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18.09.2005 Sports News

Winning should not be everything for Ghana in Peru

By Statesman

STAYING up at 1:00am to watch a football match must be a strain even for died in the wool football fans like us but we are first and foremost Ghanaians and by extension the definition of football passion.

The FIFA U-17 championships is ongoing in Peru and the scheduling of the matches means losing good sleeping hours if you want to follow the contest. For many Ghanaians, I imagine it is a decision that will not be too difficult to make. As a friend remarked recently, in our darkest days as a football nation, it was the national U-17 side, the Black Starlets who kept us going and fuelled our national pride. And turning our back on them now when things appear to be going our way, therefore, will be a sign of ingratitude.

But beyond showing gratitude, there are really compelling reasons why the ongoing “Peruvian Crusade”, which team coach David Duncan has opted to call it, must engage the attention of any true football fan.

This is Ghana's first appearance since the Starlets lost their shine as the country's most loved football team at the turn of the new century. The last two world championships all passed off without Ghana on show, which is something of a mystery, given the country's standing in the game. The Starlets group of 2001 and 2003 both failed to make the African championships which serves as the qualification platform for the FIFA event.

It was the darkest period in the history of Ghanaian youth football because it also coincided with a dull period in the national U-20 side who have within the same period failed to make the world event in their various divisions. The chain of failure was perhaps the biggest indicator of the significance of the national U-17 side to football development in Ghana.

It serves as the production line, something of a star factory. By failing to make the 2001 and 2003 tournaments, many products of Starlets and the U-20 Black Satellites drifted quietly into oblivion and lost the fast track to football fame and stardom.

Make no mistake because playing at the U-17 or U-20 level is no guarantee for success. It only enhances a player's chances of becoming a star and rising to the top of the profession.

There are of course those who will disagree. At the pinnacle of her power in youth football, Ghana looked set to rule the world. The football that the supposed U-17s played as Ghana won two world titles in the 1991 and 1995 was breathtaking. Slick passing games, great moves and individual skills that would just blow your mind.

The players seemed to be out of this world too. Nii Odartey Lamptey to date remains an idol for me on the strength of his displays at the U-17 level. His dummies, the way one drop of the shoulder by him could take out three defenders and his trademark wave of the hand after scoring goals are all abiding images from the 1991 World U-17 championships when he led Ghana to become world champions.

And like many Ghanaians, I was convinced the displays by Lamptey and mates would be the beginning of a long period of dominance by Ghana in football. It's not been but neither has it been a complete failure as most people would suggest. Lamptey has correctly become the prime example of the failure of the system but even he disputes that he has been a failure.

He has made a fortune out of football that is unbelievable. He ruled the world of football as a teenager, played in England and is still revered at Aston Villa while in the early nineties he was second best behind Abedi Pele for African Best Player of the year.

Yet, given his potential, Lamptey should have achieved more than he has. So why has he been unable to rise all the way to the top. He blames a mix of bad luck and poor management but don't talk to him about age cheating. It's a common theory that the products of Ghana's U-17 system have failed to deliver because they were matured beyond their years and had burned out when they were required to come good.

But players like Samuel Osei Kufuor challenge that thinking to baffling levels. He played with Lamptey in 1991 but is still at the highest level playing for AS Roma in Italy. By some distance, he is the biggest proof of what the U-17 can do for a player.

Kufuor insist that the issue with progressing from the U-17 level is not age but desire. The hungrier a player is, the more likely it is that they would go places.

The Kufuor explanation, and I must admit it is not one that wholly makes sense. Have you wondered why Kufuor has gone all the way more than a decade after making their debut at the U-17 level? Gargo Mohammed still plays football, Yaw Preko is breaking sweat in the Scandinavian cold for some dollars. In effect, all those players found an avenue in the age group competitions to develop a talent that would have been wasted.

I was fascinated by the country's reaction to the proposed bone test by FIFA. The world football governing body had apparently used the same age testing principle two years ago in Finland at the last championships but kept quiet over the result because the technology is not fool proof. Yet, a FIFA spokesman told the BBC last week that many of the test cast question marks over the ages of the players.

So the age cheats are unlikely to be found out in Peru. It was still good though that the proposed use of the technology forced a strong rethink in squad. In that sense, it will allow for a more natural progression even though that will have little bearing on who becomes a star and who does not. The eighteen young men who represent Ghana in Peru will have some illustrious names to look up to. They are names and figures who will convince the players that impressing in Peru could open the doors to football's immense riches and fame.

Samuel Osei Kufuor is obviously one of them but if the players look well into the core group of players who have taken Ghana to the brink of next year's World Cup, it will fire them up even more.

Stephen Appiah's debut for Ghana came at the U-17 World Cup in Ecuador in 1997. Michael Essien came to international prominence first at the 1999 event under Jones Attuquayefio. Sammy Adjei started playing for Ghana at the U-17 level as did the likes of Emmanuel Addoquayei Pappoe, Baffoe Gyan and Asamoah Gyan. It is the clearest indication that there is life after U-17. The agents will flood Peru and scrutinize every player because it is the biggest one stop star conveyor belt in world football.

Fuelling Ghanaian pride with good displays has the potential to shoot Opoku Agyeman, Emmanuel Ansong and others to international fame and fortune. But they need to take the chance that comes afterwards. Like Ronaldinho did, like Sammy Kufuor did and like Michael Essien did.

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