A Long Journey Stars Must Travel
Ghana's Black Stars set Ghanaians on edge with a topsy-turvy performance in a recent Zenith Four-Nation Tournament which only brought them face to face with the reality that the journey to their targeted record-equalling fifth African triumph could be long and tortuous.
The Squirrels of Benin exposed the star-studded Stars side with a spirited first half performance of that fateful final, but that stiff opposition rather brought out the best in the Ghanaians who struggled to recover from a two-goal deficit to give the home fans some celebration of a sort.
The Stars' rare fighting spirit notwithstanding, tongues were sent wagging as regards Ghana's readiness to host and conquer the rest of Africa again after their last triumph at Libya '82. Before Libya, Ghana had won the trophy in 1963, 1965 and 1978.
Two-and-a-half decades on, local soccer chiefs and soccer fans are singing in unison to the effect that the Black Stars need to do far better than they did against Benin to win the confidence of the home fans, come Ghana 2008.
Like most Ghanaians, FA President, Kwesi Nyantakyi, believes the four-nation tournament was a blessing in disguise for the side that took the world by storm in their maiden World Cup campaign in Germany last year.
With the World Cup now in the abyss of history, Black Stars players will be better off in redirecting their focus and attention on Ghana's 'host and win' agenda and make the most of it.
With a crucial opening match against their unpredictable West African neighbours, Guinea, closer than before, Coach Le Roy is under unbearable pressure to seal any loopholes in his team before the January 20 assignment in the capital, Accra.
In their haste to see a more solid bench, a section of the local sports media and some Ghanaians have relentlessly pushed for the inclusion of players like Samuel Osei Kuffour, Baba Armando Adamu, Isaac Boakye and Issah Ahmed, but the Frenchman insists that those players are not in his plans due to inactivity.
Unlike the other 15 qualifying teams, Le Roy's team is yet to peak in form because it has been compelled by circumstances to grapple with the mixed fortunes of playing host to Africa's most prestigious soccer competition.
While others were busily playing in the qualifiers, the veteran Le Roy who took over the team after their World Cup had no choice but to engage his side in some international friendly which failed to provide the players with the required fitness.
After a 2-0 win over Togo in London, the Ghanaian side journeyed to the far east to conquer Japan and South Korea. They then returned to the UK to draw 1-1 with the Socceroos of Australia before handing West African rivals, Nigeria, a shocking 4-1 thrashing last February.
After that overtime job, the Stars went on a break to enable the players to concentrate on their club assignments until they regrouped in August to battle the Teranga Lions of Senegal to a barren draw at Millwall, UK.
That was followed by a 2-0 demolition of the Atlas Lions of Morocco in Rouen, France, the following month before the Stars met their Waterloo in Riyadh after succumbing 0-5 to Saudi Arabia who had finished second to Iraq in the Asian Cup a couple of months earlier.
While FA officials frantically sought for excuses to cover up for that unexpected loss, many Ghanaians saw the nightmare as a wake-up call for both players and officials of the team to sit up and restrategise for the task ahead.
In spite of all that, the torchbearer of the nation's dream, Le Roy, still sees light at the end of the tunnel.
The Frenchman, whose fate will be determined by how well the Stars perform in the upcoming tournament, has less than two months to give account of his stewardship to his employers, but remains consistently optimistic.
Standing between the Stars and further glory in the preliminaries of the 26th MTN Nations Cup are fellow Group A contenders, Guinea, who finished among the last eight in the two previous competitions, under-achievers Morocco and huge underdogs, Namibia, who are only making their second appearance in the history of the competition.
Apart from the coach, Skipper Stephen Appiah and his teammates are equally under pressure to clinch the golden fleece to give the present generation its first Africa Cup which would also be a fitting crowning of the nation's Golden Jubilee celebrations.
On the surface, the Black Stars rank among the favourites of the tournament, but they have the task of translating their huge potential into reality to prove the skeptics wrong.
In terms of player quality, Ghana rates high and Le Roy's only headache will be to weave them into one unit while snuffing out any traces of indisicpline among his senior players especially.
As part of efforts to get tough in the final stages of preparations for the continental assault, the coach has refused to countenance any request by his players to report to camp late as the team regroups in the United Arab Emirates from January 3 to 15 to put the pieces together.
Most significantly, the Stars' helmsman is not taking any chances against any of the group opponents, with Guinea, especially being paramount on his hit list.
So far, players like Stephen Appiah, John Mensah, John Paintsil, Hans Adu Sarpei, Shilla Illiasu, Haminu Dramani, Michael Essien, Eric Addo, Sulley Muntari, Anthony Annan, Asamoah Gyan, Junior Agogo, Laryea Kingson, Richard Kingson, Sammy Adjei, Michael Helegbe, Andre Ayew, Bernard Yao Kumordzi, Matthew Amoah, Kofi Amponsah, injured Baffour Gyan, Moses Narh, Sadat Bukari and Daniel Addo are key in Le Roy's plans.
Meanwhile, he seeks for a third goalkeeper and a few others to complete his 23-man squad for the championship.
Interesting, the Black Stars currently seem to be in the same quandary they found themselves in prior to World Cup.
But one positive thing about the team is that they have proved to have the character to rise to the occasion when it matters most, and that is the virtue Ghanaians will hope to see when the competition finally comes around.
The team's strength still lie in the midfield where a fine quartet of Appiah, Essien, Kingson and Muntari operate.
However, the same cannot be said of the defence and attack which revolve around dependable John Mensah and Asamoah Gyan respectively.
Though the task looks herculean, the captain of the ship, Le Roy, who has vast experience in the African game believes the 'host and win' dream is achievable, and his boys believe it too.
The closest the Black Stars had come to winning the Nations Cup in recent times was at Senegal '92 when a star-studded squad led by three-time Africa Best Player, Abedi Pele, lost 10-11 on penalties to the Elephants of Cote d'Ivoire.
And when Ghana co-hosted the tournament with Nigeria in 2000, the farthest the Stars could reach was the quarter-finals.
Another attempt for the African title ended in a fiasco at Egypt 2006 when injuries and poor performance conspired to ensure a first round exit by the Stars.
However, Ghana is motivated to win the tournament on home soil this time around just as Tunisia and Egypt respectively did in the last two editions.
Of course the likes of Awuley Quaye, Mohammed Polo and Golden Boy, Abdul Razak did it in style on home soil.
Preview by Samuel Ebo Kwaitoo