“Is it Africa!? Is it Africa!? It is…!!” Gary Bloom’s ecstatic commentary after Emmanuel Agyeman Badu converted the winning penalty in the 2009 FIFA U-20 World cup final sends shivers down the spine when one recalls that night of bliss. Ghana had become the first African nation to win the coveted U-20 World Cup and had done it on an African turf in Egypt. Ghana’s U-20 team, the Black Satellites were deserved winners of the competition scoring sixteen (16) goals in seven (7) matches on their way to glory.
The squad boasted of young talents like Daniel Agyei in goal, Jonathan Mensah in the Central Defence, David Addy and Samuel Inkoom at Left Back and Right Back, Andre Ayew and Abeiku Quansah on the Attacking Flanks and the striking partnership of Dominic Adiyiah and Ransford Osei. It might go without saying that Coach Silas Tetteh had a perfect blend of players to execute his fluid attacking style.
Throughout the tournament, the squad exuded confidence and kept fans positively at the edge of their seats in the triumphant campaign. But upon commemorating ten years after this seemingly blissful fairy tale, it will be admitted that with the exception of a couple of players, most members of the squad failed to realise their potential.
It seems to be a regular occurrence, where Ghana’s youth football teams have numerous potential superstars but after sparkling on the international juvenile stage, these talents fade away into obscurity never to grace the stage at senior level.
The anniversary of the Under-20 triumph coinciding with the reforms in the Ghana Football Association presents the perfect opportunity to end this phenomenon.
In the writer’s opinion, the development of the local football game can be a quintessential method to realise the potential of youth prospects and curb the frequent loss of our talents in foreign countries.
REALISING POTENTIAL: COMPARING AND CONTRASTING
Over the last decade and a half, Ghana’s Under-17 team of 2007 and Under-20 teams of 2009 and 2013 are probably the most noteworthy. Those teams were exciting, they excelled at the international stage and comprised several players we hoped would have had stellar footballing careers like previous youth stars like Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari and Stephen Appiah of yesteryear, who we can confidently conclude, hit the pinnacle of global football in their careers. Unfortunately, the dreams of these latter-day stars never became a reality.
Looking at the clubs where the members of those squads currently ply their trade, fills not only Ghanaian football pundits but every observer with disappointment. Some of these players became journey men, failing to nail a place at any club and moving almost every transfer window.
Others staggered at less flamboyant leagues somewhere on the globe where it would be difficult for the rest of the world to appreciate their exploits. Many of such players never earned any caps for the senior nation team.
One of such talents, Dominic Adiyiah, approaching the twilight of his profession would not have many crests in his career aside the golden boot and the best player awards in the 2009 tournament. In comparison to Brazil’s Douglas Costa who made it to the final but was not one of the top three players at the tourney, we see a sharp contrast in professional progress.
Douglas Costa has had a steady rise in his career from Gremio through to Juventus in Italy. With Alex Texeira who won the Silver ball behind Adiyiah, it will be difficult to argue that any player from the 2009 squad can match his record breaking €50 million deal from Shakhtar Donetsk to Jiangsu Suning in China in January 2016- a deal which ousted an earlier €32 million bid from Premier League giants, Liverpool.
Another talent from the U-17 and the U-20 winning squad, Ransford Osei stood on the same podium as Toni Kroos on the 2007 FIFA U-17 World Cup in South Korea when he placed second on the scoring chart with the latter coming third. A little over a decade later, Kroos has not just had an illustrious career with both club and country but is a household name in Germany and in Spain where he plies his club trade currently.
What can be said about our promising talents Osei, Sadick Adams, Ishmael Yartey, Isaac Donkor, Abeiku Quansah or Philip Boampong?
This trend is similarly observed with the squad that placed third in the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey. Although Baba Rahman, Richard Ofori and recently Richmond Boakye-Yiadom fairly survive in the limelight for now, promising talents like Ebenezer Assifuah and Clifford Aboagye who won the Top goal scorer and Third Best Player respectively are nowhere to be found in football parlance today. Contrast this with Paul Pogba, who won the Best Player of the tournament.
Along with his compatriots from that tournament, Samuel Umtiti, Florian Thauvin and Alphonse Areola, were integral to the France World Cup winning team of 2018. Others like Kurt Zouma, Geoffery Kondogbia, Mario Lemina and Lucas Digne are now familiar names in the world of football.
