In the mayhem after two points had been dropped and tempers boiled over, there was a moment of deja vu. It was seeing a Ghana captain, incensed at a perceived injustice, railing against the wrongs he thought had been done to his team.
Andre ‘Dede’ Ayew, scorer of a fabulous opening goal in the Africa Cup of Nations Group C meeting with Gabon, had just watched his country’s chance of progress suddenly and painfully put in peril by an 88th minute equaliser. He confronted the Gabon head coach Patrice Neveu after the final whistle, a catalyst in the ensuing brawl between players from both sides. Benjamin Tetteh, the Ghana striker, threw a punch, and, red-carded, is now suspended for three matches.
Whether Ghana’s tournament extends to that many more games hangs on Tuesday’s final group fixture against Comoros, the Afcon debutants who are without a point - one less than Ghana’s yield - or a goal from their two matches so far. “We are Ghana, we will beat Comoros,” Dede Ayew promised, after he sneered to reporters about Gabon’s defensive posture, calling them “small-time.”
Thirty years ago, another Ghana captain, angered at the curtailing of his participation in an Afcon, came off the pitch and publicly criticised the referee. A yellow card had meant, like on Tuesday, the team would be without a suspended striker for the next game.
Only that striker was the great Abedi ‘Pele’ Ayew. He was also the complaining captain, calling his second booking of the tournament ‘abnormal.’ His ban would deprive that talented 1992 Ghanaian side of their superstar for the country’s biggest fixture in a decade. Abedi Pele had been booked during the victorious semi-final against Nigeria.
Abedi is Andrew Ayew’s father, and the grandee of one of football’s great dynasties. He was a serial collector of the African Footballer of the Year award, a European Cup winner with Olympique Marseille in a club career that took him all over the world - he bowed out with two seasons at Al Ain - but he became a unfulfilled veteran of Afcons. He did win one, as a teenager in 1982, coming off the bench in the final, but the tournament of a decade later was set up as his coronation.
He was then at the peak of his powers. That yellow card in the semi-final against Nigeria meant he had to endure the final against Ivory Coast as a bystander. It would be a long and heart-breaking experience: 0-0 after extra-time, Ghana the losers in a marathon penalty shoot-out that finished 11-10 to the Ivorians.
In the 40 years since a teenaged Abedi celebrated the country’s fourth Afcon triumph, the bid for a fifth has been tantalising and a saga of frustration most vividly narrated through one gifted family.
Abedi would go on to play in a losing semi and quarter-final before he retired as Ghana’s all-time great; his brother Kwame, a striker, took up the baton into the 21st century, a losing quarter-finalist in the tournament Ghana co-hosted 22 years ago. Since then three of Abedi’s sons, Ibrahim, Jordan and Dede have between them collected four Afcon silver medals. None have a gold.
Since Dede began an international career now approaching 100 caps, Ghana have reached the semis six times. The anger that spilled over after Gabon had stymied the Black Stars, as Ghana are known, and pushed them into third place in the group, could be read as the pent-up anxiety of two generations. The curve is slanting downwards, too. Ghana only reached the last 16 stage at the previous Afcon, in 2019.
They lost their opening fixture at this edition, to a late Morocco goal, and for all the pedigree in the line-up, from Jordan Ayew to his brother, from Thomas Partey in midfield to the zip of Kamaldeen Sulemana on the left flank, they have looked vulnerable at the tail-end of matches. “We need to stay focused,” urged their coach Milovan Rajevac, “we lost concentration in our first game and against Gabon.”
The blessing is that their most accessible fixture, against Comoros, closes out the group and the competition format, where the four best third-placed teams from the mini-league phase will go through, means three points will usher Ghana into the knockouts. They are not the only heavyweight to have found the first two matchdays an ordeal. But nor are they in a position to look down on opponents as “small-time,” as their vexed captain, the direct heir to a more glorious past, did after the turbulent closing act of the draw against Gabon.
By Ian Hawkey, National Sport