BUT WHY AT ALL DO THEY THINK WE CAN’T WIN?
By nature I'm not too ambitious; I'm never unrealistically optimistic; I don't expect too much and because of that I tend to accept defeat calmly without always looking for excuses. In fact, I've had occasion to express it on another occasion that when it comes to soccer I think Ghanaians cry too much over our losses simply because we always rate ourselves too high. And as the saying goes, the higher you go, the harder you fall. This is true even if the height is imaginary. It has often been said that Ghana is a country of 21 million football coaches. From my own perspective though, I see Ghana as a country of 21 million coaches' trainers. And this explains why people who may never have paid to watch a match at the Sunyani Coronation Park can sit in front of a TV set at Sunyani and question or sometimes deride the competence of world acclaimed coaches like Capello, Mourinho, Ferguson and the rest. Their frustration could range from why the coach selected player “A” rather player “B” or why a particular player is playing at a particular position rather than where he thinks he should played.
The other day I couldn't help laughing my head off when one young guy questioned why France's coach decided to field Claude Makelele when according to him, he (Makelele) was so old the strength in him wasn't enough to kick the football he was supposed to play ('ne nan ntumi ball no'). Another time it was someone questioning why anyone should call Frank Lampard a 'player'. So should it surprise anyone that even before Ghana plays its first match in South Africa people were calling for the sack of our coach? Well, that's a Ghanaian in-front-of-TV soccer expert for you!
Anyway, this piece is not about 'experts' who continue to offer technical advice to people they know will never hear them; it is about those who have concluded that the farthest any of our African teams can go in the on-going World Cup is the semi-final. When you ask them 'why' they readily shout back with “but how?” Sometimes they may even go further by saying it categorically that these 'aborofo' will never allow that. Well, as already stated, I'm never unrealistically optimistic and as such am not going to call a radio station to boldly predict the outcome of any one match with specific score-lines. What I wish to find out is why people think an African team can't win this World Cup in particular.
So Why Can't We Win?
While I still wait for a reasonable answer to the above question and still not make any attempt to predict who is going to win I can confidently count out those who have no chance whatever of winning. These are the 16 teams who are going to go out after their group matches! Of course I don't know them but for sure none of the third and fourth placed teams in any group, be they Spain, Brazil or Ghana, can ever win the cup even if they eat all the rice in Asia or drink all the coffee in Brazil. Again, no team that loses any of its subsequent knock-out stage matches can win. On the other hand any first or second-placed team in any group that goes on to win their subsequent knock-out stage matches has an equal chance of winning as any other. What this means is that if at the end of the group stage matches and teams like Brazil, Switzerland or Argentina place third or fourth in their respective groups they are out notwithstanding the fact that Sepp Platter is a Swiss or that Diego Maradona coaches Argentina. And of course, as and when the so-called big or favourite teams lose their matches it would be the 'also-runs' who go forward.
There Was a Time...
There was a time when the best that anyone would expect an African or Asian team to do at the World Cup was to score a goal or not to lose all their matches. An example was when Zaire represented Africa in 1974 and conceded 14 goals in three matches without scoring even one. Asian representative, Haiti, did just better by scoring two and conceding 14. Of course those were the days when Africa, North America and Asia had one representative each against 10 from Europe and three from South America! We have come a long way since then and even though Africa could still make a genuine claim for more I think results in recent past have shown that Europe and South America should be prepared to relinquish their automatic claim to world cup glory. Let's use our own local Premier League to illustrate this. Who ever thought that out of nowhere, a team known as Aduana Stars, all the way from Dormaa Ahenkro, and in their very first participation, would emerge champions, brushing aside all the Hearts, Kotokos Ashanti Golds and the rest?
Is Winning Matches Different From Winning a Cup?
As already indicated in the preceding paragraphs the only teams who can't win the cup are those teams who can never win matches. When in 1982 Africa was represented by two teams for the first time both Cameroon and Algeria missed the second round only due to 'technicalities'. While Cameroon drew all their three matches including one with the eventual winners Italy, Algeria also beat the then reigning champions, West Germany, who eventually won the silver. In today's format in fact it would have been the former rather than latter who would have qualified for the next stage. But more importantly what this meant was that from that time Africans were no longer anybody's also-runs with Morocco lining up with three European countries including England and Portugal and still topping the group in 1986, and Cameroon topping their group in 1990 ahead of reigning champions Argentina and two European countries. Again in the United States and France in 1994 and 1998 respectively Nigeria reigned supreme ahead of European and South American opposition, followed by new entrants Senegal beating yet another reigning champion, France in the opening match of Korea/Japan 2002. All that I'm saying is that beating Germany, Argentina or France – all former or even reigning world champions – in the group stages is not in any way different from beating them in the knock-out stages. As a matter of fact it needs more effort to top a group than win one knock-out match. Therefore, it's only a matter of time – and I believe it's time now – for Africans to be beating their European and South American counterparts in the knock-out stages and consequently win the greatest soccer trophy there is. In fact Pele – arguably the greatest of them all – predicted this long ago.
We Only Need to Stay Focused
All we need to do to achieve this is to stay focused and leave our coaches and players alone to do what's expected of them. Judging from the noise we make – the insults and condemnation when in our view we think someone didn't do well according to our expectation – I think our coaches and boys all along have done great. Perhaps if our political leaders over the years had performed as good as our players we would have gone further as a country than where we are now. We are so selfish that even when our players perform poorly in one match we say they're not ready to die for their country; even when they are injured we say they're feigning injury. Meanwhile for the almost two years that our captain, Appiah, was out of job nobody bothered to find out how he took care of his family and himself. We want the best coaches but when some nations are prepared to spend millions to acquire the services of world-class coaches we complain that US$30,000 a month is too much for a coach.
Do Countries Have Formations?
In tune with our desire to coach our coaches from in front of our TV sets and studios I've heard people claim that in Ghana the formation we play is 4-4-2 and therefore that's what the coach must play. Any deviation from this means catastrophe for our team. While not attempting to sound like one of these coach's trainers I challenge anyone to show me in which hand-book that is written. Unlike a Constitution or school curricular, the formation played by any team depends on the philosophy of the coach or to some extent the players available to him. So when we keep changing coaches like we change jerseys I find it funny when anyone to suggest that there should be one formation that we should always play. In the first place, I'm not even sure coaches leave handing-over notes for their successors the same way as they don't leave a particular list of players which their successors is obliged to use. So for God's sake, let's leave the coach alone to play the formation which according to his technical competence is right for the squad he has. Again, let's give our full support to our boys and bear in mind that no player goes to the World Cup and intentionally decides not to do his best.
So go, Africa go! Go, Ghana go! All we need to do to win the Cup is first, qualify from the group stage, and from then on win, win and win. And who think we can't?
Note: At the time of submitting this piece I'm aware that it's only Ghana that have so far won our opening match. But I do expect three African teams at least to reach the next stage. From then on we take it one at a time.