Nigeria couldn’t win its first match of the 2010 World Cup, losing 0-1 to Argentina. Neither could Cameroon, which lost 0-1 to Japan. But Africa was not to find the 2010 World Cup a highly-hyped event giving it no joy. Wasn’t it sweet that the first goal in the World Cup was scored by an African, Simpiwe Shabalala of South Africa? That goal alone – as beautiful as they come – could justify all the effort and expense that South Africa has expended on giving the world such a super-spectacle as has ever been provided by the World Cup. Shabalala’s goal may in fact be classified as one of the most beautiful to be scored during the entire tournament.
And wasn’t it even sweeter, that the first African country to win a match should be none other than Ghana? Ghana, the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to win its independence from imperialist rule; Ghana, the first African country to spend millions of dollars in championing the case of dependent African countries in the 1960s; Ghana, the first African country to advocate the unity of the whole African continent. And now Ghana, the first African country to win a game for Africa in the first World Cup tournament to take place on African soil. Ghana saved Africa from being mere spectators at its own show. Good on her.
At the time of writing, the future course of the tournament, and Ghana’s part in it, was still unknown. But first impressions matter and Ghana’s 1-0 victory over Serbia, one of Europe’s “total football” practitioners, showed that African football has reached maturity. Our defence and midfield held their own. And our forwards made forays into the Serbian half which, had their perpetual poor shooting not stood in the way, would have enabled Ghana to score some more goals.
Why on earth can’t we shoot? This is the country that produced “never-miss” scorers like Edward Acquah, Baba Yara, Mohammed Salisu, Osei Kofi, James Agyei, C. K. Gyamfi, Wilberforce Mfum, Ofei Dodoo, Mohammed Polo, Ahmadu Akuse, Abdul Razak, and Abedi Pele – not forgetting Anthony Yeboah and a score of other “goal kings”. But our current crop of forwards will dribble the ball, make excellent crosses, but just be unable to score! What is the matter? Can’t we just run a course for them where they will do nothing but shoot, shoot, shoot and shoot again?
In fact, we might have gone home with an empty basket – like Nigeria and Cameroon did – had Serbia not come unwittingly to our aid. First, one of their defenders fouled us twice, and the Argentinean referee was not blind to his bugabuga play, and showed him the red card. Serbia was left with 10 men. Even then, we would still have suffered the inevitable consequences of our poor shooting, had not a God-sent gift come our way in the form of the Serbian central defender, Zdravko Kuzmanovic. He clearly handled a ball that didn’t seem to be going anywhere dangerous. Why did he do this? Is it really the case that the new FIFA ball does move in mysterious ways?
Anyway, replays of the incident left no doubt that this was a clear handling of the ball – not one of those nebulous “did he, or didn’t he” sort of happenings that entrap football matches in endless controversy. No, it was proper, undisputed, straightforward handling with intent, though Kuzmanovic tried to indicate that the ball had “only” slipped past his raised hand.
Footballers must think the rest of the world are made up of complete and utter fools, what with the way they try to pretend that what has happened before our very eyes, has in fact not happened! A footballer will deliberately cut down an opponent, then slip past him as he lies down, writhing in pain, to go and fall down nearby and feign that it is him who has been brutally slashed down and that he is at the point of death itself!
But this time the referee wasn’t at all taken in, and the ball was placed in front of Asamoah Gyan. Remember him? He scored our first-ever World Cup goal against the Czech Republic on that euphoric day in 2006, when we beat the Czechs, who were then ranked Number Two in the world by FIFA. Would lightning strike at the same place twice? Or would we be deserted by Providence this time?
Asamoah Gyan dissolved all our nervousness by once again hitting the bull’s eye. He didn’t hesitate. He knew the spot where he should kick it – into the upper left-hand side of the goal. This sent the Serbian goalkeeper to the right – the wrong way. Yieeeeeee! It was a Goooaaaaal! A goal for Ghana. First goal by Africa again, scored by the first man to score in a World Cup match for Ghana.
What more can one say? I was watching on ITV in London. Among the panel members was Marcel Desailly of Chelsea, Inter Milan and Marseille fame, former captain of the French national side. He was born in Ghana, where he now lives. Some have mooted him for the position of Ghana coach, but our stodgy-headed football administrators seem to prefer foreigners as coaches, for reasons known only to themselves! Foreign coaches who can’t empathise with our joy when we win.
Anyway, Marcel Desailly was able to describe to the other panellists, in exact detail, what would be going on in villages throughout Ghana. He got up, danced around the studio, and said: “There will be about 50 people crowded round one tiny 15-inch television screen. And they would all be dancing like this… [He raised his arms and swivelled round and round!). And they will be joined by everybody – including even the chickens and goats!” Ahaaaah! That was an African Man talking.
“Chicken and goats”? asked one of the white panel members. Desailly laughed. How could he explain? What he meant was that every stone, every tree, every river, every living and inanimate object in Ghana would, so long as it was on Ghanaian soil, be roped in – to celebrate that goal! Desailly was as happy as if he was drunk. Ghana had once again done him proud. He wasn’t going to leave the studio with the smirks of the other panellists reminding him that it is a risky business to champion an African side on a British TV station during the World Cup. But the TV station also showed a few disturbing things. The body language of the Ghana coach, Milovan Rajevac (a Serbian), wasn’t at all pleasant to watch. Two Ghanaian football officials tried to hug him or shake his hand in celebration of the wondrous goal that Asamoah Gyan had scored. He brusquely brushed both of them aside.
Why he did this puzzling thing has been troubling the minds of many Ghanaians on the Internet. Did he brush them aside because, subconsciously, he wasn’t happy that his Ghanaian team had won against his native country, Serbia? Or did he brush them off because his resentment at the earlier public questioning of his integrity in the Ghanaian media (where doubts had been expressed about his ability to coach our team to beat his own country) had suddenly boiled over in his mind? Was he saying to them, “Go ’way there you blinking fools! You guys thought I would be so unprofessional as to make the team I am paid to coach lose a match, just because it was playing against my own country. Now that you have been proved wrong, you are pretending that you never thought so, eh? Well, I am not having any of that hypocrisy. So go ’way there.”
If we’re honest, we must admit to ourselves that this would be a justifiable attitude for him to adopt. But whatever the reason, his body language definitely betrayed a lack of empathy with the Ghanaians who tried to congratulate him. It is to be hoped that his hurt feelings would be propitiated and that from now on, he and Ghanaians will be on the same wavelength. He should, after all, be a great psychologist if he is to successfully lead a group of 23 adults in the world’s most competitive tournament. Winning feels good – it should work for both us and our coach.
Another question Ghanaians are asking about our coach is this: Given the woeful dearth of strikers in our team who can score goals, why did he keep Sulley Muntari, a known sabre of a scorer, when the spirit gets to him, on the bench whilst our erratic strikers struggled at the front without being able to deliver a goal until we got a penalty?
One bit of speculation is that Muntari might not have been fully fit at the time we played Serbia. But why would our coach take a man who was not fully fit to South Africa – especially as Muntari is not one of his favourite characters in the team? Some have suggested that he wants to put psychological pressure on Muntari, by making him aware that he’s not indispensable, in order to make him resentful so that if he is played, he will do wonders to “show the coach” what he is capable of. But if that’s the tactic, it could be a double-edged sword. A sulking player may not wish to deliver his “do-and-die” best, when that is what is expected of him. Ah, football! One has to pinch oneself and say, “Hey, it’s only football. So don’t agonise so much about it.” Except that subconsciously most of us behave as if we agree with the former Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly, who is reputed to have said once: “Football is not life and death. It is more important than that!”