25
Apr
11

CHRISTOPHER OPOKU WRITES: FIXING GHANA FOOTBALL BEFORE ITS TOTAL COLLAPSE!!


Mr. Kwasi Nyantakyi, President of the Ghana Football Association -seeks reelection

THIS is probably going to be one of my hardest hitting articles and this is so because the current malaise afflicting our football these days. I am sorry, but if anybody out there tells me that Ghana football does not have a problem presently, that person is currently living in a parallel existence where perhaps all is well.

To summarise, the Under 17 national team, the Black Starlets failed to qualify for the African Under 17 Championships, the domestic Black Stars returned from the African National Championships in Sudan without a point in three games, Ghana’s Olympic team the Black Meteors fell at the very first hurdle in qualifying for the London 2012 Olympics after losing to Sudan in Accra, the women’s team fared no better after losing on the away goals rule to Ethiopia and now, Ghana, currently World Champions at Youth level, cannot even defend her trophy in Colombia later this year thanks to a poor performance in the African Youth tourney in South Africa. Add the early eliminations of Aduana Stars and Ashanti Gold from continental contention this year and clearly, we have a huge problem.

At the risk of being labeled as an infamous journalist washing our dirty linen in public, this piece will seek to identify the real roots of the problem and try to proffer solutions that should ultimately stop the rot before it is too late. I am not going to apologise for the inevitable kicks up the backside certain organizations and individuals will be getting from me in this article.

 LACK OF ATTENTION GIVEN TO GRASSROOTS FOOTBALL

The naked truth is that very little or no effort has been made to properly develop our budding talent at the grassroots level. There are so many of our kids playing football on the streets who have raw talent and to preserve a conveyor belt of talent that should ultimately benefit our football at every sphere, such raw talent needs to be honed. Unfortunately, there is no such program by the Ghana Football Association to spot and hone such talent at a very early age and so such raw talented players continue to be diamonds in the rough; with no guidance of any sort.

I laugh when some people say that Ghana’s victory at the 2009 World Youth Cup is due to the efficacy of the Youth Development programme being carried out by the GFA. What youth development, when anybody can get up and without the requisite qualifications and training, hold himself up as a coach at youth level? In fact, there is no youth development of talent going on and so the proponents of this theory have to keep quiet and take a back seat! Check the many colts teams in the country and 90% of the coaches materialized out of nowhere.

Either they were former colts players themselves who never made it to the big time or just football enthusiasts who just want to try their hands at coaching. So they go in, without any training whatsoever and as such, they fail to teach the colts players anything. So such colts players in turn develop without learning the basic ingredients of being a successful footballer; tactical discipline, how to shoot on target and movement off the ball among other things. Football is a game that evolves constantly and so there are always changes in how the game is played, training methods and indeed coaching methodologies as well as changing tactics.

Unfortunately, there is no program to tackle the needs of such players and coaches at colts level and so eventually, the raw talent turns to near chaff by the time the players make it to the Premier League. That is a major reason why performances in the Premier League have dipped constantly year in, year out. So the solution is simple; direct funding towards training coaches properly at colts level and perhaps after a few years, we might see some real talent in years to come.

That is not all. The complaint that comes out these days is that colts clubs no longer have pitches to play on and so that is a contributory factor. Well, hasn’t anyone heard of the term pro-active?? It is the responsibility of the GFA to present to the government via the Sports Ministry a well-prepared programme to source for funding or even lands that can be used as pitches for such activities, but what do we see? Nothing is being done at all, because the focus is all on the almighty Black Stars, (a team that has done well, but hasn’t won anything significant for almost three decades). Talk about misplaced priorities! A word to the wise is indeed perhaps enough!!

SCHOOLS FOOTBALL BEING IGNORED??

There is also no strategy in place to identify talent coming through the school system, right from primary, secondary and tertiary levels. There is so much untapped talent at the schools level that it is unbelievable. To quote a few examples, former Black Stars defender Joe Addo was still at Accra Academy when he began to turn in excellent performances for Accra Hearts of Oak, with whom he won the league title in 1990; Michael Essien was spotted at a relatively young age playing for his school and represented Ghana’s Under 12 national team in the early to mid nineties. Participation for the St Augustine school team landed him a place in the Ghana Black Starlets squad that placed third in New Zealand in 1999 and today, he is recognized as one of the World’s top midfield players.

