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Sports Features of Friday, 3 January 2014

Source: Sakyi, Kwesi Atta

Black Stars need super preparation

A star is a pentagon with five points and the word Black has five letters. So also are the letters in the word Stars, hence 5S. This article is written to whip up interest among soccer fans in Ghana. Sports, especially football, is not my cup of tea. I only enjoy watching sports like athletics, boxing and sometimes football on TV, but not very much of it as I miss out a lot due to the nature of my job and my own inclination. I have not watched the Stars play any of their qualifying matches but I have followed their progress thus far.

I am not a sports person either, as I deter physical activity. The only sports I ever learnt how to play is badminton, though with ageing and poor sight, I do not play it any more. I should say that I am now a speculative rather than an operative sportsperson.

However, as a Ghanaian, I should say that I am infatuated with our national team, the Black Stars. Football has become a multi-billion dollar enterprise. It will be worth their while for many business houses in Ghana to step forward and sponsor our national team alongside the main sponsors, the Ghana National Petroleum Company (GNPC). The illustrious, indomitable, victorious and formidable Black Stars need the fullest support of all Ghanaians who are hungry for humongous World Cup success. I believe the government will also give them all the financial, and technical resources, and show the political will for them to excel.

All the 32 teams which have qualified for the World Cup will receive 1.5 million dollars each from FIFA for their preparation, and 8 million dollars for the first round qualifying matches in Brazil, irrespective of winning or losing their 3 matches. The amount will increase progressively through 9, 14, 18, to 35 million dollars for the eventual winner of the Cup in July 2014. (Courtesy of interview by Kwasi Nyantakyi, GFA President on Radio Gold FM on 28/12/13). This makes the World Cup the most coveted and lucrative team sport, and fans around the world will be glued to their TVs during the month-long gruesome football fiesta from mid-June to mid-July 2014.

Africa will be represented in Brazil in June 2014 by Algeria, Cameroon, Cote d’ Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Nigeria and Ghana. Ivory Coast is ranked the best team in Africa by FIFA in view of their top-flight professionals, while Nigeria is the current AFCON continental champion. Cameroon has been to the World Cup a couple of times and proven their mettle. Algeria is a dark horse or an unknown quantity. Ghana is going to the World Cup for the third time in a row, and that speaks volumes. Africa expects a lot from our representatives as we expect them to advance beyond the preliminary stages and reach at least the quarter finals. This is a fine moment for Africa to showcase their talent.

What the Stars need to focus on in Brazil next year is the 5S of speed, stamina, strategy, sacrifice (selflessness), surprise or secrecy. Speed Speed can only be found at the feet of the young. Speed is distance over time. That notwithstanding, we need a blend of old and new. Speed can be found in the legs of players like Akamenko, Warris, Kelvin Prince Boateng, Kwadwo Asamuah, Agyeman Badu and the like. Speed wears out your opponents so that you can do the damage later. Speed, like a whirlwind, can take the steam out of your opponents and make them dazed. On the other hand, experienced players provide strategy and stability to the team. Here, we can think of players like John Mensah, Sulley Muntari, Michael Essien and Richard Kingston.

Speed wears down opponents. Speed comes with being fit and youthful. Speed comes also with one-touch football, whereby a player does not hang on to the ball for far too long before he is either dispossessed of the ball or he releases it to a team mate. Speed goes with effective coverage of playing space within minimum time.

Football is a team sport, though in extenuating circumstances, some individual natural talent and brilliance can be exploited to mesmerize the opponents, as Ronaldo and Messi usually do to round up, undo, mess up and confuse opponents. However, many teams will have found effective antidotes to curb such antics and individual brilliance at the World Cup. Speed should be combined with stamina, agility, technical ability and accuracy. We lack natural playmakers and wingers who can create the whirlwind kind of football that results in goals. That is both an asset and a liability at the same time, in the sense that we can focus on team effort and not rely on some solo effort of a talented player. Stamina Stamina is the sustained mental and physical power to do a tiring and exacting task. It connotes endurance. To have stamina, you need sustained training and self-discipline. Our players have come a long way from different soccer academies and they have acquired the requisite stamina needed for a big tournament such as the World Cup. That notwithstanding, our Stars should place a premium on physical fitness.

