In spite of the fact that not even our Coach had much confidence in our ability to perform creditably in the just ended Africa Cup of Nations, it is still not that surprising that following our early exit from the competition calls are being made for the axe to fall on many heads. Perhaps being one of only three African countries to have won the African Cup for four years, and especially having qualified to play in the World Cup for the first time ever, it is understandable for football crazy Ghanaians to feel humiliated by the early exit. But frankly speaking, I don't believe there are many people out there who can confidently say that they thought we were battle-ready for the tournament.
Going into the competition with three defeats in our last three matches including one with a club side, and scoring only one goal in the process I don't think it was realistic to expect much more from us than we did. And as it turned out, the only person who assessed our chances realistically enough, based solely on our current strength and preparation and not on our past glories, was our Coach who unfortunately got it just right.
So if the Coach – the General who was leading us into the war – made it clear in advance that he wasn't expecting us to win and indeed we didn't win, why then and from where is all this fuss? Fortunately, even after our early exit, the Coach whose primary assignment was to qualify us to play in the World Cup and has succeeded in doing so, has not told us that he has doubts about our ability to perform creditably there. Again, the World Cup is not taking place tomorrow. If we mean business, therefore, what I think we should be seriously doing now is to start planning for the World Cup with all our best material available and with the experience we gained from Egypt 2006 rather than crying over spilt milk. And it is the thought of preparing with all our best material available that brings me to the main purpose of this article. Looking for a Scapegoat? Two sports news items that made the headlines on 7th February were fallouts of CAN 2006. While one reported that the Executive Committee of the Ghana Football Association had decided to keep Coach Dujkovic as Black Stars coach to lead the country into this summer's World Cup, the other was that “Michael Essien, is unlikely to return to the team again, at least in the immediate future, following his being labelled as “unpatriotic” by officials who have taken stock of Ghana's performance at the Nations Cup in Egypt”.
With all due respect to the authorities, I have a big problem with this decision, especially if indeed, as published in the press, the decision had anything to do with the player's return to action in Chelsea's league match with Liverpool on 5th February “in a dramatic recovery to fitness”. I would not be surprised if this action against Essien is indeed a pre-emptive strike by the technical handlers of the Black Stars to shield themselves from criticism for the way some aspects of our preparations towards the tournament were handled. I think it is an open fact that Essien indeed got injured in action on 2nd January during his club's league match with West Ham United after only 13 minutes of action. He was not 'REPORTED' injured at some secret training session somewhere as some would want us believe. A video of the incident was made available on Ghanaweb.
Thank God, it was not reported anywhere that the injury would rule him out for an indefinite period. As a matter of fact, commenting on the condition of the player before Ghana sent its final squad list to CAF his coach said that according to the diagnosis, it would take “until the end of the month” for Essien to recover from the injury (source Ghanaweb 13th January, 2006). I do not therefore see what is so “dramatic” about his return to action after a whole one month.
Since the tournament was scheduled to continue into the second week of February, why did the handlers not include Essien's name in the list in anticipation of Ghana going beyond the group matches in spite of the fact that a call was made by the Government for them to do so? Or is anyone suggesting that it was the duty of Essien, to personally come and complete a registration form? So was it the fault of Essien or the Stars' handlers that the player's name was not sent to CAF? And What Are the Reasons? Some of the reasons being given by GFA to justify banning Essien from playing for the nation are so flimsy that it makes you wonder whether somebody is not just making every effort to give him a bad name and hang him. For example it is claimed that at the 2002 Nations Cup in Mali, “Essien flew back to France to treat an injury after playing just a match for the Black Stars”. What is this supposed to mean? If the young man played one match and got injured what's wrong with him leaving camp to treat his injury? Are we being told that it is unheard of for a player to get injured after playing only one match or that it is wrong for him to have left for his base to receive treatment after the injury? When in Asamoah Gyan got injured while training with the Stars in preparation for “Egypt 2006” was he not sent to his club base in Italy to treat his injury?
Again we are being told that Essien “failed to play the full duration of games against Cape Verde and Uganda” during the World Cup/CAN qualifiers. Is it the case that in both of these matches the player just left the field without giving any reason? And if that was what he did what disciplinary action did the authorities take against him at the time to ensure that this would not be repeated? And Was He Really Invited? The argument that “while Ghana negotiated for his release from Chelsea for the Nations Cup, the player kept a stony silence over the affair in sharp contrast to Cote d'Ivoire's Didier Drogba's insistence that he was leaving for the Nations Cup” is equally untenable because no one has told us the effect Essien's silence had on the negotiation for his release. As far as we have been made aware, the negotiation was not held between Essien and GFA but between GFA and Chelsea. It is therefore for the GFA to tell Ghanaians the outcome of this negotiation instead of what Essien didn't do. And more importantly we have not heard it anywhere that the player said he would not accept the invitation if extended to him. The bottom-line is that GFA did not invite the player and as such he cannot be blamed for not honouring the invitation.