In the writer’s opinion most of these players have developed from youth prospect into established players because of the proper structures they have enjoyed or still enjoy from their home country. Thus, the reason they feature prominently in world football today.
Correct guidance and grooming develops a larger pool of talent into the next generation of elite footballers who win laurels at senior national and club level. There is a strong argument in favour of this point considering Chile’s team at the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada. This team comprised the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Mauricio Isla, Gary
Medel and Arturo Vidal. After winning the Bronze medal in 2007, these players developed to form the core of La Rojas side that won consecutive Copa America championships in 2015 and 2016- denying Lionel Messi’s Argentina on both occasions.
Although one can sympathise with the Argentine Senior team after losing 3 consecutive finals across major tournaments, the development of those squads is a good example that Ghana can follow.
The Albicelestes, over the last decade have seen Javier Mascherano, Pablo Zabaleta, Carlos Tevez from the 2003 U-17 World cup team that finished fourth, Lionel Messi, Ezekiel Garay and Lucas Biglia from the 2005 U-20 World Cup triumph and Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Sergio Romero from the 2007 U-20 World Cup winning team. Several of these players were also part of the team that won gold at the 2008 Olympic games.
The model the Argentines adopted did not only churn out good players from their youth teams on a consistent basis but also produced world-renowned Argentine coaches like Marcelo Bielsa and Jose Perkerman who had amazing talent to work with. Their successes have not only been with Argentine youth teams but with other national teams and clubs around the world.
The Colombia team of the 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup squad comprising David Ospina, Cristian Zapata, Juan Camilo Zuniga, Abel Aguilar and Fredy Guarin were a vital block of the Columbia’s 2014 World Cup squad that won our hearts. Radamel Falcao is a member of the 2005 team but missed the World Cup after sustaining a serious knee injury prior to the competition.
It is on record that the German Football Association, DFB, after the Euro 2000 debacle set its sights on producing great players at the youth level in order to return to its glory days. In 2001 the Bundesliga ordered all its teams to run a youth academy- a directive which would later be extended to the teams in the Bundesliga 2. Club licensing was conditioned on teams employing full-time youth coaches, teams earned higher funding depending on the grade of their academies and heavy overall investment was made into the grassroot game. Unsurprisingly, out of the side that won the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Manuel Neuer, Benedikt Howedes, Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil were part of the team that won the 2009 Euro Under-21 Championship and were products of the DFBs major investments at the German youth level.
Perennial underachievers, England, have also seen the light and hope that they can also translate their youth football reforms into senior team success. In 2012, the FA adopted youth development plans with the objective of producing potential medal winning players for the senior national team.
The scheme is already reaping rewards as England won both the FIFA U-17 and U-20 World Cup tournaments in 2017. Jadon Sancho, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Rhian Brewster, Dean Henderson and Angel Gomes from the U-17 squad as well as Fikayo Tomori, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Dominic Calvert-Lewin from the U-20 team are already important first team members at their respective clubs.
These are concrete examples that prove that Ghana has not made credible conscious efforts in the bid to groom its players from youth level to reach appreciable zeniths compared to the manner in which other nations and football federations have.
LOCAL FOOTBALL: THE SOLUTION
So how can Ghana through local football development, solve the recurrent problem of youth players, especially those from Ghana’s junior national teams failing to develop into established professionals for club and country?
First, through Marketing and publicity. This is probably the most effective way of attracting investment and overall attention to local football. Social media is one of the easiest means of achieving this. Publicity through social media has immensely helped advertise various forms of entertainment and the football sector can replicate this seamlessly.
We can learn from what the Ghanaian tourism industry has achieved through social media with the ‘Year of Return’ agenda. Media campaigns, Promotional videos and celebrity endorsements are just a few examples of the many ways of publicity.
This marketing and publicity would then extend to local junior level and school competitions where players can be scouted and groomed. Local football is an entertainment product, like local music and films.
The football entertainment product has a global market with many facets in a like manner. Branding and Marketing local football has been a poor performing area over the years but it possesses the key to unravelling the lucrative venture that it is.