However, at the World Cup level, combined team effort and team solidarity are of paramount essence. That is why those selfish players in the various leagues around the world cannot shine at the World Cup. Sometime ago, the Dutch introduced and perfected total football. Our coach, Kwasi Appiah, and technical bench should do a good job by selecting only very fit and able-bodied players without cutting corners or compromising on standards.

We are going to the World Cup for the first time with our own indigenous local coach, as we did some time back on several occasions when we won the African Nations Cup and the Under 20 World Cup with coaches such as C.K. Gyamfi, Jones Attuquayefio (deceased), Osam Dodoo, Sellas Tetteh and Ben Kwofie. This is a big plus for us because our players can easily bond and communicate with a local coach and we can perfect our own brand of football which can confuse opponents.

No forms of discriminatory and bribery tendencies should be entertained in the selection of the initial 30 players, and the final list of 23 to be submitted to FIFA by 25th May 2014 (cf. Kwasi Nyantakyi). A crack squad of versatile players is what we need for the World Cup. The players should be multi-disciplinary, multi-talented and effective team players. Each player should be highly reliable, dependable and responsible. Therefore the team selection process should be rigorous, thorough, transparent, and based on merit, currency and performance. The players should be individuals who get along with one another easily, and who know and understand one another’s system of play. This is why we need to camp the players early to build the esprit d’corps or team spirit.

The Brazilians had their Samba. Now, it seems all the teams which go to the World Cup are toeing the German technical approach of utmost efficiency in the use of space, reading the game, and thwarting the advances of opponents by frustrating their sleek moves and catching them flat-footed with counter-attack. However, critics of German soccer say it is dry, wry, lacks lustre and entertainment and it is mechanical and artificial The coach should have a selection of players some of whom are starters and others, finishers.

Counter-attack is a stratagem whereby we need maestro midfielders to open up the midfield of opponents and supply balls to the wingers, strikers and attackers up front who should be superb in communicating very well with their suppliers to gain balls with comparative advantage through speed and stamina. We need our strikers to hone their skills in providing clinical finishes to moves, which are initiated at the back by defenders and mid-fielders.

That is what I term productive football because football’s ultimate goal is goal scoring and not unproductive sleek and fluent football which ends up with squandering begging chances. There should be no room for ‘agoro’ type of exhibition football, or complacency. Our players should play crack teams in friendlies to gain exposure and to perfect their strategies so that they gel and bond as one efficient and effective functional machine.

At the mid-field, Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, Daniel Opare and Kwadwo Asamoah shine. We need a perfect supply chain system whereby the defenders, midfielders and the strikers work in perfect synchrony to outwit the opponents, sometimes creating a distraction and using delaying tactics to psychologically unnerve and disarm opponents. We also need players who can play 120 minutes, beyond the regulatory 90minutes, as sometimes some games stretch and stray into extra time. We need a crop of players who are mostly youthful, who have huge appetite for both attacking and winning the ball, and then displacing the opponents. Sacrifice Teamwork requires patience, tolerance, sacrifice, supportive roles, good communication and understanding, as well as being selfless or altruistic. Our players should not only play for money but also they should go an extra mile to sacrifice and die a little for Mother Ghana, as did some of our stars of old. Invariably, new local players tend to have this patriotic zeal and hunger to excel in larger amount, but then they are unproven and unknown quantities at the global stage. Therefore we need a selection with a blend also of locally-based and foreign-based players. Our football pioneers did a yeoman’s job in the past and our present crop of players should emulate their shining example.

