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AFCON 2021: Fledgling Ghana, 40 years of heartbreak and a newfound dark horse status

After four decades of hurt and heartbreak, the Black Stars' latest attempt at annexing the AFCON begins with little optimism back home...

AFCON 2021: Fledgling Ghana, 40 years of heartbreak and a newfound dark horse status

Nothing quite summarises Ghana’s espoirs modérés ahead of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) than the footage from the team’s final photoshoot.

Radiantly dressed in their home kits, complemented by a scarf that readily displays the famed national colours and advertises the country’s flagship Beyond the Return tourism frolics, ‘We are going’ – a song by the legendary rock band Osibisa – played in the background.

… We will get there

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Heaven knows how we will get there

We know we will

It will be hard we know

And the road will be muddy and rough

But we'll get there

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Heaven knows how we will get there

We know we will…

The lyrics of the song paint the perfect picture of where the Black Stars currently are and where they could be by February 6, when the tournament concludes.

Theirs is a team that has always had potential but nobody knows how far, or otherwise, they can go. In 2006, there was genuine hope that the Black Stars could challenge for the trophy, although they eventually exited at the group stages.

When Ghana hosted the AFCON in 2008, they were once again among the favourites, eventually finishing third. The story was similar in subsequent tournaments because the Black Stars boasted a team with the quality to compete against their rivals on the continent. This time, though, the feeling is more of pessimism than optimism.

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Back home, there is literally no expectation whatsoever. Having supported the national team with their all for decades with nothing to show for, many Ghanaians have become numb to the disappointments of the Black Stars – or so it seems.

But that could all change with three points against Morocco at the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium on Monday. Interest in the Black Stars has obviously waned in recent years but, in tournament football, all they need to do to get the fans back on their side is to put together a couple of impressive victories.

The more they win, the more the team piques the interests of Ghanaians. And the farther they go in the tournament, the more likely it is that support for the team will also increase. Paired in Group C alongside Morocco, Gabon and Comoros, Ghana should have no problems getting to the knockout stages.

Four decades of hurt

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Make no mistake about it, Ghanaians, at least the majority, still love the Black Stars. However, nobody enjoys continuously backing the horse that never wins no matter their loyalty or affiliation.

That is why support for the national team seems a bit withdrawn. It’s been 40 years of hurt and heartbreak, with Ghana’s last AFCON triumph dating back to 1982. Many of those who witnessed that victory in Libya are no more and the current generation of fans are increasingly becoming frustrated by this long drought.

For a country that has produced some of the best players in the world in the last few decades, it’s sometimes puzzling that Ghana haven’t been able to crack the code for winning the AFCON, especially when teams with lesser quality have gone on to annex the trophy.

When captain Andre Ayew sat through a press conference ahead of the game against Morocco, you could tell he too was frustrated by the team’s four-decade trophyless run.

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“I want to focus on what is ahead,” the Al Sadd forward, who is Ghana’s top scorer at the AFCON with nine goals, said. “The AFCON is a tough competition. People are seeing us as underdogs but it’s part of football.

“Teams have shown that they have progressed and can win a lot of games in a row. We didn’t win a lot of games in a row so it’s normal for everyone to see us as underdogs but we take it with a lot of determination and hunger to prove that Ghana will never die.”

Ghana’s status as a football powerhouse on the continent has been shaken in recent years. Failure to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and exiting the last AFCON at the round of 16 have eroded the gains made in previous years.

As to whether Milovan Rajevac’s side can regain their mojo and reclaim their place among Africa’s elite, though, depends on how they fare in Cameroon.

A new era

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Amidst all the pessimism, though, is a thin layer of hope that draws parallels with the young, inexperienced side that reached the final of the 2010 AFCON in Angola. Like the current squad, they too were largely written off after going into the tournament without several key players.

On that occasion, Rajevac’s tactical shrewdness shone, as he fashioned a team that was almost defensively impenetrable but also had just enough hurt their opponents at the other end.

The Serbian manager may have spent just two years during his first spell in charge of Ghana but he wrought a rebuilding by phasing out the old guard and transitioning players from the U20 World Cup-winning side into the national team.

Fair to say it worked perfectly and those young players, together with Asamoah Gyan, became the core of the Black Stars for the next decade. Now, though, that era has come to an end and Rajevac finds himself in a similar position to what he was in 2008.

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There is no Gyan, while Andre Ayew, Jordan Ayew, Jonathan Mensah and Mubarak Wakaso could be playing their last AFCON. But the Serbian manager has at his disposal many talented youthful players that he can build his new team around.

Kamaldeen Sulemana is currently one of the most exciting wingers in Europe and is primed to have a huge tournament in Cameroon. Fatawu Issahaku and Kudus Mohammed (who may yet join the team in the latter stages due to his injury situation) will also have big roles to play if the Black Stars are going to go far.

In all, 17 of Rajevac’s 27-man squad will be tasting the AFCON for the very first time, including all four goalkeepers. This is a staggering statistic and it explains why very few rate Ghana’s chances.

If the golden generations won nothing, then what can be expected from this fledgling team of first-timers – with a goalkeeper who plays in the fourth-tier of English football, a makeshift right-back, an uncertain midfield pairing and no prolific striker – really do?

But hope is a great thing and this team appears to have it in abundance. And with a bit more character on the pitch, the heroics of the inexperienced 2010 side could be in sight. The players are not the only ones with something to prove, though, Rajevac does too after many questioned his re-appointment following a decade where he did very little after parting ways with Ghana in 2010.

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“Nobody believes in us,” the Serbian said ahead of the Morocco game, before laying down the gauntlet. “Nobody rates us as favourites for this tournament but we are here to prove them wrong. It’s good for us.”

Black Stars’ newfound outsider status

In the current Black Stars squad, only the Ayew brothers, Jonathan Mensah, Wakaso and to some extent Thomas Partey, know how it feels to go into a tournament as one of the favourites.

For a team that reached the semi-final of every AFCON from 2008 to 2017, Ghana have fast become shadows of the past, quickly dropping into the category of outsiders.

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Last week’s 3-0 humiliation at the hands of African champions Algeria was the perfect reality check for Rajevac and his charges. They may have a decent team but they are way behind the continent’s elite.

That is why the Black Stars will be starting AFCON 2021 as outsiders, perhaps for the first time in many years. This is the team’s new reality and unless they can upset the odds – which they’ve done many times in the past – their newfound status as dark horses won’t go away anytime soon.

In plain terms, Ghana have earned a reputation of being perennial bottlers in the last four decades. Eight semi-final places and two runner-up finishes within that period make the Black Stars the archetypal nearly-team.

But the team gets it, as evidenced by its captain’s no-holds-barred speech at the pre-match press conference.

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“Whatever happens, we will die till the end,” Andre rallied, “and we will die to the end and this jersey, we will make sure that anybody that wears it will sweat it all out.”

It is crucial that the Black Stars do not lose their opening game against Morocco. But no matter the result, the lyrics from Osibisa’s 1970s classic can keep them going.

For as dark horses, only Heaven knows how we will get there.

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