Ismailia, EGYPT: A Zimbabwean fan cheers for "The Warriors" prior to the knock-out round game between the Black Stars of Ghana and Zimbabwe in the group D of the African Nations Cup (CAN) preliminary football, played in Ismailia, north of Cairo 31 January 2006. AFP PHOTO/ISSOUF SANOGO (Photo credit should read ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP via Getty Images)
If Ghanaians had any idea about just how good a time they’d have at the FIFA World Cup five months later, they probably wouldn’t have beaten themselves up so much over the group-stage elimination suffered at the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations.
It still stings, though, being Ghana’s only exit of such a humbling nature in the past 23 years, and fans of the Black Stars wouldn’t forget that painful, chastening experience any more than they would the opponent that inflicted it.
Ghana weren’t quite at full strength for that tournament in Egypt; a rather significant disadvantage, finding themselves in difficult Group D that included fellow continental heavyweights Nigeria and Senegal.
The Black Stars — conspicuously missing the likes of Asamoah Gyan and Michael Essien — narrowly lost to the former by a late, quickly-taken Taye Taiwo freekick before, just as narrowly, beating the latter 1-0 in the second group game.
That victory came at the cost of losing midfield gem Laryea Kingston who picked up a red card that ruled him out of the decisive third match (and, by extension, out of the wonderful summer to come).
Still, Ratomir Dujkovic and the rest of the nation must have felt confident that Ghana had more than enough ammunition to win their remaining fixture, against Zimbabwe, and pip Senegal to the other ticket on offer (Nigeria had already picked one).
That confidence wasn’t without justification. Ghana had never lost a competitive game against Zimbabwe, winning each of the last three, while the southern Africans had been defeated comfortably by both Senegal and Nigeria.
It didn’t seem to matter to even the most superstitious Ghana fan that their team was parading in unusual, all-new all-black kits, black being a colour traditionally associated with loss and mourning in most — if not all — Ghanaian cultures; this game was as much a should-win as it was a must-win.
But Zimbabwe came with their own script, quite different from what everyone else had in mind: one that would see Ghana’s Issah Ahmed open the scoring with an own goal after an hour, Premier League cult hero Benjani Mwaruwari double the lead eight minutes later, before Baba ‘Armando’ Adamu gave Ghana what barely amounted to a consolatory goal at the death.
That day in Ismailia would go down in Ghanaian football folklore as the ‘Black Tuesday’ — partly due to the cloak of gloom cast over the entire country by the result; partly due to those black outfits that would forever be consigned to history, never to see the light of day again — as Ghana failed to finish a job made even easier by Senegal’s loss to the Super Eagles in the other game.
Dujkovic’s Black Stars didn’t finish bottom of the group — that indignity was still Zimbabwe’s, despite their party-pooping powers — but they might as well have: most Ghanaians couldn’t tell the difference, anyway. The shirts may have been easy to banish, but the memories would linger awhile, before being purged later that year when the Black Stars shone bright at Germany 2006.
Zimbabwe, however, have continued to prove unyielding in subsequent meetings between the two national teams — albeit home-based versions of each — at the first two editions of the CHAN tournament, winning one (1-0; 2011) and drawing the other (2-2; 2009).
At the highest level, though, the first Ghana-Zimbabwe clashes since that which took place 15 years ago would be packed into the coming week, in a Qatar 2022 qualifying double-header. Zimbabwe, with just a point from two games thus far, are worst-ranked in Group G; Ghana, two points better, are only a little higher.
The respective underwhelming starts have convinced the national football associations of both countries to act swiftly by dismissing their trainers — Zdravko Logarusic for Zimbabwe, Charles Akonnor for Ghana — and re-installing familiar faces at the helm.
Former Zimbabwe international Norman Takanyariwa Mapeza has returned for a fourth caretaker spell — and his fifth, overall, as head coach — in charge of the Warriors, while Ghana has re-appointed Milovan Rajevac, the man whose technical guidance led the Black Stars to dizzying heights 11 years ago.
The Serbian seeks to shock a reaction from a group of players that hasn’t really inspired in recent games, starting in Cape Coast on October 9 and, three days later, in Harare. Success in that mission would land Ghana on firmer ground, while exacting a slice of long-delayed revenge.