By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (December 30th 2009)
Host And Win
The motto of the twenty-sixth African Cup of Nations was ‘Host and Win’. Claude le Roy’s task was to turn the motto into reality. “You have to find a good balance in the African Cup of Nations”, he said. “There are players, about, 16, 17 or 18 coming through. The last few matches have been mostly young players. The problem was and is to prepare for the African Cup of Nations. That is the most important thing”.
The preparation was over. It was time to deliver on the pitch. Ghana had underachieved for more than a quarter of a century – the Black Stars last won the tournament in 1978. They had hosted and won under the great Fred Osam-Duodu. The omens were favourable, but le Roy didn’t underestimate the opposition or the task, although one important opponent – the African champions – had neatly and bizarrely slipped under his and Africa’s radar. Sadly for Hassan Shehata and Egypt it was for the last time.
“I think Senegal: Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Cameroon will be difficult opponents”, said le Roy. “You never know they might be too good and you may find a surprise from qualifiers like Guinea. We know that it will be difficult. We also know that we have to show a lot of discipline. I think there is a good chance to win as the host nation, but I’m sure that others will try hard too. I think it will be a fantastic African Cup of Nations in Ghana.”
The Axe Swings
Le Roy wasn’t wrong. Ghana cruised through their group to qualify as group winners, accompanied by Guinea. Pascal Feindounou’s moment of madness cost his team dear as he was still deservedly suspended for the match against la Côte d’Ivoire and the Ivorians took advantage to help themselves to a 5-0 goal-fest.
It would prove to be the zenith for Gérard Gili. The Frenchman who had coached the Ivorians’ Olympic team was thrust into the top job following the tragedy that struck previous incumbent Uli Stielike who had to resign to tend to his dying son. He was shown the door after his defence conceded four goals in consecutive matches to Egypt and Ghana and had to settle for fourth place in a tournament they had expected to win.
Meanwhile, le Roy did Nigeria a huge favour – Ghana drew the Super-Eagles in the quarter-final. Despite losing their captain John Mensah to a red card, the Black Stars always looked the better team. Berti Vogts’ tactics were conservative and not suited to the moment. Nigeria lost and the axe loomed large for Vogts, who resigned before the Nigerian Federation could fire him. Meanwhile Cameroun required extra time to scrape past Tunisia in an exciting match.
The Weight of Expectations
The Black Stars were favourites to reach the final. Previous Black Stars coach Otto Pfister was in charge of the Indomitable Lions and was given a gift by the Ghanaian media. They wrote off Cameroun before the match. Pfister had no problems motivating his team. It was a strange match. Ghana created several chances, but the bane of the World Cup campaign returned – utterly profligate finishing.
“We dominated the game,” said defender Eric Addo. “We had a lot of suspended and injured players. It was very difficult. We managed to play good. We managed to create half chances. We just didn’t put them in the back of the net and Cameroun had one chance and scored. I don’t think we deserved to lose this game. Like I’ve said we dominated the game. We had chances. We were always crossing – I don’t how many crosses we put in in the whole game, but they had one chance. They scored – that’s football today.”.
His assessment is a little harsh on Cameroun. Pfister had a game plan to absorb the pressure and hit them on the counter-attack. It worked splendidly with Alain Nkong scoring the goal that broke Ghanaian hearts.
Le Roy had a different take. “I think the main reason is a lot of injuries make a huge difference”, he said. “We have five players of the first eleven who missed the semi-final of the African Cup of Nations. I think it’s too much”.
He wasn’t enamoured of the refereeing of Moroccan Aderahim el Arjoune either. “I don’t like to think about the referee, but you cannot say it was a great referee today”, le Roy said. “I saw the game actually and I respect that they won and I congratulate them for their win, but you see the game. I don’t think that they deserved to win, but they won. It’s happening in other countries, but I think it was even a little bit more than that – no home advantage for us. I cannot find that as an excuse. It wouldn’t be fair”.
The Black Stars had failed to host and win. Le Roy had to raise his team and deliver a farewell performance in Kumasi. Third place was now the best that was on offer. He knew that the media that had raised expectations to fever pitch would look no further than him for the cause of the Black Stars’ defeat. There were sure to be recriminations.