Sports Features of Monday, 15 April 2013

Source: Christopher Opoku

Black Starlets: The curious case of eating your cake and having it

I will have to be honest and say that I wasn’t planning on writing an article on Ghana’s national Under 17 team, the Black Starlets this early, but following Sunday’s debacle against Nigeria and the reaction that followed, I feel compelled to pen this piece because as Ghanaians, we are on the brink of falling into the abyss of double standards and hypocrisy.

I will explain why I am saying that in a bit, but the fact is that the Black Starlets were hammered 1-6 by Nigeria’s Golden Eaglets at the ongoing African Under 17 Nations Cup tournament in Morocco. Judging by the comments on social media networks, the reaction is one of shock, horror and anger.

I remember someone telling me on Facebook that the Black Starlets had disgraced Ghana and so many people were shocked by the result that you would have thought that the Black Starlets had earned the divine right to win every match.

To be absolutely fair, the results that came from friendly matches played during the Black Starlets’ tour of Italy fuelled optimism that Ghana was going to shine in Morocco. Indeed, I am reliably informed that the hierarchy of the Ghana Football Association has described the current Black Starlets as the best selected national under 17 team and that is an assertion I will not argue with, but for different reasons as you will see from this piece.

Let’s set the ball rolling with a dose of realism, shall we? It is one of the world’s worst kept secret that we haven’t been exactly honest with the ages of our players with regards to age-level tournaments in the past.

Indeed, together with Nigeria we have been under suspicion from World governing body FIFA for a long time now, which has necessitated the use of the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans to give a near accurate determination of players ages at the Under 17 or Under 18 level.

We all know what happened when the first exercise was carried out. Almost the entire Black Starlets team assembled by Paa Kwesi Fabin was sent home for being overaged and Fabin, together with assistant Isaac ‘Opeele’ Boateng assembled another team that eventually qualified for the tournament.

Further tests have led to Ghana presenting as near a proper Under 17 squad as possible, accentuated when the final tests in Morocco left the entire 21-man squad intact. Not even Nigeria was that lucky, with three players sent home.

With this background, the real surprise for me was not that Ghana lost to Nigeria, but the margin of the scoreline. Even so, I remember feeling that in trying to do the right thing after so long, we were due a result like this to drive home the point that proper long term planning will mean encountering pitfalls along the way.

I am delighted that it happened in our very first match, because there are two games to go. I think the current Black Starlets squad, even though bruised by Nigeria, can win the two remaining games and qualify for the FIFA Under 17 World Cup, which is what Ghanaians all want anyway.

Again, what we may have failed to consider is that even with three players sent home, Nigeria looked a cut above the Starlets and that probably explains why Ghana lost so heavily. Indeed, rather that view this result with shock and anger, we all need to realize that we cannot eat our cake and have it.

Rather this should be seen as the beginning of positive steps to groom a young set of players for smooth promotion to the Black Satellites, the Black Meteors and the Black Stars in the future. With Fabin’s expertise with bringing up young talent, I believe he should probably remain in charge of the Black Starlets for the next few years to groom more talent.

Let me put this in perspective by reminding us all of a Group game at the 1993 FIFA Under 17 World Cup in Japan. In that game, Ghana thrashed Italy 4-0 with goals from Emmanuel Duah, Daniel Addo, Joseph Fameye and Essuman Dadzie.

What is interesting is that, in goal that day for Italy was a certain young prodigy called Gianluigi Buffon and the team’s captain was talented young forward Fancesco Totti. Buffon, as you are aware, is the captain of Italy’s senior team and Totti is under consideration by Italy head coach Cesare Prandelli for a return to the Azzuri.

That is what long term planning can do. This was twenty years ago in Japan. Dare I ask whether any member of the Starlets squad at the time is still playing active football now? I guess we all know the answer to that.

Again, a heavy loss in a Group match does not necessarily signal the end of a team’s campaign. I remember vividly the 1990 African Nations Cup in Algeria when Nigeria’s Super Eagles were thrashed 5-1 by the hosts in the opening match.

The team’s coach at the time, Clemens Westerhof turned things around and before anyone knew it, Nigeria had qualified for the final, where a combination of biased refereeing and bad luck led to a narrow win for Algeria.

Another example is the 1988 Seoul Olympics football tournament where Kalusha Bwalya scored a memorable hat trick as Zambia thrashed Italy 4-0 in the second Group B match. Italy recovered and reached the semifinals whilst Zambia was given a taste of its own medicine in the quarterfinal by West Germany.

Fabin has admitted that his tactics failed against Nigeria and he is now focusing on the game against Congo on Wednesday and rightfully so. He has an opportunity to correct mistakes committed against Nigeria and contrary to public opinion, I believe the Black Starlets can turn things around.

Even if the worst happens, we would have done something right for the first time in sending a team with the right ages to a tournament and that should rather present us with important building blocks for the future.

Let’s stop being hypocritical and get real because the days of easy victories are over. Let’s undergo a massive paradigm shift in our mindset and instead of expecting the Black Starlets to win every match, lets rather view this as an excellent step by the GFA in building a talent bank for the future.

Having said all this, I am convinced that all is not lost and that the Starlets will still qualify for the UAE tournament. I run the risk of getting my head bitten off for this, should they fail, but hey, that is the beauty of football.