Asamoah Gyan and Ghana ready to go all the way in 2019 Africa Cup of Nations
Black Stars, who have reached semi-finals of last six editions and twice been runners-up, have team to win title this time
Matchday 5 of the Africa Cup of Nations, and it is heavyweight hour.
In the Egyptian city of Ismailia, a first sight of defending champions Cameroon up against Guinea-Bissau, and later on Tuesday night, last out of the starting blocks, Ghana, the team with the painful, perennial itch to scratch. The Black Stars begin their campaign against Benin, once more aspiring to convert a long series of bronze and silver medals into something better.
For a couple of the Black Stars, Ismailia feels like the most evocative place to start. From here, a little less than a decade ago, Ghana’s Under 20s set a new bar for African football, taking on the best of their age-group and emerging triumphant.
The so-called Black Satellites of that tournament, the U20 World Cup of 2009, began their campaign in this city and gave notice of their brilliance with a 4-0 win over England. Two-and-a-half weeks later, in Cairo, they were holding their nerve into sudden death in a penalty shoot-out against Brazil to become the first, and still the only, African world champions at this level.
The promise of that generation seemed more than just a brief dazzle, as the triumphs of teenaged national teams often turn out to be. Less than a year later, a handful of players from that squad were with the seniors at grown-up World Cup, in South Africa.
Ghana came within a Luis Suarez handball of reaching the semi-final. One Dominic Adiyiah, top scorer in the U20 World Cup, had the header that Uruguay’s Suarez deliberately palmed off the goalline, to stop an almost certain match-winner.
The rest is cruel history: Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan missed the subsequent penalty; the quarter-final went to extra-time and penalties, and poor Adiyiah, whose career faded in his later 20s, failed with his spot-kick on the way to Uruguay’s win.
The residual pain might have been eased over several Africa Cup of Nations since, but again and again the shutters have come down on Ghana late in the tournament. They have reached the semi-finals of the last six editions, and twice been runners-up.
The last time, in 2015 against Ivory Coast, it took 22 penalty kicks in the shoot-out to leave a shattered Ghana in second place.
Many of these heartaches have been lived vividly by the attacking midfielder Andre Ayew, a footballer born into expectation because his father, Abedi Pele, was the country’s superstar through the late 20th century.
Abedi was among the last Ghanaian champions of Africa, back in 1982; Andre, was captain of the Black Satellites in 2009, scored in the winning shoot-out against Brazil, and less than a year later came second in the voting for Best Young Player at the 2010 World Cup.
He has had his up and downs off the field with the national team since then, and his club career has zig-zagged around Europe, but he will not want for motivation and drive in the weeks ahead.
“The thing with Andre is that he will keep his focus on the job at hand, and he has developed a way of shutting out the disturbances around the squad, like flicking a switch,” one former Ghana coach told The National.
And disturbance there has been. Ayew, just like in 2009, has been designated the captain’s job for Afcon 2019, a decision that initially was not well received well by the totemic Gyan, owner of more than 100 caps and over 50 international goals.
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Last month, Gyan retired himself from international football, apparently angry that the captaincy, which was his at the last three Nations Cup, had been reassigned. Gyan then reversed the decision after a personal appeal from Ghana’s state president, Nana Akufo-Addo, and has promised to “be committed to serving”.
Gyan, 33, and not long ago a devastating finisher in the UAE Pro League, notably with Al Ain and then briefly with Shabab Al Ahli, remains a formidable leader of the line. He is also a forthright individual who might easily break a happy equilibrium.
The ruckus puts leadership plainly at issue, even before the first ball is kicked. But among the Ghanaians looking to end the long, tantalising wait for a Nations Cup, there are sound commanders.
There is Ayew himself, the former prodigy and lifelong carrier of a father’s legacy, as is his younger brother, the striker Jordan Ayew. There is defender Jonathan Mensah, another graduate from the stellar 2009 Black Satellites.
And where there is Kwadwo Asamoah, of the charmed left foot and serial Italian titles with Juventus, and Thomas Partey, a 2018 Europa League winner with Atletico Madrid, there is authority in midfield.
And calm? The build-up has been “peaceful”, manager James Kwesi Appiah says, unsurprised that the question was put to him.
Updated: June 25, 2019 09:46 AM