It wouldn’t be a stretch to say nobody is happier to see the imminent conclusion of 2022 than the Black Stars, Ghana’s senior national team, and its handlers.
This, even without scrolling too far through the team’s annals, is likely to be recalled as the most forgettable 12 months in its recent history, a year that started terribly and never really got better.
It’s not for nothing that the Black Stars are finishing the year without a head coach; in fact, they’ve been without a substantive head coach since the last week of January, when Serbian Milovan Rajevac was axed following a campaign at the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) that went down as the country’s worst-ever.
Ghana placed last in Group C, beneath even Comoros and Gabon, with a solitary point. Losing to the former in the decisive third match, when even a draw might have sufficed, was surely the nadir of Ghana’s nightmarish run in Cameroon.
Even so, there was a feeling that, after the magnitude of humiliation that had been endured, things couldn’t get much worse. In any case, Ghana couldn’t allow themselves to wallow in abjection for too long, with a 2022 Fifa World Cup qualification playoff tie against archrivals Nigeria just around the corner.
The team — nay, the nation — had to rouse itself for that crucial assignment. And it did, getting one over the old enemy with a huge helping hand from the away-goal rule — defunct in some parts of the world, but very much alive in Africa — after grinding out draws in two tense, intense games.
That feat was masterminded by Otto Addo, a former Ghana international who had zero previous experience heading a technical team. Addo — having served as one of Rajevac’s assistants — was the choice of the Ghana Football Association (GFA), despite the other major stakeholder, the Ghanaian government, pushing for the instalment of Chris Hughton, a British-born manager of Ghanaian extraction with a couple of Premier League jobs lighting up his résumé.
After a long-drawn-out saga, Addo was handed the main job on a part-time, interim basis while Hughton was assigned temporarily to offer consultancy services.
That makeshift arrangement, having paid off handsomely against Nigeria, was maintained, the government apparently won over by Addo’s success and much of the country nodding in agreement. With many months still to go before the World Cup kicked off, the early signs indicated Addo — with Hughton assisting in an advisory role — would be able to construct an even more formidable unit to take on the world.
By the time the finals in Qatar came into sharp focus, however, confidence in the ability of Addo and his team wasn’t so strong anymore. Ghana had won just two of the six games that followed the regional duel with Nigeria, against opponents — Madagascar and Nicaragua — who weren’t exactly endowed enough to provide a stern examination.
Thrashings had been suffered at the hands of Japan and Brazil, and many feared a similar fate awaited against Switzerland in the final pre-World Cup friendly, even with a reinforced, freshened squad.
Thankfully, though, things didn’t go nearly as bad, with Ghana beating a solid Swiss side 2-0, rekindling hopes overnight about the team’s chances of emerging unscathed from a tough World Cup group that featured Portugal, South Korea and Uruguay.
In hindsight, however, those expectations were raised far too high.
To be fair, it wasn’t apparent just how inadequate the team was until the final group game. The opener was lost 3-2 to Portugal, but the Black Stars didn’t go down without a fight and could have come away with a point at least. They won the next match, against South Korea, by the same score, setting themselves up finely for a much-anticipated third match.
Long before the World Cup kicked off, and soon after the draw was concluded early in April, Ghanaians had that date, with Uruguay, a team against whom they’d nursed a 12-year grudge — ever since La Celeste eliminated the Black Stars from the World Cup in a manner that left the West Africans permanently scarred — marked out in special ink.
This was an opportunity, seemingly God-sent, to heal those wounds once and for all time, simultaneously booking Ghana’s place along with Portugal as Group H’s two representatives in the knockout rounds. Yet on an occasion that had the whole world watching, Ghana crumbled and capitulated, losing.
If there was any consolation, it was that South Korea stole a surprise win late in the other game to qualify at the expense of Uruguay, ensuring the latter didn’t quite get to rub salt in Ghana’s wounds. Still, Ghana had been vanquished, sunk to the bottom of the group at another major tournament in the calendar year.
The Black Stars had lost their last game of the year, just as they had their first, a pre-Afcon friendly with Algeria. In all, Ghana were defeated in seven — almost half — of the 16 games played in 2022. They won just a fourth of the lot, including a couple of friendly victories.
Those two — ultimately valueless — wins in December over Switzerland and Korea did help lift the Black Stars from 60th position in the Fifa rankings (the worst of any team at the World Cup) to 58th, but, before you get the champagne off the ice to celebrate that marginal rise, you’d do well to remember that they began the year ranked No.52. It’s the first time, since the all-time low of 2004, that Ghana won’t end a year among Africa’s top ten teams.
The GFA now has the responsibility of appointing a successor to Addo — who, not unexpectedly, quit in the immediate aftermath of Ghana’s World Cup exit — but nobody knows for sure just how far along they are in that process. Should they get the pick right (with a minimum of fuss, hopefully, this time), though, 2023 could be a much brighter year.
Addo achieved precious little, but he leaves behind a promising pool of talent, youthful and packed with potential, and a savvy, single-minded tactician — not another unproven caretaker — could make plenty of that.
Bad as 2022 has been for the Black Stars — the team’s annus horribilis, surely — it could be remembered someday only as part of a learning curve, however torrid.
Enn Y. Frimpong — Ink & Kicks