Sunderland’s Asamoah Gyan also competed in athletics and football for Accra Academy as well and indeed we can mention countless others. Many players in the past have been identified at the school level and that was because there was a lot of attention given to the annual schools and colleges football competitions at every level. Today, that is no longer the case and again, no program has been put in place by the Ghana Football Association to set up an effective scouting system to tap the talents at young ages.

The Ghana Under 12 team, which is a brilliant concept when executed, is no longer in place and hasn’t been for years now and even though the congress of the GFA has among its members representatives of the schools and colleges, clearly nothing is being done to identify and properly train such talent and so if a player breaks through from that side, it is in spite of the lack of the needed structures in place to bring through such talent. The question is, what are we doing as a nation and in particular, what is the GFA doing about this?

Let no one tell me that the GFA cannot be held culpable for the sad state of affairs because for talent development to happen, it will take a renewed effort from the GFA to work hand in hand with the Ministry of Education to return to the good old days where we even had a national team of Academicals. Oh, and don’t forget that there is plenty of talent at tertiary level as well, with reference to our Universities, Polytechnics and Teaching Colleges amongst others. Before I continue, I am not referring to the GFA of today in my criticism. I am referring to the GFA administrations from the mid nineties until now, who in my view have not done enough to strengthen the very foundation of our football and so if you see me criticizing the GFA in this article, then that is exactly what I am referring to. 

WHITE ELEPHANT MENTALITY 

To be candid, as far as football is concerned, we are suffering from a ‘white elephant’ mentality. We have two educational facilities in the country which I believe are not being optimally utilized; the Winneba Sports College and the Ghanaman Soccer Centre of Excellence in Prampram. Fine, these days we hear of many coaching courses being held in Prampram, but are we doing anything about using those centres to properly train discovered, young raw talent so that it becomes an avenue to groom future stars? I cannot go on without referring to certain examples such as Clairefontaine, the French National Football training centre established in 1988, which played a major role in the resurgence of France as a major world power in football with the production of talents such as Thierry Henry, William Gallas, David Trezeguet, Louis Saha, Nicolas Anelka and Hatem Ben Arfa amongst others.

At Clairefontaine, courses that are taught include the following; shooting with the weaker foot, movement off the ball, passing into space, crossing the ball, heading the ball, shooting on target and set piece practice amongst others. The English FA, which has been worried about the lack of English talent coming through over the years, approved plans for the construction of the Burton training centre which was just 4 years ago, and it will be a facility to train players, coaches and referees. So can we not use either the Winneba Sports College or the Ghanaman Soccer Centre for excellence to run such courses for our young players? Food for thought.

LACK OF PROPER FOOTBALL CENTRES

I will like to start this part by using the example of Germany, which fell by the wayside somewhere in the nineties, but thanks to systematic planning, is once again one of the World’s feared teams. Their recovery did not happen overnight. If you recall, 1997 was the year when German clubs topped everything in European football. Indeed, a year earlier, Germany won the European Championships in England and in 1997, Borussia Dortmund, parading stars like Stefan Reuter, Karl Heinze Riedle and Lars Ricken beat one of the strongest teams in world football at the time, Juventus 3-1 in the UEFA Championship final and Schalke, featuring a certain Jens Lehmann in goal beat Inter Milan on penalties to lift the UEFA Cup that very year.

After that though, there seemed to be a drying up of talent coming through and it was reflected in Germany’s performances from then on. First round eliminations at the 2000 and 2004 European Championships clearly showed that there was something wrong. So how did Germany make it back to the big time? According to respected German football journalist Raphael Honigstein, in May 1999, German FA top guns, including legend Franz Beckenbauer, presented proposals to produce fresh young German talent back into the system.

The proposals included the setting up of 121 football talent centres to help 10-17 year olds with technical practice. Each centre was to employ two full time coaches to train the young talent. Again, all clubs in the Bundesliga and the 2.Bundesliga were required to build youth academies to bring young talent through. With these plans underway, the German government also liberalized citizenship laws which allowed for players born in Germany, but not necessarily to German parents to integrate into the national system. Crucially, the TV sponsorship in place at the time, which meant that richer Bundesliga clubs could buy the best foreign talent, collapsed and that forced the clubs to let go most of their non-German players and bring through the talents that had developed through the various training centres and club academies into the first team.

