By Aristo Dotse
Club football - glorious days and recent decline
However, it is mostly in domestic football where Ghana has been lacking seriously in quality in at least the last 15 years, especially since after the mid 2000s when Ghana's two biggest and bitterest rival clubs Accra Hearts of Oak and Kumasi Asante Kotoko made history when they played in the all-Ghana final in the maiden CAF Confederation Cup, which is a merger competition of the old African Cup-Winners Cup and CAF Cup.
In that that historic final which Hearts won on penalty shootout after 2-2 on aggregate in the two-legged affair, the two giants, who have won a total of five African club trophies between them, all in the distant past, truly made Ghanaian football proud in Africa. It was the first and so far one of only two times the CAF Confederation Cup final has featured two clubs from the same country.
Since that era in the early to mid-2000s when the likes of Emmanuel Osei Kuffour (top scorer when Hearts won the African Champions League in 2000), Ishmael Addo (second of only two players to win three consecutive goal-king titles in the history of the Ghanaian top division league), Charles Taylor, Stephen Oduro, Sammy Adjei, Amankwah Mireku, Jacob Nettey, Stephen Tetteh, Bernard Dong Bortey and a few others helped make club football, domestically and internationally, thick and something to talk and cheer about, Ghana sadly have lacked so much in quality talents on the local scene. This is to the extent that it has greatly contributed to the sharp decline in the quality and standard in the local game and negatively affected interest in and patronage of local club football in Ghana.
''Since the early to mid-2000s when Emmanuel Osei Kuffour, Ishmael Addo, Charles Taylor, Stephen Oduro, Stephen Tetteh, Amankwah Mireku, Jacob Nettey, Bernard Dong Bortey, etc. made club football in Ghana thick and exciting, the country has lacked in quality talents in particularly at home. This has contributed to the decline in the standard of the local game and led to disinterest in domestic football.''
It is so simple: if the quality or standard is good, not even the big interest in the English Premier League and European football can stop fans from going to the stadium again, like we have all witnessed occasionally this season and few past ones. But unfortunately, the quality of players and for that matter teams generally have been very poor, with nothing really to cheer about.
And worse as a result, Ghanaian clubs can no longer stand the test in Africa. So quite correctly, the poor quality of local players is also, undoubtedly, the main reason why Ghanaian clubs are no longer able to compete or do well in Africa.
This is very sad for a country that used to have its clubs make a strong impact in Africa - which has seen Kotoko (nine), Hearts (six), and Goldfields (one) play in a total of 16 African finals.
This includes 11 African Cup/Champions League finals, two Super Cup finals by Hearts, a sole Cup-Winners' Cup final that Kotoko lost to Moroccan side Wydad Athletic Club in 2002 and the historic Hearts-Kotoko Confederation Cup final clash.
The African Champions Club Cup, started in 1964, became the Champions League in 1997 when the then Obuasi Goldfields reached the final to lose to Raja Casablanca on penalty shootout.
Ghana got two slots for its clubs - league champions and runner-up - in 2004 when the number of participating teams was increased, but eventually the country lost one of its two places few years later owing to poor performances by its clubs in the Champions League.
Unfortunately, it has not only remained so but also the sole Ghanaian representatives have always failed to make any meaningful impact to help Ghana regain its two places in the competition. The story of poor performances is the same in the CAF Confederation Cup.
This worrying matter of low quality of present-day home based players has also contributed to weak national teams in recent years, aside the Black Stars team A - which has been dominated by foreign based players for some good time now. The Black Stars B (local) team and Black Meteors have suffered as a result, failing to qualify for the last three CHAN (Championship of African Nations) tournaments and the last four Olympic Games respectively. The Black Starlets (except 2007), Black Satellites (2009 and 2013 excluded) and even women’s football have all suffered due to lack of quality players.
Similarly on the international stage, Ghana has been lacking in the African Cup of Nations competition since last winning it for a then record fourth time in 1982 in Libya. Since that time when Ghana introduced a 17-year-old Abedi Pele, who would later grow up to be arguably Africa's best ever player, to the world as the youngest player of the tournament, Cameroon and Egypt have won five African Nations Cup trophies each. Meanwhile, Ghana is still waiting for an elusive fifth title, although they made the final in 1992, 2010 and 2015.
Even, the women's game has lost its way instead of progressing, with the Black Queens, the senior women’s national team, falling behind their peers in Africa.
When women's football started in Africa in the mid 1990s after FIFA introduced women's football and first held the Women's World Cup in 1991, Ghana was the second best in Africa, only behind Nigeria. No wonder, the Black Queens became the first senior Ghana team to qualify for the World Cup, making the 3rd FIFA Women's World Cup in 1999 and qualifying for the next two in 2003 and 2007.
