2 matches, 2 losses: Ghana’s start at this summer’s U-20 World Cup was far from ideal. The Class of 2009, triumphant at the first tournament to be held on African soil, loomed large over the Black Satellites. Within the camp there was “huge respect for what they achieved.” Ayew and company, exalted ever since as the benchmark that every subsequent group should aspire to reach, were meant to be the inspiration, the driving force for a repeat success this time out. Instead, expectation appeared to be getting the better of these young tyros, the pressure of emulating their predecessors seemingly permeating their every touch.
In a way, the two early losses – Ghana’s only group stage defeats at any U-20 World Cup – aided in channelling the squad’s focus. The defeats to France (1-3) and Spain (0-1), both pre-tournament favourites, meant that victory against the United States in the final game of the group was simply a must, and even if the desired result was achieved other scores would have to go their way to qualify as one of the four 3rd-best teams.
How refreshing it was, then, to see the ebullient adventure return to Ghana’s play. The shackles were well and truly cast aside as the Black Satellites poured forward in droves, overwhelming the opposition with 25 shots (17 of which were on target) and emerging 4-1 victors. The young Ghanaians had stared adversity square in the face and reacted in the best possible way. 48 hours later, with Egypt defeating England 2-0, progression to the Last 16 was finally confirmed. The first hurdle had been passed, but the tests would get no easier from here on in with that familiar foe adversity forever ready to rear its ugly head.
Portugal were to be Ghana’s next opponents, their main attraction Bruma already accumulating a host of scouting dossiers; impressing many with his electric brand of pace and trickery. His exploits certainly hadn’t escaped the notice of the Ghanaians who formulated a plan in an attempt to dampen the influence of the explosive winger. Captain Lawrence Lartey describes how they “tried to keep two players close to him, so that he couldn’t go for goal the way he likes.” Admittedly, the No.11 was still a threat to a porous defence that kept goalkeeper Eric Antwi more than occupied throughout the campaign, but with the match in its dying embers and extra-time looming Ghana were still very much in the mix with the score tied at 2 apiece. Then, a free-kick was won on the edge of the box, wide on the left, but a decent opportunity nonetheless to deliver what could be a telling cross.
Richmond Boakye-Yiadom – one of the few members of the squad already plying his trade in the football utopia that is Europe to most of these kids – had other ideas, however. The two-man wall that faced him was a minor barrier in his eyes. The Juventus youngster endured a rather indifferent tournament but this was as good a time as any to try his luck. And so he let fly, the pair in the wall cowardly parting as the ball careered past. It whistled by the inside of the near post; the net bulging despite a desperate dive from José Sá in the Portuguese goal. Fortune had favoured the brave. The Black Satellites were marching on to the Quarters.
There they would face Chile, whose mix of guile and potency was in no small part thanks to their devilish trio of Bryan Rabello, Nicolás Castillo and Ángelo Henríquez. They terrorized Ghana’s backline which had proved so resolute in the main stages of this year’s CAF U-20 Championship, with the impressive Antwi having to make yet more eye-catching saves. It was clear that the Ghanaians hadn’t heeded the warnings of previous matches. Rather, ‘fight fire with fire’ appeared to be the mantra that fuelled an incredible 41 shots over the 120 minutes of sweat and toil. Twice Ghana had been a goal down and twice they had cancelled the deficit; the mental resolve of the group so apparent once again.
So much so that it was barely a surprise when in stoppage time at the end of extra-time Ebenezer Assifuah leapt to meet a looping cross at the end of yet another forceful, driving run from Frank Acheampong. The header may have lacked power but that was more than made up for by the direction; the ball agonisingly squeezing in between the attempted clearances of Henríquez and Valber Huerta on La Roja’s line.
Another meeting with France was their reward for this timely comeback but sadly this would be a case of déjà vu rather than revanche for the Satellites. Bookings accrued over the tournament by centre-backs Lartey and Joseph Attamah, as well as composed midfielder Moses Odjer, the youngest of the squad at 16, would deprive Ghana of three of their key performers. The resulting reshuffle – which in part led to the mobile and diligent Seidu Salifu moving from his berth in front of the defence to right-back – weakened the spine and though things picked up after half-time the sprightly brilliance of Florian Thauvin was enough to mask the slightly laboured approach of his teammates. The momentum engendered by overcoming adversity time and again came to a shuddering halt. The benchmark of four years ago wouldn’t be reached. Not this time.
That was in no small part down to attitudes towards defending. As Attamah lamented during the tournament “it’s a little bit tough to be a defender in Ghana. Everyone back home always says that we just need strikers but we need to put the accent on defence too. As well as scoring goals, we need to defend well too.” The gaps that continually emerged as the players’ eagerness got the better of them are testament to this view. There was a lack of discipline at key times with the group short of the desire to function as exactly that; one group willing to attack and defend.
Coach Sellas Tetteh offered up the oft-used line that “we can battle and we’re passionate, but sometimes I get the impression that African players don’t have the same tactical instincts [as their European or South American counterparts].” Undoubtedly that’s a rather generalising statement although there is a touch of truth in his words. In all honesty, such a topic deserves an article all to itself but it seems the hint of overbearing individualism that frequents the ‘African game’ is hard to shake.