That resulted in fresh talent coming through and when Jurgen Klinsmann took Germany to third place at the 2006 World Cup with the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Phillip Lahm, Lukas Podolski and Per Mertesecker, who were all below 23 years at the time, it clearly showed that the plans, which were middle to long term, were bearing fruit and Germany has since gone on to place second in the 2008 Euro championships and third at last year’s World Cup. Add that to the fact that in the last two and a half years, Germany has won the European Championships at Under 17, Under 19 and Under 21 levels. With the likes of Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, Thomas Muller and Manuel Neuer breaking through in South Africa last year at young ages and with the emergence of young guns Mario Gotze, Kevin Grosskreutz, Mats Hummels, Marcel Schmelzer and Sven Bender, who are all part of Borussia Dortmund’s success this year in the Bundesliga, German football has a future for years to come.

Isn’t it about time we stopped being arrogant and take a leaf out of the German’s handbook for long term planning? Isn’t it time we stopped using the phrase, ‘We are a developing country’, as an excuse and at least tried to get football talent centres in every region of this country? Indeed it is time to force our clubs to build proper youth academy set ups so that the conveyor belt of talent coming through starts running again otherwise, failure to exhibit a will to do things right will result in total collapse in years to come. Is that what we really want?

ACADEMIES 

The successes of the Feyernoord Academy and Red Bull Soccer Academy amongst others have led to a proliferation of Academies all over the country. Nothing wrong with setting up academies, but are they being set up properly? In fact is the GFA actually making sure that such academies are being run within its framework of regulations or does the GFA have a framework at all for academies to work with?  Is the the GFA working with such academies to produce young talent for Ghana’s future? Are players of the right ages being recruited by such academies? I am talking about players from the maximum age of 10 and over. These are questions that will definitely need answers from the GFA.

Feyernoord Academy has done a lot in terms of producing talent and almost all its products have displayed superior technical and tactical ability when playing. Remember when Asante Kotoko went for Jordan Opoku and were offered Harrison Afful on loan as well? Afful was able to break into Ghana’s 2008 African nations squad. Again, when Asante Kotoko suffered from bad recruitment for 18 months, they brought in the likes of Yaw Frimpong, Awal Mohammed and Michael Akuffo; players who all had Feyernoord football upbringing. Is it any coincidence that Asante Kotoko who flirted briefly with relegation earlier in the season, are currently lying second with 5 games to go? Hearts of Oak have had a disappointing season, but Theophilus Apoh was probably been their only shining light on a consistent basis. Apoh was also at Feyernoord before landing a move to Tema Youth, from where he joined Hearts. So if such an academy can produce talents like that, then why is the GFA doing nothing about using the Feyernoord Academy is a barometer for measuring standards for bringing out talents in this country?

Indeed, last week I travelled to Dormaa to cover the league match between Aduana Stars and Berekum Chelsea and I ran into Aduana Stars head coach Herbert Addo. We got into a chat and then I asked him what he thought about the attacks on local coaches, whom according to critics are the major reasons why our other national teams are not doing well, he told me that in his view, the talent on display in the Ghana Premier League is nothing to write home about. He went on to say that he was very disappointed that the likes of Bismark Idan, Emmanuel Clottey and Obed Owusu let him down at the CHAN tournament in Sudan, adding that it drove home the point that majority of players playing in the premier league are not up to the mark. Addo even referred to the fact that goal scoring, which is a problem for him at Aduana Stars, is also a problem for almost all the Premier League Clubs in the country and it is hard to argue with that statement, especially when after 25 match days, the leading scorers are tied on 11 goals each. He then made mention of Kotoko’s recruitment of Awal, Frimpong and Akuffo which has seen an upturn in Kotoko’s fortunes and added that a place like Feyernoord is probably the only place in Ghana where you can get technically and tactically superior players. I will tackle the issue of local coaches later in this piece, but perhaps Addo’s comments also provide food for thought.

