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Africa loses

Joe Opio/Twenty Ten

Associated features:L’Afrique Perd(French Translation), Black Stars unite Africa (Photo feature) and Forlan (Text feature)

Location: Johannesburg, South Africa

AFRICANS should get a grip!

There was nothing gallant about Ghana’s white-flag act in the 2010 World Cup quarterfinals. Inept failures of nerve at the World Cup have become an African trademark since Italia ‘90. And against Uruguay, Ghana became the latest African team to self-destruct in the pressure-cooker of football’s ultimate contest. Sadly, like all African teams before it, Ghana’s naïve suicide act will be greeted by patronizing ‘hard-luck’ cheers instead of the scathing condemnation it deserves. Joe Opio writes a damning post-mortem.

GALLANT losers! What a patronizing, even insulting, turn of phrase.
It’s one though that most Africans seem to take pride in.

Watching sorrowful African fans laud Ghana for its ham-fisted surrender against Uruguay, one wonders what’s more depressing: the fact that Africans still think there’s anything valiant in so heartbreaking a self-destruction or the inference that Africans can’t heed lessons from World Cups gone past?

On the eve of Ghana’s quarterfinal encounter against Uruguay, it was shocking to hear Africans, pundits and fans alike, discount the Black Stars’ deficiencies with optimistic glee.
Attempting to counter such wild, fact-free optimism was almost suicidal.

Whichever African dared point out that Ghana had thus far enjoyed a charmed tournament was branded a “negative traitor” at best, a “non-Pan Africanist” at worst.

Yet Ghana’s glaring limitations should have been clear to any discerning soccer enthusiast.
The Black Stars’ voyage to the quarterfinal had employed potent luck as its ballast.
Escaping their group was a case in point.

A gift of a penalty against Serbia handed Ghana a barely-deserved win in their opener while another, this time well-earned spot-kick, earned them a draw against Australia. Against Germany, Ghana produced their finest offensive performance, only for their most obvious shortcoming to rear its ugly head again and again.

For all their thrilling approach play, Ghana’s handicaps in the attacking third were too fatal.
Against a German team affording them space, Ghana created enough chances to win two games. But all that spadework was nullified by the impotence of Asamoah Gyan - a frontline workhorse extraordinaire who lacks the clinical sharpness to crown Ghana’s build-up play.
For all his enterprise, Gyan belongs to that breed of strikers which needs 11 chances to rattle the woodwork; and a dozen to hit the back of the net.

Ghana’s progress to the quarterfinal, via a 2-1 win over the US, gave birth to Ghana-mania.
In the process, it also prompted many frenzied and excitable pundits to paper over Ghana’s huge cracks. The fact that the US had laid siege to Ghana’s goal for ages - and should have won but for Richard Kingston’s heroics - was swiftly swept under the carpet.

Orphaned African fans were desperate to adopt the Black Stars as their team of choice and few were willing to let small things like that get in their way.

Come the match proper and only sane pundits could have resisted the temptation to camouflage themselves as Ghanaian cheerleaders. That Ghana played well against Uruguay at Soccer City is not in dispute. However, whether Ghana posed any threat at all is debatable.

Ghana’s entire performance against Oscar Tabarez’s troops was vintage Black Stars; a caricature of what discerning fans have come to love and loathe about Milovan Rajevac’s team.
Dominating both possession and territory was the positive; doing that without looking threatening at all was the minus. How Ghana failed to convert its dominance into goals against a Uruguayan team that was bereft of its first-choice central defence pairing of Diego Godin and Diego Lugano remains an eloquent statement about their lack of penetration.

It was damning that, for all Ghana’s slick passing, Kingston remained the far busier of the two goalkeepers. Uruguay’s Fernando Muslera faced only two shots of note throughout the 120 minutes; saving one comfortably while seeing Sulley Muntari’s screamer sail through.
The less said about Ghana’s failure of nerve later on, the better. But indulge me!
When the Black Stars earned a penalty in the last minute of extra time, the game should have been wrapped up as a contest.

The World Cup assembles the finest, most ruthless warriors in the world and it’s hard to think of another team which would have let such an opportunity slip.

Yet if Gyan’s nervous miss at the time of reckoning was lamentable, what happened during the post-match shoot-out was criminal.

Ghana missed its third kick, was granted a stay of execution; then proceeded to miss its fourth.
No one should lament nor applaud such clumsiness. It should be roundly condemned with all the contempt it deserves.

Besides, how John Mensah and Dominic Adiyiah were allowed to take penalties before Kevin-Prince Boateng is a veritable mystery that defies logic.

Mensah, a defender and hardly a ball-playing one at that, should have been turned to as a last resort. Adiyiah, a novice with a great future no doubt, shouldn’t have been asked to shoulder such a burden. At least not with Boateng still pending; the hyperactive schemer should have been the natural choice on the list of penalty takers, just behind the courageous Gyan and the experienced Appiah.

Boateng has been a standout performer for Ghana and the fact that he’s Germany-born should have counted for something surely. After all, Germans and penalties have a reassuring kinship.
The impressionable among those who clambered late onto Ghana’s bandwagon will claim that the team should be spared harsh autopsies, especially as their performance was anything but disgraceful.

It would be a typical African reaction.

