They were dubbed the Brazilians of African football. Their natural athleticism and buckets of speed won the admiration of many soccer enthusiasts around the world. Their name, which assumed a household dimension in the 90's at youth competitions was enough to scare even the well-organized football teams. Such was the level of recognition that our junior teams had during youth competitions in the 1990's. Unfortunately, no dividends have come out of such levels of display of brilliance.
Many soccer pundits all over the world have wondered why the Senior national team, the Black Stars could sell abysmal performances at tournaments when the nation was awash with a lot of young talents in the 90's most of whom should have graduated and become formidable forces in all departments of the game. Undoubtedly, youth tournaments such as the under-17 and the under-20, should serve as the nursery from which talents could be nurtured and developed. Discovery of players at this level should benefits the senior teams of their respective countries. Perhaps, our over-emphasis on winning has taken away the developmental element we need from these tournaments.
I am yet to fathom why Ghana and some African countries have failed to make judicious use of such tournaments. Were our players in such tournaments that good? If so why have they failed to glitter at a time when they are expected? Just consider, if our junior teams were that good in the 90's, how come they never made it to the world cup but the same players who played for Brazil, for instance did? Isn't it ironic that Senegal, a team that never had the success that Ghana had at the junior level did well in the past at senior level, and even went to the world cup?
Ghana's junior teams have had incredible level of excellence at the junior level and not even Brazil could match them. During the under-17 world tournament in 1991 in Italy, Ghana won the tournament, came top in the final team standings while the likes of Spain and Argentina followed in that order. Nii Odartey Lamptey, the most traveled Ghanaian player, who now plays for Asante Kotoko but who could not even make the final list for the team's African Champion's league campaign, was not only adjudged the best player and touted as the next world Pele but was the joint scorer alongside Brazil's Adriano?
Interestingly, Adriano still plays active football and in fact leads the Brazilian attack at the senior level? Do you know that Del Piero played in that same tournament? What then happened to Nii Odartey Lamptey? Lamptey was the heart beat of a very good Ghanaian side. His fast feet, speed of thought, and clever interplay with Captain Alex Opoku and fellow midfielders Mohammed Gargo and Emmanuel Duah were on display for all to see. His willingness to get into the box was critical too. What then happened? Where are Alex Opoku and Emmanuel Duah? Is it that Adriano was so lucky not to have had tired legs and bones? Was he so young and his Ghanaian counterparts too old?
Japan 93' was even more revealing. Ghana may not have won that tournament but they produced the brilliance that made them carve a niche for themselves. The player of the tournament award went to Daniel Addo the darling boy of Ghanaian football, who stole the heart of many soccer fans around the world with his creative power and skill, while scoring three goals. That same tournament saw other players like Francesco Totti, of Italy, Nakata of Japan, and Sebastian Barnes and oh my gosh! where is Barnes? Isn't it sad to see that we moan and groan today about strikers and lack of attacking options when at the Australian 93 tournament Brazil and Ghana had the most potent attack? In fact Ghana was next to Brazil in the standing.
Ghana won the Ecuador 95 tournament, sharing the best attack laurels with Brazil, and played alongside the likes of Ronaldinho, Sergio, Xavi, and producing Owusu Afriyie aka Bayie, and Awudu Issaka. Of course, even though Brazil won the New Zealand tournament in '99, Ghana produced the best attack scoring 18 goals, and producing Ishmael Addo who arguably at 16 was already a national top scorer? Why then do we lack attacking options? Why can't these players deliver at a time when they should be around their prime? Why is it that the same Brazilian players who played alongside their Ghanaian counterparts are playing active football when their Ghanaian counterparts have gone into oblivion. Did our players lie about their ages?
I have made considerable efforts to convince myself that our players never cheated about their ages. Thus, if I am right, why did we perform so abysmally in the year Mr Ben Koufie's administration decided to, for once, feature players who were close to their real ages? I hope no one has forgotten how Abedi and Ben Kuofie were vilified after the Starlet's failure to make an appearance at the uinder-17 tournament for the first time?
The problem is that by the time our players are supposed to get to their prime and play at the senior level they would have been worn out and little can be done to get them back into active football. I am still yet to convince myself why Del Piero and Francesco Totti are still playing when Daniel Addo, Emmanuel Bentsil, Awudu Issaka, and Sebastian Barnes have gone missing. Indeed how come Ronaldinho has developed so well? What is the real difference between Brazil and Ghana? What is the reason behind their consistency in performance? How does their performance at the youth level translate into results at the senior level? Weren't we all dominating at the youth level? Don't Brazilians also cheat? Where are the likes of Owusu Afriyie, Augustine Arhinful, Sebastian Barnes, Alex Opoku, Emmanuel Duah, Awudu Issaka, and Abu Iddrisu etc?
The fact is most, if not all, African Junior Championship winning teams have had over-aged players and Ghana cannot be left out of this game. I am surprised that the world is only seeing this now. The African professionals in Europe lie about their ages and, in fact this permeates other European teams but the dimension of age cheating in Ghana (and Africa) is shocking. You come into contact with a player who was three years your senior at school and the next thing you hear he is fifteen (15) when you (the junior) are supposed to be 26 years. Isn't this interesting? Of course, man must survive but should you eat all your eggs at once? What about the future?
For such players, when clubs complain about their lack of fitness, the reality is that they are aging. This great scourge has eaten so deep into African football that one wonders who should take the blame. The saddest face to this ugly trend is the fact that players that falsify their ages cannot and will never attain their 'supposed' potential. The best way to halt this terrible trend is by clamping down on any erring player. Slamming a life ban on such people will make them realize the consequences of such behavior. However, I wonder how this will work as in many cases such behavior has received incredible level of official backing. It is this official backing that stands in the way of any progress. It's high time we portrayed Ghanaian and African football in a better light by being honest with the ages of players that could someday be our future heroes. After all, we stand to gain a lot if we do that. The fact remains that the longer the our FA or even the Confederation of African Football turns a blind eye to this scourge, then football development, and indeed football itself, in Ghana (and Africa) will ultimately suffer. Last year, Tanzania was expelled from the African Youth Cup Finals in Gambia after reports that over-aged player Nurdin Bakari had been used in the qualifying rounds. A subsequent investigation revealed that the majority of players in the national under-17 side were over-aged. Perhaps, a similar development in Ghana will make us put a stop to that and as well save our soccer from stagnation at the senior level.
Godwin Yaw Agboka Illinois State University USA email: [email protected]