If you have followed the dwindling fortunes of Ghana’s youth teams this year, then, at least one of these questions must have come to mind:  do Ghanaian youth players lack the quality to compete internationally?;  are Ghanaian coaches technically bankrupt?; and  is Ghana going through a historical cycle which will self-correct?
Much has been said and written about the first two questions. The third, however, seldom makes it into the foray of discussions Ghana’s not-very-impressive performances have generated this year.
So, does history have a role to play in the current poor turnout of Ghanaian [junior] national teams?
Pathway of youth development
In order to find appropriate answers to this question, one has to understand the general pathway for Ghana’s junior male teams. Beginning from the U-17 squad (Black Starlets), players are promoted to the U-21 team (Black Meteors) to compete in the World Youth Championships, thence they move to the U-23 team (Black Meteors) at age 23 to compete in the Olympic games. Between 17 years and 23 years, the best players are drafted into the senior national team (Black Stars) where they are allowed to mature fully.
The Golden Era of 1999 – 1991
Having this path in mind, we can now take a close look at what has happened to Ghana’s youth teams since they first made world history some twenty years ago. After the Italia 1991 U-17 World Cup winning feat, core members of the Black Starlets went on to win bronze at the Barcelona 1992 Olympics. Some of them were also drafted into the Black Stars to participate in Senegal 1992 African Nations Cup, where Ghana finished as runners up. The same team also powered the Black Satellites to place second in the Australia 1993 World Youth Championships.
Enter the dark years
The success of Black Starlets 1991 was not matched until Sam Arday assembled the Black Starlets 1995 team. Although they won the Ecuador 1995 U-17 World Cup, like the 1993 squad before them and the 1997 squad after them, they had relatively minimal success integrating into other national teams as the 1991 squad did. It is of little wonder that Black Stars, without much quality feeding into it, enter a very dark period after between 1996 and 2005.
Return of better days, 1999-2001
Ten years after 1989 – 1991 youth teams gave Ghana a glimmer of hope, a new era dawned on Ghana football. Jones Cecil Attuquayefio, African Coach of the Year in 2000, headed the Black Starlets of 1999 to win Bronze in Australia. Emmanuel Kwasi Afranie, the Lybia 1982 African Nations Cup winning coach, took the core of that team to the finals of the Argentina 2001 World Youth Championship.
Mr. Ben Kuoffie, the then Ghana Football Association boss, had a bright idea to halt the decline of the Black Stars by overhauling the team and replacing them with the core of the Argentina 2001 World Youth Championship squad. The new Black Stars did not shine at the Mali 2002 African Cup of Nations, but with time, they got used to the job and capped an exciting era of Ghanaian football with a World Cup berth at Germany 2006. Many of them continue to play in the Black Stars till date.
Youth football failed again, but with minimal effect
After the success of the 1999 – 2001 youth teams, Ghana’s youth football went into oblivion until. The success at senior level made up for the failures at junior level. I appeared the nation was not in a hurry to find replacements for an in-form Black Stars. The few youth players who were brought on board came from failed youth teams between 2002 and 2008. These players were introduced gradually into an already in-form team.
Another era of hope, 2009-2011
Bashir Hayford, current coach of Medeama SC, assembled the Black Starlets 2007 to challenge the Peru 2007 cup. Somewhere in the middle of their preparations, Hayford was replaced with Sellas Tetteh, current coach of Rwanda. Tetteh’s team placed fourth in the tournament, but everyone knew those boys had enough quality to give Ghana another watershed moment in football.
Sellas Tetteh and his squad moved on to the U-20 stage and lifted the Egypt 2009 World Youth Cup. They achieved this feat prior to winning the West African and the African version of the cup with an almost 100% winning record. Milovan Rajevac, coach of the Black Stars who was having problems with an aging squad wasted no time drafting the core of the Egypt 2009 team to the national team. With this newfound youthfulness, Ghana finished year 2010 as finalists in the Angola 2010 African Nations Cup and quarter finalists in the 2010 South Africa World Cup.
Return of the dark days?
Even before the dust settles on the successes of the 2009 – 2011 youth teams, Ghana’s fortunes at youth level has taken a nosedive. The 2009 and 2011 U-17 squads were woeful, the U-20 squad was worse, the U-23 team have crashed out of the London 2012 Olympics and may be on their way out of the 2011 All African Games.
Clearly, once again, Ghana has become a victim of a historical cycle which if not halted will see Ghana waiting till the period 2019 – 2021 before raising the next generation of good footballers who can stand the test of senior national team football. Should the present crop of players who have joined the Black Stars from the 2009 – 2011 youth teams and the few who will come out of the current failing youth teams fail to last ten years as the crop of players from the 1999 – 2001 youth teams did, one can safely predict the return of dark days for the Black Stars.
The decline must be stopped
Some people believe in the ‘what will happen, will happen’ philosophy. To such people, nothing much can be done about the current state of Ghanaian [youth] football. We just have to put our faith in the current crop of players to last till a new set is found. I think otherwise. This historical cycle of ups and downs can be halted if proper care is given to youth football in Ghana.
Typically a talented young Ghanaian, is lucky to be given the basics of football by a trained coach. Even if he is lucky to be groomed by a young coach, he will struggle through an unstructured youth development programme until he is scouted by a league club. It comes as no surprise therefore that it takes ten whole years to put together a solid youth squad. We cannot continue to do things the same way and expect different results. The time for reform is now!
The good news is that, this year, Ghana Football will come under a new leadership. This fresh leadership presents a bright opportunity to take another look at youth development in Ghana. Kwasi Nyantakyi, who has retained his seat as Ghana FA president, is already promising [youth] football reforms. He is making big speeches about a certain planned blue print for Ghana [youth] football. Should his claims not turn to be the usual rhetoric, then it is time for the thinkers of the Ghana FA to remodel Ghana’s youth football. The rules governing youth football must change if Ghana is to model its youth football after world-accepted best practices.