On the same day – yesterday – Egyptian club Al-Masry announced the signing of Franck Etouga from Asante Kotoko, the Porcupine Warriors put up a performance at the Baba Yara Stadium that showed just how much they’re already missing the Cameroonian striker whose 21 goals powered them to the 2021/22 Ghana Premier League title and a return to the CAF Champions League.
Across both legs of their Champions League tie with RC Kadiogo of Burkina Faso, Kotoko had chances to wrap up qualification, only to be let down by startling profligacy, clearly lacking the sort of cutting edge Etouga provided so expertly last season.
Steven Mukwala, Etouga’s designated successor, doesn’t have his scoring boots on yet, and the rest of the team – featuring some players who have been part of the Kotoko fabric no more than a few weeks – seemed out of sync. The head coach, Seydou Zerbo, another recent acquisition, also looked out of sorts, against a side from his homeland.
Kotoko couldn’t build on a slim lead taken in the first leg, allowing Kadiogo to level with a priceless away goal of their own, before completing their capitulation with a shootout collapse that – even by the club’s own historically poor standards on the subject of penalties – was utterly embarrassing.
Kotoko, once more, had failed to clear the first hurdle in inter-club competition, moving a little farther away from the days when few teams could stand their might in Africa.
It wouldn’t have hurt so much, perhaps, if this exit had come at the hands of one of the continent’s other heavyweights; no, this was just Kadiogo, a side – like ASC Linguere, JSM Bejaia, Barrack Young Controllers, MC Eulma, CARA Brazzaville, and FC San Pedro before them – not fit to look Kotoko, African footballing royalty, in the eye.
The mood afterwards was so miserable that Kotoko’s official Twitter timeline still hasn’t been updated, many hours later, with the final outcome of the game. Don’t expect it to anytime soon.
What is guaranteed to start immediately – if it hasn’t already – is the inquest, the finger-pointing and the blame-apportioning. The official version of the narrative is still to come, but the fans had the knives out the instant Ivorian referee Patrick Tanguy Viel’s final whistle had gone.
The disappointment was intensely etched on their faces, expressed in words that aren’t all printable. They’d turned up in their thousands, even if not enough to occupy every single seat at this ginormous arena, to cheer their beloved team on to victory – only to have their hearts broken, again.
Surely, they’re justified in demanding accountability from the players, coaches and officials, but these fans also have a responsibility to look long and hard at themselves: they are as much at fault for the latest continental misadventure as everyone they seem so intent on digging those knives into.
For far too long, Kotoko – like every other Ghanaian club, yes, but especially lamentable, given the numbers they boast about – have struggled to fill the stands.
If that could be blamed on the fact that the club’s fortunes hadn’t been too endearing in that time – and also that they’d spent almost the entirety of the past two seasons playing home games outside their Kumasi fortress – it is hard to explain, then, why things didn’t improve significantly last term.
The biggest crowds seen in the course of that thrillingly triumphant campaign came when archrivals Accra Hearts of Oak visited and in the coronation game for which Kotoko had Elmina Sharks as guests, despite commendable efforts by management to woo fans in.
This, in at least two ways, affected Kotoko.
First, it denied the club of the financial muscle required to hold on to some of its most important players, and having to let go of a number of those – an exodus headlined by Etouga, mentioned at the outset – merely to get by. Those losses, in turn, necessitated the recruitment of one new face too many, some of whom just aren’t at the level required to compete successfully in Africa.
The other effect is less tangible, but no less evident.
The chemistry between a team and its supporters isn’t built in a day. It’s nurtured consistently, until a healthy and organic bond is developed that the players could reliably count on for sustenance. The atmosphere during so-called smaller games, in the effort to cultivate such a symbiotic relationship, is as crucial as that which is available on the grander occasions.
To ignore the team week after week, only to turn up for one big day and demand victory, is hardly reasonable; that’s akin to denying a child adequate nutrition all-year-round, then throwing him a one-time banquet and expecting a sudden growth spurt.
Some fans who were in attendance on Sunday have sworn not to pay to see the team play again this season, following the latest fiasco, but, while they obviously speak from a place of deep pain, it’s just the sort of sentiment that a supporter – by the very definition of the word/concept – shouldn’t express, regardless of the circumstances.
Take, for instance, Manchester United.
We all know how terrible they’ve been for the best part of the last decade. Yet even on the gloomiest of days – never mind the brightest – during this challenging period, Old Trafford has almost always been full at kick-off (unless, of course, they’re holding one of those ‘anti-Glazer’ protests).
The Kotoko faithful have a chance to show that kind of thick-and-thin commitment next Sunday when Hearts come to town. Neither team is in particularly great shape – the Phobians haven’t won either of their opening two games, now stumbling from one gruelling derby fixture to another – but, still, there couldn’t be a more testing way to start a league campaign, could there?
The players would need all the help they can get to ensure this setback, undeniably devastating as it is, doesn’t undermine Kotoko’s title defence even before it gets underway. Management and the technical team would have to galvanise the players for what lies ahead, but the fans also have a cut-out role to play in stirring up a rousing comeback.
Failure to do so would render their present anger null and void – unless, of course, they’re really angry with themselves.