Here, I am thinking of illustrious players of old such as Kwame Adarkwa, Agyeman Gyau, Osei Kofi, Mohammed Salisu, Oblitey, Baba Yara, Dogo Moro, Addo Odamtey, Emmanuel Acquah, Aggrey Fynn, Opoku Nti, Dodoo Ankrah, Addoquaye Laryea, Kwaw Baafo, Robert Mensah, Sunday Ibrahim, Opoku Afriyie, Naawu, Kwesi Wusu, Ofei Dodoo, Mohammed Polo, Razak, Malik Jabir, Modibo Toe, Gibrine, Mfum, Crentsil, Kuuku Dadzie, John Eshun, Kofi Pare, Abedi Pele, among many others. Our current players should establish rapport with this old school and tap into their vast experience through a well-crafted mentorship programme. We also need the experience of old coaches such as Osam Dodoo, Sam Arday, Oti Akenten, C.K. Gyamfi, Ben Kwofie, among others. Some of these soccer gurus should be drafted into our technical bench.

Strategy Strategically, they could choose to score an early goal to put pressure on opponents or they could choose to score very close to half time or full time, especially in a match where there is a drought of goals. Our players like Kwadwo Asamoah, Warris and Dede Ayew have speed and stamina. These can galvanise a game by increasing the tempo of a game or slowing it down.

We need a midfield dynamo or maestro who can lock up our midfield and win the ball often to initiate moves which can supply the strikers with balls to do the needful damage to opponents. Our strategy should be both offensive and defensive, which is a delicate balance to maintain. Our scouts and spies should do their homework by observing opponents and supplying valuable information on their strengths and weaknesses.

Asamoah Gyan should play an active role by both attacking and striking because it is the trend now to have a total player rather than one who becomes a passenger most of the time. Asamoah Gyan needs to establish total rapport with those who can supply him with balls. He and other strikers must be at the right place at the right time. They should be mobile in order to deceive the opponents, sometimes switching positions and inter-positioning, behaving like phantoms or Baby-Jet.

I think playing one striker upfront is not a good system as it puts undue burden and pressure on that lone player. Of course, it all depends on the situation as there is no one best strategy in football. Asamoah Gyan has matured a lot since the 2010 World Cup episode of missing a penalty, and he is on the learning curve, as are the other players. We should put the Suarez episode of 2010 behind us. Ghana should perfect formations such as 4-3-3, 4-4-2, 5-4-1, among other defence-attack configurations. All these depend on the calibre of players that we have, the opponents, the venue, the particular strategy to be adopted, among other variables.

All our players should be able to score goals when they have the opportunity and they should not flunk golden chances. They should be fleet-footed and have the ability to score with either foot. Our technical bench should work hard on our strikers and goal keepers so that they improve on their ball anticipation as well as communication with the defenders. We should have players with the right physique and stature, such as some tall and burly defenders. In the past, we had players of imposing physique such as Edward Acquah, Mfum, Frank Odoi, Kwasi Wusu, Robert Mensah and Aggrey Fynn. The goalkeeper should be a source of inspiration to the team by his excellent performance. He should read the game and give tips to the players. Individually, our players should do research online on their opponents so as to know what to expect from them, and devise their own methods in line with the overall strategy. Secrecy Our technical bench should keep the media guessing all the time as they should not divulge their plans anyhow, because in warfare, secrecy and surprise are of essence. Our players and technical bench should read the ancient tome, The Art of War by Sun Tzu to gain insight into how wars are won. I always wonder when Ghana will have the calibre of battle-tested players like Thierry Henri, Zinade Zidane, Yaya Toure, Marcel Dessailly and Patrice Viera.

Thierry Henri in his heydays could score goals at will as he had pace, equipoise, good ball sense, good judgement, and strategy. He made goal scoring look like a simple art. Zidane was a dynamo whose shots at goal were extremely accurate and deadly for goalkeepers. Yaya Toure’s pin-point passes are faultless and he has the presence of a field marshall. So also was Dessailly when he captained the French national team which won the World Cup. Here, Essien comes to mind.

Patrice Viera was so sharp and fast that it was impossible to beat him at the mid-field. He played like Sunday Ibrahim or Aggrey Fynn of the old Black Stars. However, with young speedsters like Warris and Ayew, we can make our impact felt at the World Cup by adopting a whirlwind or typhoon football.

