stars are yet to make it out of the group stage of any major tournament. They have appointed four different coaches without any success, and the immediate-past coach, Irishman Chris Hughton—who was sacked a day after the Mozambique debacle—only won 30% of the matches he oversaw, failing to exert any noticeable influence on the team. In any accountability-driven society, the leadership of the GFA, the Black Stars management body, and the technical team would collectively resign. But, bet your bottom dollar they won’t.
Had Mozambique not deservedly clawed their way back into that game, it had been reported that each player of the Black Stars team would have been $30,000 richer for qualifying out of the group. That, plus the bonuses for management and technical team members, would have shot expenses to well ine excess of $1 million—a reward for just a single win.
To put this in context: the winning team of the Ghana Premier League for the 2023/24 season will receive $42,000. Let that sink in.
The Black Stars, though beloved, have unfortunately become a giant broom used to sweep serious problems under the rug. Anytime the team wins, attention is diverted from pressing problems. The irony is that the team’s failure certainly makes much more sense than its success.