Such Johnny Come Latelys aren’t aware that glorious failures have been the sorry story of Africa at the World Cup for the last 20 years. Time and again, Africans have watched potentially world-conquering native teams travel to the World Cup and flatter to deceive; only for their inept capitulations to be hailed as “heroic” thereafter.

It all started with Cameroon in 1990. The Indomitable Lions had overcome defending champions Argentina, Romania and Colombia en route to a quarterfinal duel with England. Like Ghana now, the attack-conscious Cameroonians’ streak made them every neutrals’ adopted side at Italia ’90.

And true to form, Cameroon found itself 2-1 up against the English with seven minutes to go.
That’s when nerves set in. A reckless challenge gifted England a penalty which Gary Lineker converted. The match went into extra-time and after spurning a host of chances, Cameroon conceded another penalty in the 105th minute. Lineker converted again and the Indomitable Lions were out.

Cue a flood of condescending adulation!

Everyone applauded Cameroon’s effort, with nary a voice lamenting the naivete that saw a World Cup team squander such a glorious opportunity to reach the semis.

That’s the exact moment gallant defeats became an African trademark.

Nigeria’s endeavours four years later, at USA ’94, were to turn that trademark into stereotype.

The Super Eagles, reigning African champions, humiliated both Bulgaria and Greece to storm the quarterfinals as Group winners ahead of Argentina.

That earned them a run-in against Italy, who had barely sneaked through to the knockout rounds. Again, like Cameroon before them and Ghana 16 years later, Nigeria’s exuberance had made them the neutrals’ favourites.

Inspired by Rashid Yekini, Emmanuel Amunike and Daniel Amokachi, Nigeria took the lead in the 25th minute. It’s a lead they clung onto till the 88th minute. The 88th minute!

With the Italians a man down after Gianfranco Zola’s 75th minute red card, Nigeria’s 88th minute surrender was galling. Especially since sides with more robust nerves would have made such numerical advantage count against an opponent that seemed resigned to defeat.

Instead, Sunday Oliseh granted Italy the improbable lifeline, dithering with the ball in his own half, getting caught in possession and receiving instant punishment from Roberto Baggio.
Into extra time the match descended and 10 minutes later, like Cameroon four years prior, Nigeria gave away a penalty that Baggio scored to crush African dreams again.
As per tradition, Nigeria’s naïve exit was greeted, not with criticism, but standing ovations.
Nigeria authored a similar tale at France ’98; shrugging past Bulgaria and Spain to set up a date with unheralded Denmark in the second round.

Nigeria was the darlings of the soccer world again.
But a shocking 4-1 thrashing by the Danes extinguished all hope.
The emphatic defeat didn’t stop the patronizing cheers though. It just muted them a bit as all and sundry realized that Nigeria’s loss wasn’t so narrow as to make them gallant losers.
Fast forward four years later and it was Senegal’s turn to be patronized.
An upset win over defending champions France won Senegal instant admirers.
The Teranga Lions would finish second but a similar flourish against Sweden had many neutrals adopting Senegal against Turkey in the quarterfinals. Senegal had become only the second African team to go so far at a World Cup and the burden of expectation was palpable. Cue disaster!

With the pressure on, the Senegalese crumbled and their attacking instincts deserted them.
Creditably, they held Turkey to a goalless draw, forced extra-time and started playing for penalties. It was a risky strategy that was repaid with interest when Turkey struck to break African hearts in the 94th minute.

No worries! The cheerleaders lauded Senegal’s ‘lion-hearted’ effort where swear-words would have been more appropriate.

The same script was strictly adhered to in 2006 when Ghana made it to the second round, got adopted by all neutrals, promptly lost 3-0 to Brazil and got patronized to within an inch of its life.

The safe bet is that Ghana’s thrilling but ultimately impotent display against Uruguay in South Africa will attract similarly empty adulation.
But should it really?

Among the uninitiated, Ghana’s loss against Uruguay will be hailed as a gallant effort that failed to reap its due reward.

But to those among us who have watched African teams naively fail time and again, that historical perspective will help us frown upon Ghana’s defeat as the half-hearted white-flag act that it really was!

That Africa has the talent to take on the world is beyond dispute.

Spellbinding, neutral-courting team performances have proved that through the mists of time.
However, that Africa lacks the mental fortitude to turn a series of sublime performances into a World Cup triumph is similarly beyond contest.

African teams are happy to deliver in the inconsequential group matches.
But crank up the pressure and multiply the stakes with the knockout rounds and psychological collapse become an undeniable dance partner.

And this makes Africa the continental equivalent of Spanish and Dutch teams of the past.
It’s an African disease that won’t be cured unless Africans quit patting themselves on the back each time they lose ineptly. Till then, the reward for ‘gallant performances’ by African teams shall forever remain indulgent and condescending praise from a bunch of neutral fans and Johnny Came Lately types.

Ghana’s defeat to Uruguay should be a wake-up call. No longer should African teams greet any loss with laps of honour, wry smiles and “hard-luck” backslaps.

Brazil 2014 should herald a new chapter; a chapter in which Africans treat defeats like defeats, without any sugar-courted prefixes like gallant or valiant.

Africans should learn that there’s no place for gracious losers in the World Cup’s roll-call of greats - only winners!

After all, all our cumulative gallant losses in the World Cup have nudged us no closer to the ultimate trophy than we were back in 1990.

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