LOCAL COACHES 

Since the collapse, in terms of qualifying for tournaments, of various national teams, local coaches have been held up for scrutiny and roundly criticized for their part in the seeming destruction of Ghana football. For me, even though laying the blame entirely at the doors of local coaches is an over-simplistic way of looking at things, they cannot escape blame and even as I write this I do so with a heavy heart because people who know me well will attest to the fact that I have always been an advocate for local coaches.

Indeed, Ghana’s elimination from the ongoing African Youth Championships in South Africa drove a knife through my heart and thankfully I had my family around me on Easter Sunday, otherwise I probably would have broken down and wept because I was so sad. It is however time for me to say a few things and unfortunately for them, I am going to hit certain people very hard. In my view, local coaches have done themselves no favours in terms of packaging themselves properly to various clubs and indeed the GFA in this country. Local coaches sometimes behave worse than little children; constantly bickering and pulling each other down in order to curry favour with the authorities. As a result, the Ghana Coaches Association is currently non-functioning and there is no unity.

Since there is no effective local coaches Trade Union, do you wonder why they are not respected by their clubs and the GFA? With the exception of Sellas Tetteh, who was given a contract of $3000 a month to handle the Black Satellites, which local coach has ever been given a contract to handle any of the national teams? Indeed in the past, one local coach will take charge of a national team and you will find another local coach offering to do the job for less and even going to the extent of criticizing the coach in place publicly.

I will not mention names, but those coaches who have been doing that for years know themselves. I also believe that most coaches have either waited too long to add value to themselves in terms of quality training or have done nothing at all to refresh their knowledge of a game that evolves almost every year. So I will lay that responsibility at the doors of the coaches themselves and the GFA. As a result, many tactical errors have been made by such local coaches and this is where I will start asking questions that will probably spark off furious reactions but frankly, I don’t care anymore.

  1. Coach Anthony Edusei, even if you had an injury, why did you make a change that allowed the Ethiopians to come back into the game to score the all important away goal in the Olympic qualifier involving the Black Queens? What went wrong?
  2. Coach Frimpong Manso, why did you begin to reshuffle your Black Starlets squad after a core squad had given you reasonable success? Why did you begin to introduce new players into the squad?
  3. Coach David Duncan (who is a personal friend of mine and so you should see that I am trying to be as objective and non-personal as possible), why did you not invite some of the foreign based players for the Meteors game against Sudan in Accra? Where you trying to prove a point to somebody?
  4.  Coach Orlando Wellington, what criteria did you use to select players into the Black Satellites? Did you adequately prepare the team or you were simply hoping to feed off the success of the 2009 squad?
  5. Coach Herbert Addo, why did you begin preparing for the CHAN with 60 players? Were you not sure of your squad? Indeed, should we dismiss the growing perception that you were favoring players of Aduana Stars over players from other clubs who probably could have done a better job?

I think we deserve some answers and for now, whilst I remain a supporter of local coaches, I have to say that they have themselves to blame for the media attacks and unless they improve their lot, package themselves better and unite as a necessary pressure group in our football, I am afraid I will not speak on their behalf again for a long time……………………………..

 OVER AGE ISSUES

This is where I am going to sound extremely controversial, but the naked truth is that ever since Ghana started taking part in age-limit tournaments, there has been no time where Ghana presented a team where some of the players were not over aged. Indeed, it started with players reducing their ages by two to three years and it increased with every edition. Yes, I might be washing dirty linen in public, but at this point it is absolutely necessary. I will start by saying that as Ghanaians, we have all (including myself) been hypocritical in hailing the victorious Black Starlets teams of the nineties and the Black Satellite teams of not so long ago, but every one of those teams contained over aged players. Yes, I know that some will ask me to provide proof, but examine these deductions: how is it that several players, after competing at junior level, do not last very long at the top level? You would expect a proper Under 20 player to play on for the next 13 to 15 years, but sadly that is not the case. Indeed, let me cite certain examples for you to get an understanding of issues.

