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Black Starlets fuel cautiously hopeful expectations

Published on: 19 May 2017

Michael Oti Adjei, KweséESPN

Sometime in January last year, at the Opoku Ware Senior High School in Kumasi, several teenagers clutched their boots and gathered with one objective; to catch the eye of selectors for the Ghana Under-17 side.

Apart from one or two journalists, team officials, a few club owners, and a scout or two, no one particularly cared, because the general feeling was that Ghanaians did not care about age group competitions.

Years of failure, a ban for age cheating, and growing disenchantment with the lack of progress from this age group to the senior level, where it matters most, contributed to immense apathy.

That is changing though, in large part due to Paa Kwesi Fabian's side, who are seeking Ghana's third title at the Under-17 Africa Cup of Nations, the latest edition currently underway in Gabon.

Wins over Cameroon and the hosts, nine goals scored and none conceded, have also sealed Ghana's return to the FIFA Under-17 World Cup for the first time in 10 years.

The quality of football they're playing has been a throwback to the 90s when the Starlets were Ghana's biggest source of football pride. They're showing great passing at high intensity, slick movement, and immaculate first touches, with pace and skill to burn.

Names like Emmanuel Toku, Mohammed Idriss, Erich Ayiah, and Sulley Ibrahim have replaced Nii Odartey Lamptey, Alex Opoku, and Awudu Issaka as potential stars for Ghana. The hope is that they will develop even further, into the likes of Samuel Osei Kuffour or Michael Essien.

Kuffour and Essien are easily the biggest products of Ghana's obsession with the U-17 system. Kuffour was a part of the Ghana U-17 side in 1991 that won the title in Italy, before going on to a successful career with Bayern Munich, where made 274 appearances and won 11 major trophies, including the Champions League title.

Essien was a member of the Ghana side in 1999 that reached the semifinals of the U-17 World Cup, before becoming the star midfielder at the heart of some of Chelsea's best years.

Those two provide the blue print for the present generation: Sound career choices, steady progress from one level to the other, and an attitude that prioritises football above all else.

When Essien emerged from the 1999 tournament in New Zealand with the trappings of a man who looked like he could go on to greatness, the temptation to go to Europe was immediate but he bided his time, stayed at Liberty Professionals for a few years, and then went to Bastia when he really could handle himself.

Yet while Essien and Kuffour are held up as models of how to make that transition, they were not necessarily the best players in their year groups. Nii Odartey Lamptey, Mohammed Gargo, Alex Opoku, and Daniel Addo were considered ahead of them in the talent queue. During Essien's year, the star man was Derrick Boateng, along with the likes of Razak Ibrahim and Bernard Don Bortey.

The best analogy, perhaps, is to consider the U-17s your typical Junior High School in Ghana. Great grades there don't guarantee you will thrive in Senior High School, or blow your university class away and become awesome in future.

It provides a good start, but that start will evolve into a good finish based on your choice of senior high school, what subjects you choose to study, the company you keep, and above all, your attitude.

Over the next few months, the likes of Toku, Ayiah, Idriss, and Sulley will have to make similar choices. They will be feted by agents, while clubs will line up with documents, offers, and the promise of paradise. The decisions they make will determine not only their future but their impact on Ghana's football in general.

There are those who have suggested the Ghana Football Association should have some grand progression plan in place where the present crop of U-17s rise through the age groups. But it is almost impossible to do that when you don't control the movement of the players and the choices they make.

At best, the GFA can offer guidance. The pressure from agents, colts clubs looking for financial breakthroughs through the transfer of these players, families, and the thought of a quick buck at the expense of the bigger picture are more tangible blocks to progress.

The players thrilling crowds in Gabon will not have a natural right to play in the U-20s, or with the Black Stars, in future. Like in life, progress cannot be based on old deeds. The rest of Ghana simply has to hope that when they discuss the Black Stars years from now, those names winning friends today will be the dominant ones then.

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