The suggestion that Essien feigned injury only for him to be inactive for both his country and his team for a whole month does not sound realistic to anyone. I cannot imagine how a young and energetic player like him would voluntarily decide to absent himself from playing knowing that by so doing he stood the risk of losing his first team position in a competitive field like Chelsea. Neither the player nor his team would benefit in any way from such a decision and I cannot imagine Chelsea encouraging such act of truancy by one of their most valuable players. It was not as if while CAN 2006 was going on Chelsea was on holidays somewhere in Asia. During the time that Essien was injured the club played five competitive matches out of which they won two and drew three, a below average performance going by their own high standards this season. Unfortunately, I think we Ghanaians are too quick to condemn but too slow to consider the effects of our actions. At the least instance we shout “sack him!” when we don't have anyone readily in mind to replace the person we are asking to be sacked. This explains the number of coaches we have engaged and sacked within the past few years. We take delight in demoralising people on the least suspicion of non-performance while we do the barest minimum by way of motivating them. Remember how many people called for Sammy Kufuor to be sacked from the team when he had problems with management? All of a sudden people started calling him names even suggesting that he was fat and “finished”. But we saw his real value in our match against Nigeria. We Are Not Going to Germany As Tourists We need to bear in mind that what we are talking about is not some colts' team where the owner of the ball can decide that Kwame will not play again because he clashed with him in the course of a game. If for the very first time in our history we are going to participate in the World Cup I think the least we can do is to make sure we go with the very best players that we have. As far as I can remember, the reason the coach gave, even before the start of the CAN 2006, that he wasn't so confident of our chances was that we would be playing without three of our best players. And indeed he was proven right. And I don't think there's any doubt in anyone's mind that among the three, and in fact of all current Ghanaians players the best is Michael Essien. So even if he has done anything wrong why don't we find another way of penalising him instead of saying we are not going to take him to the World Cup as if by doing so we can raise a better team than we presented in Egypt? Let's face it; what shall we as a nation benefit from excluding Essien from our World Cup squad? Also, apart from denying him his rightful place to perform on the largest soccer platform in the world, what does he lose?
He is certainly not going to lose his position in his team because he's not featuring for his country.
Whether we like it or not, great teams are usually built around a few great players. No one can deny that the present Cameroonian team is built around Samuel Eto'o and Rigobert Song or that the Ivorian team is built around Didier Drogba. In the 90s, our team was built around Abedi Pele and Anthony Yeboah, and we should be honest enough to admit that in the 2000s our team is built around Essien and Appiah. Many Ghanaians will recall one particular CAN tournament in which Abedi Pele picked up an unnecessary second yellow card and got suspended for the next match in which we flopped badly and failed to advance. It was therefore not without reason that Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho was not so happy to let Essien go. In Chelsea, Michael Essien, the defensive midfielder is rated higher than Didier Drogba, the attacker.
Unfortunately we don't have too many Michael Essiens to pick and choose from. And to make matters even worse, we now hear that we are going to miss another of our dependable midfielders, Laryea Kingston, for the World Cup. Perhaps somebody could do well explain why, as we are informed, the appeal to have his four-match suspension reduced was not submitted in good time. So it means with Muntari and Asamoah Gyan back into the team Kingston and Essien will be out and we shall be back to square one. I think we should do all we can to avoid this. I am therefore calling on our football authorities to place the national interest above any anger, frustration or face-saving and recall Michael Essien into the team when preparing for the World Cup. Even if we think he's a 'bad boy' he is still our son and brother and we should not be shy or too annoyed to make good use of his great talent. If we reject him the only one who is going to benefit from our rash action would be Jose Mourinho who does not care one bit if Ghana is humiliated in Germany this Summer. And this does not mean he loves Essien any more than any Ghanaian old lady does. The moment the two of them part ways at Stamford Bridge it is possible that the next time they meet they will be competing against each other and without much admiration for each other.
The World Cup is not organised every year and qualifying to participate in it can never be taken for granted as Cameroon, Nigeria and Cameroon are realising now. Nothing will be more painful than excluding Michael Essien from the squad now and perform miserably only to re-admit him later when we may only use him for a friendly match against Benin. To me one thing is clear. It is not likely that the young man will be kept away from the national team for ever as the three-man committee has recommended. After all if it was in normal life whatever crime Essien is being accused of committing would not merit a death or even life sentence. I am therefore appealing to all the powers be that some other disciplinary measure should be taken against Essien instead of “banning him for life” from playing for his country because we do need him and he hasn't said it anywhere that he doesn't love Ghana.
He is only 23 and looks likely to be around for the next 10 years at least. That translates into two World Cups and five CAN tournaments. It will not make much sense to discard with our only player who was short listed for the selection of last year's world's best player and our only representative for the African Footballer of the Year Award and simply one of our best prospects in the foreseeable future.
Finally, we should not do anything that would be an excuse for the coach if we do not perform well in Germany. We must therefore do all within our power to go there with our best players available.
Kwame Twumasi-Fofie Bern, Switzerland Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.