Secondly clubs and national teams should have adequate support in the Sports Science departments because of its immense advantages in the modern game. Tapping the wealth of knowledge in sports science has proven to be advantageous for several clubs and national teams and will definitely further the cause of youth development through data collection, training and evaluating player performances.
Indigenous coaches and technical staff should be assisted to upgrade their skills to keep abreast with up-to-date trends in the game. Football coaching should be encouraged among retired players and scholars from other fields of study aside football and this would upgrade the quality of technical staff. Producing modern day Sir Cecil Jones Attuquayefio and E. K. Afranie is integral in player development.
More important, local football administrators and player intermediaries (agents) must also be encouraged to streamline their operations to be in-sync with the national objectives due to their importance and influence over players in the modern game. The haste in seeking to realise profits from investing in local players is a major factor hindering youth player development. But good local football systems can mitigate this desire.
The need for development of the local game is crucial in light of Article 19 of the FIFA Regulations for the Status and Transfer of Players. Under the provision, international transfers of players under the age of eighteen (18) years is prohibited.
There are three stern exceptions to this rule and big European clubs have faced sanctions for breaching them- including Real Madrid, Barcelona and Chelsea who are currently serving two transfer window bans as a result.
It does not augur well for nations who lack befitting grassroot systems. This is because parents and intermediaries (agents) of talented players from nations like Ghana often desire that their prodigies develop with world class facilities and coaching which mostly does not exist locally.
By Article 19 of the Regulations, players under the age of 18 in Ghana cannot transfer to other countries unless they fall under one of the strict exceptions. With the current state of our local football systems, failing to thoroughly aid our youth players in their development, Ghana football may continue to experience the trend of unrealised potential, unless local football receives the deserved attention.
A vibrant local football system will produce a flourishing player development system where youth team players undergo academic and technical training like their counterparts around the world. Youth players who graduate to the first team early would experience competitive games and improve their standards.
Youth players would greatly benefit from a vibrant local football league system as a whole since they would be required to perform at high levels in order to graduate to the first team. Players who excel at international tournaments especially at national level will not be pressured to sojourn outside Ghana to ply their trade in lesser known football leagues.
This has been a particular factor in contributing to the exodus of talented players and their consequential professional progression failures.
It would also reduce the problem of age-cheating among our footballers, where players intentionally alter their birth dates to be deemed younger than they actually are. This ill practice is prevalent because the lack of local structure and facilities impede the development of our young players and causes them resort to using their ‘Football age’ in order to buy them time among their contemporaries when they arrive at the global level.
A local football league which can afford competitive wages and good playing conditions would be difficult for young players to turn down in favour of foreign countries where their subsequent welfare is not absolutely guaranteed. Youth players who partake in international tournaments and return to the local league would also have healthier opportunities to mature into the stars of tomorrow.
Such opportunities often do not exist for foreign youth players outside their home countries. Indeed, there have been reports by several Ghanaian players of preferential treatment in favour of homegrown nationals of foreign nations with regard to playing time and other opportunities which seriously hampers their development.
Players who decide to play abroad on attaining the age of 18 or later will not lag behind their foreign colleagues since they would already be exposed to updated coaching methods- a plight that many of our foreign exports have suffered.
It is an undeniable fact that if the game in our home country thrives, it will have a rippling effect on the senior national team especially when mixed with foreign trained players that would come to the fore from time to time.
The proposed solutions would demand dedication and sacrifice in order to achieve its full-fledged advantages. Evidently, the desire for player intermediaries and club investors to realise the profit from investing in players may be the main challenge. But good local football structures can control this as stated earlier.
There is inspiration in the fact that there are several African leagues or local football systems that are thriving and there is clear evidence of the attainable rewards in its development.
In the Writer’s opinion, there is a huge craving for local football after the long hiatus and there is a strong sense of nostalgia when we reminisce the days the premier league and colts football were at their peak.
The new dawn is an opportunity to use the appetite for local football to revamp the local game and youth player development in view of the endless potential it possesses. We are approaching forty years without the Black Stars winning a major trophy and the Black Stars team B have failed to qualify for three consecutive CHAN tournaments.
The fact that these droughts have occurred despite various successes of national youth teams within that period is an inconsistency whose antidote can be found in fulfilling the potential of our youth prospects through proper investment in the country’s local football systems.
By: Yaw Owusu-Ababio A lawyer and a youth football enthusiast.