That was a time when Ghana had such brilliant women players like Alberta Sackey (African Women’s Player of the Year 2002), Patience Sackey, Adwoa Bayor (2003 African Player of the Year), Vivian Mensah, Juliana Kakraba, Nana Ama Gyamfua, Elizabeth Baidu, Lydia Ankrah, Sheila Okai, Memunatu Sulemana (the indefatigable goalkeeper), Mavis Djangmah, Genevive Clottey, Florence Okoe, and so on.
But unfortunately, their exit went with the brilliance and success and Ghana now have fallen behind the likes of Cameroon, South Africa, Equatorial Guinea and even Cote d'ivoire in Africa.
This is sad at a time when there is far more interest and involvement, and some money and investment in the women’s game, not only in Ghana but also on the African continent and across the world.
After appearing in three consecutive World Cups, Ghana have failed to qualify for any of the last four Women’s World Cups. Even when a big opportunity came and Ghana hosted the last African Women Championship in 2018, the Queens disappointed again by failing to come out of their group in a tournament which had three places up for grabs for the last FIFA Women's World Cup France 2019.
And like their senior colleagues (Black Queens) and present-day male counterparts (Starlets and Satellites), the Black Maidens (Women’s U-17 side) and Black Princesses (Women’s U-20 side) only play and compete without making any impact, sometimes being hammered and well beaten like France (4-1) and the Netherlands (4-0) dished out to the Princesses at the 2018 FIFA Women's U-20 World Cup in France.
So what has happened or stopped Ghana from producing such natural, gifted talents like those many of the past on the local scene in particular? Has gifted talents stopped being born? Or has God stopped giving Ghanaian mothers the gifted football children He used to give them?
There are a number of factors why, and while definite answers continue to be searched for this important question, C.K. Akonnor, former Ghana captain and now Ghana coach (of the Black Stars) recently made a telling observation in a TV interview.
The brilliant left winger, one of the best Ghanaian players of his generation who made his name with Okwahu United and Obuasi Goldfields before going to Europe, lamented about the poor quality of players and suggested the fundamental problem to be the death of juvenile football (popularly called colts in Ghana) and inadequate or non-existing proper grooming of players from the junior and youth levels.
''Since I started coaching over 10 years ago, only a few (players) have been consistent. It's terrible. We have to find out why,'' he noted. ''Ghanaian players are no longer able to play consistent football.
''Our youth football is not good enough. I am a coach and I know what I am talking about. You see a 24, 25 year-old player and expect him to do this and that but nothing. Nobody has taught him anything. We need to do more for our youth football.
''Coaches are suffering because the basics (from players) are not there. The absence of colts football is a big problem. We have the academies but they are not really helping.''
Akonnor is not the only one to make such an observation. Many have cited the same as the biggest reason for lack of enough quality players in especially Ghana's local football front, and one of them is Francis Oti-Akenteng. The senior Ghanaian coach has had a long career, handling so many clubs and being involved with almost all the national teams. The man who recently left his long-term role as the technical director of Ghanaian football also makes his point.
''One of the main problems is the exodus of players. Some time ago, players stay and some of them play their entire career here. But now things are changed and they keep on going out, leaving the local league without the best players,'' he pointed out.
''But I think the biggest reason for shortage of quality players is lack of proper player development. The loss of colts football and lack of competitive football among the football academies are two serious issues that need to be addressed.''
Juvenile football, no doubt, contributed a lot to producing many fine players for Ghana in the past. The days are gone when colts players went straight from colts football to the top division or the one below and made their names in Ghanaian football.
For instance, Abedi Pele - the 1978 Ghanaian Colts Player of the Year - and Abu Imoro moved straight from Great Farcos to Real Tamale United where they first made their names and became national stars before Abedi ended up as French and European champion and Africa's topmost player with Marseille in France.
Another fine example is the case of Accra Great Olympics, one of Ghana's most famous clubs.
The period 1995 to 1999 was one of the most exciting times in the history of the ‘Wonder Club'. With a young team, possibly the youngest squad in the Premier League at the time, Olympics really made life difficult for many sides.
With youngsters like Godwin Attram, Laryea Kingston, Dan Quaye, Osei Boateng, Aziz Ansah, Awuley Quaye Junior, David Amoako, Amui Quaye and others, they were a talented group that gave sides all sorts of problems. Almost all of these young players had been poached together straight from Accra colts club Cowlane Babies who had just been crowned Accra colts champions in 1994.
They went on to form a core of the Ghana Under-17 team that reached the final of the FIFA U- 17 World Cup Egypt 1997 and lost to Ronaldinho's Brazil, with Attram as the team's captain and top player, and the Ghana Under-20 team which won the 1999 African Youth Championship on home soil. One of them, midfielder Laryea who would later become an important part of the Black Stars team that qualified for two successive World Cups (2006 and 2010) was the tournament winner with the only goal against Nigeria.
