Tokyo 2020: Ghana Football’s Olympic Flame, First Lit In Japan, Has Gone Cold
Six decades later, the sixties remain the most defining period in the history of Ghana’s senior national team, the Black Stars, a period during which so much was — yet so much more could have been — achieved.
In 1963, Ghana made its Africa Cup of Nations bow and won it; two years later, perhaps even more impressively, they retained the title to cement their place as the new — and strongest — kids on the block.
Ghana were on a roll, looking like they could sweep the tray clean for a good while. And they might well have, but for the coup d’etat of 1966 that overthrew the government of football-loving head of state Dr. Kwame Nkrumah and destabilised, in one fell swoop, the foundations from which the Black Stars’ early gains had been built.
Before that run was over, though, Ghana enjoyed another high that, though not rewarded with silverware, would be as memorable for altogether different reasons. Slid between their two Nations Cup conquests, like a dollop of chocolate cream hemmed in by two thick slices of ‘A1’ bread, was an appearance at the 1964 Olympic Games.
With that, Ghana formally announced themselves to the football world — 42 years before they did so on the bigger stage of the Fifa World Cup — and made quite a statement, when the Games first came to Tokyo, Japan’s capital.
But first, of course, they had to get there.
The journey begun with a high-scoring two-legged tie against Liberia that squeezed the Black Stars through into the final phase, where Tunisia, winners of a coin toss over Dahomey (now Benin) in the previous round, awaited.
North African sides were the cream of the continent’s footballing crop at the time, but ambitious, red-hot Ghana upset the odds to become the first sub-Saharan African country to make an appearance at the Olympics; for company, they had Morocco and the United Arab Republic (UAR, as Egypt were known).
Ghana landed in Group D, alongside Japan, Argentina and Italy. The latter’s subsequent disqualification for using professional players during the qualification series opened up the group quite a bit (the Italians already had a history of picking Olympic medals so, yea, good riddance!), but it also meant Ghana had to make the most of its two games.
And they did just that.
The test of a tough opener against Argentina was passed reasonably well, with Edward Acquah’s 80th-minute goal cancelling out a first-half lead taken by the more experienced South Americans. Four days later, Ghana impressed even more in beating the hosts 3-2, courtesy of goals from Sam Acquah, Joseph Agyemang-Gyau and Edward Aggrey-Fynn.
The three points picked from those games — two for a win, one for a draw — was enough to see Ghana top the group, quite remarkably, as debutants.
A quarter-final date with the UAR, the only other African team to make it out of their group.
Unlike Ghana, the UAR hadn’t won their pool, finishing behind Czechoslovakia, but they had recovered from a poor start to thrash South Korea 10-0 in their third game and record their only win of the first round.
The UAR were still in that free-scoring mood when they turned up against Ghana in Saitama on October 18, blowing their opponents apart with five well-taken goals that took the sting out of Wilberforce Mfum’s solitary strike for the Black Stars.
But Ghana didn’t have to pack their bags just yet; there was some ‘consolation’ to be had, in a series of games arranged for teams that were no longer in the running for medals. Ghana still had the chance to finish as high as fourth, but they’d have to overcome two of three teams to do so.
Romania were the first — Japan/Yugoslavia the others — but Ghana, still reeling from the thumping suffered only a couple of days prior, wilted in a 4-2 defeat. In the final rankings, Ghana finished seventh — hardly embarrassing for a team that, for all the impact made in its nascent years, was still fairly new on the international scene.
The next two Olympics — in Mexico City and Munich — would see Ghana participate but not excel as much. They finished bottom in 1968, for instance, before a 20-year absence from the Games (they did qualify in 1976 and 1980, but withdrew both times due to political reasons).
And then came that wonderful summer of 1992 in Barcelona, Spain, when Ghana returned to the Olympics and did what no African football team before them had ever done: win medals.
The late Sam Arday’s squad — a mix of Ghana’s best domestic and foreign talent, including some of the starlets of the country’s triumph at the previous year’s Fifa U-17 World Championship — dazzled and muscled their way to the podium and to bronze.
That success would inspire two of Ghana’s neighbours, Nigeria and Cameroon, to go even further at the next two editions, winning gold. But Ghana have since lost their own spark, only appearing at two more tournaments without particularly impressing, the most recent being a group-stage exit at Athens 2004.
As the Games return to Tokyo, 57 years after Ghana made its mark there, there would be a stark realisation of just how far the national Olympic team — now the Black Meteors, following the downgrading of the event to U-23 level in the nineties — has fallen.
At 2019’s Africa U-23 Cup of Nations, the Meteors, under the tactical leadership of Ibrahim Tanko, were only a converted penalty or two away from qualifying for the upcoming Olympics, being beaten — first by Ivory Coast, and then South Africa — to a ticket.
The task of restoring Africa’s lost glories now falls to the South Africans (second runners-up), Ivorians (losing finalists) and victorious hosts Egypt, and Ghanaians — especially those old enough to remember the strides made in ’64 and/or ’92 — would be left wondering whether the nation’s Olympic flame could ever burn as bright again.