Portugal vs. Ghana: 5 Things We Learned About the Black Stars
It was a case of what might have been for Ghana, as they crashed out of the World Cup after being defeated by Portugal in Brasilia.
What might have been had the Black Stars not been placed in Group G, one of the tournament’s Groups of Death?
What might have been had they kept their nerve and remained resilient in the second half against Germany? What might have been had Kwesi Appiah had the bravery to build his team around the big performers, rather than the big reputations?
Perhaps most poignantly, what might have been had the Black Stars’ final group stage against a lacklustre Portuguese side, when all that was required was a win, not been overshadowed by the controversies of the day?
There has been good and there has been bad for Ghana this summer. Here’s what we learned from the Black Stars’ final match of the summer.
Build the Team Around Kwadwo
It was notable that Ghana’s only attacking moment of genuine class against Portugal came on one of the rare occasions that Kwadwo Asamoah deserted his left-back role and sought to influence the proceedings in the final third.
Admittedly, Asamoah has thrived as a left-sided wing-back for Juventus, but for the Black Stars, his many creative talents ought to be utilised in more advanced areas.
He should be the rock upon which Ghana are built. We knew it before the World Cup, and after the misdemeanours of Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari, plus the limited influence of Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu and Mohammed Rabiu, we now know it more than ever.
Starting with September’s Cup of Nations Qualifiers, Ghana need to place Asamoah at the centre of the action and use his ability to drive through the heart of the park, as well as his vision, creativity and technical prowess.
Here is a worthy successor to the great central midfielders of Africa’s (and Ghana’s) past.
Time for a Meritocracy
Ahead of the Black Stars CAF Qualification play-off double header against Egypt, no fewer than five high-profile players returned to the squad after long periods of (to varying degrees) self-imposed international exile.
It was no coincidence that, with a World Cup on the horizon, Michael Essien, Kevin-Prince Boateng, the Ayew Brothers and to a lesser extent, Sulley Muntari, saw fit to reaffirm their loyalty to the national side and return to the fold.
How could the manager, Kwesi Appiah, refuse the services of such a celebrated collection of players? He couldn’t, and all five were shoehorned back into contention.
This approach cannot help team morale, particularly when the return of these players means the omission of stalwarts such as Richard Kissi Boateng, Solomon Asante and Mohamed Awal.
Similarly, it fosters a climate of player power, where the egos rule the team and the manager and federation are held at the whims of the big names. Regularly, over the last few days, Ghana’s moves just break down when players see fit to go it alone, to take wild shots, or to attempt to trouble the keeper when a team-mate is better positioned.
It cannot go on, particularly when the stars bring no guarantee of success or when their volatile characters disrupt the side as much as Muntari and Boateng have done.
Hope on the Horizon
Stephen Keshi’s Nigeria provide a perfect template of how a team-centric approach can work for an African powerhouse. One could even argue that beyond the “stars,” Ghana actually have more talented players at European sides upon whom they can construct their future.
Some of these “green shoots” were present in Brazil, although their lack of playing time was frustrating.
Majeed Waris was injured in the pre-tournament friendly against South Korea and wasn’t called upon for the first two matches. Recalled against Portugal, he struggled to assert himself and missed a gilt-edged chance in the second half.
He will improve, however, and should he find a positive club environment for this coming season, Ghana can expect great things.
Afriyie Acquah is a central midfielder who seems to have the lot, and despite their relative experience, it has been a surprise that Kwesi Appiah has opted for Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu and Mohammed Rabiu this summer.
Acquah received a run out against Portugal and should grow to become a permanent fixture in the national side, particularly following the likely departures of Boateng, Muntari and Essien.
Christian Atsu is already a regular first-teamer, but will only get better over the coming years.
African Stereotypes Can't Be Shaken
Normally, I rebel against the lazy journalism and cheap stereotypes you often find rolled out when the discussion turns to Africa’s national teams.
Unfortunately, however, Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Cameroon have all, to varying degrees, lived up to these stereotypes over the course of the summer.
The Elephants demonstrated a naivety in offensive positions and an inability to manage the closing stages of a game. They would have advanced past Greece had they kept their heads and employed a bit of hard-nosed pragmatism in their final group match.
Similarly, Ghana were far too keen to score a third against Germany, and in the process, sent too many men forward. When the Black Stars did attack, they too often lacked cohesion and chose to go it alone rather than thinking about the moment within the context of the match and the tournament as a whole.
The continent’s goalkeepers have often been the brunt of jokes from superior others, and while Vincent Enyeama and Rais M’Bolhi have impressed at Brazil, Fatau Dauda was a little hapless against Portugal.
The Orlando Pirates man did, admittedly, make a few smart saves during the match, and his reflexes are excellent, but he was at fault for the Portuguese winner.
Throughout the match he demonstrated an inability to hold authority over his area and flapped at a succession of high balls.
The final stereotype that was unhappily fulfilled by both Cameroon and Ghana was that of the African teams disputing bonuses and being plagued by infighting.
Cameroon imploded spectacularly in their 4-0 capitulation against Croatia, while the Black Stars did, mercifully at least, keep their disagreements to the team hotel.
It was an unfortunate poetic justice, however, when John Boye was pictured kissing a bundle of dollar bills on the same day that his comedic own goal pushed qualification for the Last 16 a little further away from Ghana.
As far as Kevin-Prince Boateng goes, rarely has the image of a pampered, out-of-touch, self-seeking footballer been encapsulated better.
This trio of complaints should not become the caricatures they once were, but the 2014 group stage has confirmed that familiar failings do remain.
Gyan Among the Continent's Greats?
Having equalled Roger Milla’s record for goals scored by an African player at World Cup finals, Gyan went ahead and broke it by heading home against Portugal.
While the striker’s club career has been carried off into the wilderness of the Garden City of the United Arab Emirates, he remains an electric, explosive campaigner in the context of the national side.
He was a match-winner for Ghana at both the 2006 and the 2010 World Cup, rising to the big-time occasion and proving himself to be a very able goal-scorer.
Few would doubt that he could feasibly become only the fourth player to score at four different World Cups in four years’ time in Russia, when he will be 32.
Despite his performances for the Black Stars, Gyan is rarely considered on the same level as Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto’o, George Weah or Milla himself.
Should this new record now usher him into that elite echelon of African strikers?