Possession was also a factor when considering agents of the Black Satellites’ demise. According to FIFA.com, in no match did Ghana see more of the ball than the opposition, a fact not lost on forward Kennedy Ashia: “We need to work on keeping possession and putting our opponents under more pressure when we have the ball. Our coach always tells us that in modern football you win games if you know how to keep hold of the ball.”
Unfortunately, these good intentions didn’t wholly manifest into any sustained reality, though it must be said that some margins throughout the tournament were negligible. More important was the resulting pressure lost possession heaped upon an already creaking defence. It wasn’t just the backline that suffered, though; a lack of patience in attacking positions led to quite an astounding number of hopeful shots from outside the box when a more measured approach may have fashioned more presentable opportunities. This will be nothing new for those that follow Ghana, be it Stars or Satellites, but there comes a time when this inanely optimistic shoot-on-sight policy when within a 30 yard radius of the goal must cease.
Of course, it’s not all bad if you reach the semi-finals of a World Cup and Ghana can take a lot of heart from their performances this tournament, bouncing back from the devastating second loss to France to claim 3rd place, defeating a weary Iraq 3-0. The aforementioned resolve was present by the bucketload, spirit and stamina ensuring late goals remained a common theme in their quest for a common objective. There was an additional purpose, however; a by-product, if you will, of their determined exploits in Turkey. A tournament of such magnitude is a prime arena in which to showcase one’s talents and the chance of a move to Europe lay firmly in the forefront of the home-based Satellites’ minds.
Assifuah certainly did his chances no harm, claiming the Golden Boot with six goals. His tireless performances saw him endlessly chasing hopeful balls down channels, his pace posing a threat beyond opposition defences. He also displayed a willingness and capacity to drop deep at times, holding the ball up with his back to goal and linking with the midfield before spinning into action once more. Never shy to try his luck from any angle, defences could seldom rest with Ebenezer around but the sheer rawness in his game can’t be overlooked. Sure, it’s to be expected in a 20-year-old but calls for him to be called into the senior squad seem wildly premature. Fans only have to look at Dominic Adiyiah, for example, to see that goals and promise at this level are far from confirmation of future success.
The left flank duo of Rahman Baba and Acheampong combined well throughout the campaign. The former provided continuous thrust from full-back, motoring forward at every opportunity and displaying an intelligent sense of awareness and timing in both his runs and passing. As ever, going the other way there were some less good moments – a tendency to get too tight to his opposite man and dive in unnecessarily is something that will have to be ironed out as he develops – but supporters of the Black Stars will be hopeful that Baba may eventually be the one to solve the perpetual left-back debate once and for all.
Acheampong, meanwhile, was a constant livewire; a 5’6 bundle of trickery and dynamism. This guy only plays at one speed: fast. It was almost too fast at times and that may be his main weakness at present, with the unwillingness to slow the pace of the game meaning that shots were often taken when off-balance and better chances in counter-attacks missed as a result of a desire to go solo. His directness and ability in one-on-one situations were a constant source of chances, however, and more than anything his perseverance – no better illustrated than that run and cross against Chile – exemplified the Ghanaians’ never-say-die attitude.
Moses Odjer and Clifford Aboagye were two others to create interest; “create” being the operative word as the pair served up a host of chances for their teammates. Diminutive in stature, but certainly not in character, they defy the stereotypical African midfielder identikit – the physical and domineering presence of centrefield – showing deft feints and sleight of touch to slip past opponents, dropping into pockets of space and showing a selflessness not seen in many others. Perhaps this is due to their relative youth; after all, they are two of the youngest in the squad, but it’s possibly also attributable to an innate tactical understanding, the very type that Tetteh says is generally lacking.
Regardless of the reasoning it was gratifying to see how well they held their own on the pitch, whether that was in central positions or wide, and though their influences varied from game to game, with inevitable lulls dispersed amongst the buzz of imaginative activity, the subtlety that laces their games is such a welcome change from the norm. It can’t be stressed how important the next few years are for the duo who, like the rest of the group – the third youngest at this year’s tournament with an average age of 19 years and two months – need time to mature at their own pace in an environment suited to their own specific talents.
Though confusion reigns over his complete ownership, it’s no surprise to see Aboagye – who claimed the Bronze Ball for third best player at the tournament – on the books at Udinese, a club with a decent track record when it comes to giving youngsters of African descent a chance. He won’t have to go too far for guidance on how to avoid the obstacles that have stunted the development of many a promising talent. Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, a Zebrette man himself and a member of the victorious group of ’09, is one of seven players from that squad to have accumulated 10 or more caps for the seniors, with himself, Dédé Ayew and Samuel Inkoom racking up 40 or more in their relatively brief careers thus far.
This year’s squad went to Turkey with the hope of repeating the previous generation’s historic triumph. They may have fallen agonisingly short but the ultimate goal, their continued improvement on the laborious passage from Satellites to Stars, is far from accomplished. In fact, this is just the beginning.