Former Asante Kotoko captain Kalilu Dramani was a member of the 1989 Black Starlets group that travelled to Scotland for the FIFA Under 16 World Cup. Can someone explain to me how he retired from playing in 2000 at the tender age of 27? Again, Kamara Dini was a member of Ghana’s victorious Black Starlets squad in Ecuador in 1995. He retired from playing and became an assistant coach of Ashanti Gold in 2008 when he was just 30 without any discernable career threatening injury. Make of that what you will, but in my view, something is not right. It is as if the focus is on the junior teams winning laurels rather than bringing players through to the Black Stars in the long run and so selecting over aged players is the way to go. Sometimes I look at the registration forms of players in the Premier League and I laugh at their ages. Indeed , almost a year ago, a member of the current Black Stars team, who was also part of Ghana’s World Youth Cup team in 2009, was threatened with exposure about his real age by the owners of his first club unless the sell-on fee from his transfer abroad. The money was promptly paid up to avoid any trouble.

I remember Black Satellites deputy coach and former international Yaw Preko asking for players in the junior national teams not to be rushed into the Black Stars. For me that is good advice, except that the players in question are over aged and so transition into the Black Stars becomes smooth, as was evidenced when about 10 or so members of the World Youth Cup team made a seamless entry into the Black Stars almost immediately. Yes, I know that people will complain that record keeping is bad in this country, but we all have to make a concerted effort to ensure that the right things are done and that means that the GFA will have to start ensuring that the correct ages are used. That can only be achieved if the solutions proferred in the earlier parts of this article are strictly adhered to.

 NAKED BRIBERY AND CORRUPTION

Some years ago, the President of the Ghana Football Association, Kwasi Nyantakyi told referees to ‘take the money and do the right thing’, in apparent reference to attempts by clubs to bribe the referees to handle games in their favour. Clearly referees were being bribed then and are being bribed now and that is a fact. Sadly, it is now an also a fact that some players have to pay before being selected into first teams of clubs and by extension, into the various national teams. Some investigations I carried out point to the fact that at the junior level, if you are a player, you will probably need a manager who can pay a minimum of GH¢1500 to get into the junior team.

I happen to know about a player who currently plies his trade in the Middle East and was a member of the Black Satellites coming home from South Africa after being eliminated. Two years ago, this same player had about GH¢1000 paid on his behalf to play for the Satellites but after no further payments were forthcoming, he was dropped from the final squad for Egypt 2009. Again, some of you will be going on about proof, but that is what is going on.

That is why at some of the training camps of the junior national teams, you see several 4-wheeled drives parked with its owners waiting to ‘see’ and ‘speak’ with the coaches after training sessions and that ultimately results in different players being picked. The end result is that proper scouting is ditched in favour of making money and the best players are not being picked. I remember watching Tema All Stars in two MTN FA Cup games and striker Abass Adams caught my eye. He scored in one game and hit a hat-trick in the second and I kept asking myself why such a player did not get a chance at national level. It is simply because, he has no one to ‘speak’ on his behalf.

If I get calls and requests from footballers every day to be their manager on facebook, all with the aim of breaking into the various national teams, then that should give you an insight into how serious and appalling issues have become. Bluntly put, the best players are not always selected and selfish parochial interests are satisfied at the nation’s expense. Can we go on like this? Add the fact that players earn about GH¢60 a month in some clubs, who are able to pay referees an average of GH¢6000 to influence the result of a single league match, be it in the premier league, first or second division and my conclusion is that we probably need the Christian Council of Ghana to perform rites to exorcise the demon of corruption from the powers that be in football because candidly put, we are too corrupt and that will only get us nowhere fast!!

I will conclude by saying that a house built on straw will one day come crashing down and the very foundations of our football have turned to straw at the moment and unless steps are taken to right the wrongs, the Black Stars, which has every one’s attention because the team is viewed as a cash cow, will collapse and might not even qualify for Brazil 2014 because there is no succession plan to phase out the ageing members of the team and despite not having won anything in almost 30 years, we are all under the illusion that all is well and the 1-1 draw with England will lend credence to that view, but we are in serious danger of being caught sleeping in our comfort zone and waking up to an absolute nightmare where every team, including the Black Stars, has crumbled.

Perhaps, it is time to indefinitely suspend any GFA Presidential elections, all egos should be put aside and all the contestants should sit down and brainstorm on how to revive our fortunes because our number 1 ranking in Africa by FIFA is not only papering over the huge cracks emerging, but it is also gradually being rendered irrelevant by the collapse of the other teams. In short, our house is built on straw and is in real danger of real collapse, unless the right things are done!!

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