Our technical bench should psychologically work on our players so that they fear no foe nor look back because fear comes from the fear of fear. They should not fear any opponent but only show respect to them by not underrating or underestimating them. JJ Rawlings went with the Stars to Cairo in our last qualifying match, and he has made an observation that our players ought to be ruthless and aggressive on the field with their opponents.

The players know better than me that they need self-discipline to remain in top form. They should build team bonding activities and play as a unit. As players, they should try to focus on their game and bury their neuroses and grudges before every game so that they remain at peak performance. Financial plans over winning bonuses should be worked out in advance so that we do not encounter the nasty spectacle of players going on strike or having feuds with management. This has been the bane of many an African team at the World Cup because of poor planning and greed of some officials.

In 2010 when the Black Stars failed to reach the quarter finals of the World Cup, they were immature and were filled with trepidation and self-doubt. Now they are mature, after tasting 2 successive World Cups in a row. We deserve to have very high expectations of them. May our Stars shine to make Africa proud! I hear that the last time we failed to advance to the quarter finals in South Africa in 2010, somebody committed suicide in Egypt, and a Ghanaian in Botswana collapsed and died.

Well, that is football for you. That is why I remain uncommitted. Our technical bench should adopt playing strategies which will not wear down the team, and they should be more business- like and serious. Now we have some of our players who play in Italy, UK, France, Portugal, Germany, Spain, Netherlands and Russia. They are well exposed so they should not panic at the big stage. Our coach, Kwasi Appiah, should tentatively get his 23 players ready, because it is wrong to get to the World Cup and continue experimenting with players.

I will encourage our players to find a playing system which will produce goals and yet allow them to defend and attack at the same time. Our players should be ready to score goals in the air with headers and at the same time produce excellent clinical finishes to passes through the midfield. They should know how to rebound into the game when they are a goal down. We need all-weather defenders like John Mensah (Rock of Gibraltar) when he was at his peak, or when we had Akuetteh Armah, Mr 99 styles. Our defenders need not engage in needless rough tackles that could result in free-kicks which could be fatal. They should have good judgement and anticipation, and exude a lot of confidence.

When I was a young man in my early teens, I used to hear about the goal-scoring prowess of players like George Alhassan, Mohammed Polo, Mfum, Edward Acquah, and Mama Acquah. In the early sixties, the prolific world class goal scorers we heard about included Puskas, De Stefano, Eusebio, Bobby Charlton, Stanley Mathews, Garrincha and Pele. Those were great players who played with passion. Our players should develop more than passion as they should have a huge appetite and hunger to clinch the World Cup. They should believe in themselves and have faith that they can subdue and subjugate any team in the world.

I think on any particular day, our current team should be unstoppable. Our players should dream big, dream of how to win the cup for the first time for Africa. They should be adventurous and become risk-takers. They should look at the incentives at stake and develop the hunger for huge success. I wish them all the best in all their games, now that we know that our Group G is made up of Germany, Ghana, Portugal and the USA. We have beaten the USA twice at the World Cup, and we lost narrowly to Germany the last time we met. Portugal is our old customer at the junior World Cup level, and we all have 50-50 chances of winning each other. I personally do not think our group is a group of death.

The World Cup is a very serious business and competitive affair, so we should do away with our Agoro or exhibition football and concentrate on goals. Abukari of old once said, ‘goal nkowaa na ma afef3’. Our junior national teams have won the World Cup before in the junior categories, and now some of those players who clinched those feats constitute the current national team, so we have great confidence in them to do Ghana proud. We should derive strength from that fact. This is Africa’s finest moment. My last word to the Stars is the motto of my former alma mater, Unisa, which is ‘Spes in Arduus’, or the way to the stars is steep so hard work is a desideratum and a conditio sine qua non. The motto also of Legon Hall is Cui multum datum or to whom much is given, much is desired. The Stars have an onerous duty of lifting high the flag of Ghana and make our nation proud and strong.