Aside this, colts football produced the many beautiful youngsters who helped to form very strong and talented junior and youth teams for Ghana to be such a strong force in Africa and the world at large in the past. Brilliant products of colts football like Nii Lamptey, Preko, Dan Addo, Duah, Owu, Barnes, Alex Opoku, Isaac Asare, Kofi Nimo, Abdul Karim Migima, Samuel Osei Kuffour, Gargo, Fameyeh, Awudu Issaka, Stephen Appiah, Abu Iddrissu, Christian Saba, Emmanuel Bentil, Yartey, Attram, Laryea, Ishmael Addo, Dong Bortey, Stephen Tetteh, Razak Ibrahim, Derek Boateng, just to mention some, all contributed to make Ghana a major success in junior and youth football and brought so much joy to Ghanaians with their wonderful skills.
It's curious to know that all of Ghana's success in junior and youth football, apart from the Black Satellites’ double African and world triumphs in 2009 and third-place finish at the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey, came at a period spanning 12 years between 1989 and 2001 when colts football was still active in the country.
After making its first appearance at the 3rd FIFA Under-16 World Cup in Scotland in 1989, when the Black Starlets and particularly Nii Lamptey impressed the world and the great Pele in particular, Ghana played in four consecutive grand finals of the FIFA U-17 World Cup. They won in 1991 and 1995 and lost in 1993 and 1997, before reaching the semi-final and finishing third in 1999. This is a very remarkable feat - no country has ever played in four successive finals in any FIFA competition. Argentina and Brazil at the U-20s, and Germany and Brazil at senior level have played in three finals each on the trot, but not like Ghana's four at the U-17 level.
Similarly, the U-20 side, Black Satellites, made up of mostly players of the 1991 U-17 World Cup triumph, also played in the FIFA World Youth Championships final in 1993, after winning the 1993 African version in Mauritius. The Satellites reached the semi-finals in both Morocco 97 and Malaysia 97 and played in another World Youth Championship final in 2001, losing to hosts Argentina, before they finally won Africa's only World Cup title at Under-20 level in 2009.
At a higher level, at the Under-23, the Black Meteors, mostly a combination of the highly talented Starlets players of 1989 and 1991 and Satellites 1991 (champions of the ECOWAS Cup in Nigeria in 1991) made African history in 1992 in Barcelona in becoming the first African side to win a medal (bronze) in the football competition at the Olympic Games.
No wonder, Ghana has failed in recent years, since the death of colts football in a decade and over now, to make any impact in junior and youth football and also Olympic football. It's so sad to say a country that used to be giants of world junior and youth football no longer qualify for even the African stage nowadays. And when they do, like at the Under-17 World Cup in India in 2017 and 2019 Under-20 African Cup, they go and come back empty handed or so early from the competition.
The gradual demise of colts football coincided with the birth of modern-day business of sports in football academies. But the problem in Ghana is that there are only one or two proper football academies. There was the successful Feyenoord Academy, born out of the Starlets' incredible performance at the 1995 U17 World Cup, and now West Africa Football Academy (WAFA).
The Right to Dream Academy is also one good academy that has helped produce one or two fine players for Ghana. However, the rest of the academies are mostly in name and not in the real sense of the word.
And very importantly, the academies in Ghana don't really focus on teaching the boys the basics of football but rather on just finding European opportunities for the one or two very good boys in their ranks. So the main point for the academies is quickly selling players more than really producing polished diamonds – which the colts was doing.
And unlike in Europe where football academies engage in competitive football at home and abroad throughout the season, academies in Ghana only play on non-competitive basis as there is no organised competition for football academies. And truly, competitive and friendly football are never the same.
So academies, although a good option for young player development, can never substitute traditional colts football which let players learned so much the basics of the game and made them very competitive and readily ready for top flight football in Ghana.
With the changed times in Ghana, it would be very difficult to return to something like the colts football we used to have. The likes of those passionate football lovers like Pallas (late) of Olympics Babies, Great Farcos' Oluman (who discovered and natured Abedi Pele) and Kamaru (late), Henry Aryee (late) of BT International, Yaw La Danso (late) of Kotobabi Powerlines, Percy of Adabraka Hearts Babies, etc. who owned colts clubs and dedicated their lives to them without getting any financial rewards in return are no more.
The only thing is for the country, through the government, to re-organise colts football by investing big money into it as a way of proper youth development. Or make sure football academies are well organised, supported and involved in competitive academy football for proper development of young players.
It is one sure way that Ghana can develop better young players for the future and regain its football. Without any real financial investment in reviving and re-organising colts football or supporting the academies to be strong and competitive, the lost quality of Ghanaian players can never be regained, and the local league would continue to be without the true quality players Ghana used to produce and enjoy.
In this regard, it is refreshing that the new Ghana Football Association (GFA) has taken notice and wants to revive colts football, with the president Kurt Okraku - who knows and has experience about colts football, having being involved in it in the past with Jawara Babies - taking the mantle himself as the head of his football association’s committee for colts football to lead its re-organisation and revival.
We can only hope that Mr Okraku and his team will be committed to the desire to bring back colts football and that any such revival would once again help produce many talented players for our football and help bring back some of the glory and success of the past.