Dark days ahead for Ghana's Black Stars after early Afcon exit?

Ghana's national team returned to Accra in the early hours of Thursday morning, landing to a very low-key reception after their Round of 16 penalty-shootout elimination by Tunisia at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations on Tuesday.

It wasn't meant to be this way.

The Black Stars have been serial semi-finalists at the biennial continental showpieces, never failing to make the final four in the last six editions of the tournament.

This time, the vague hope had been that they could finally end the country's 37-year wait for the gold, despite the evidence leading up to the tournament suggesting they'd be overachieving just to make the semis.

The Round of 16 exit - their earliest elimination from the competition since 2006 - could well bring the curtain down on this promising cycle for the national side, as well as a few of it's top stars.

Yet Ghana only have themselves to blame for their premature elimination from the competition, and face an uncertain period ahead as a result.

Returning coach, same old problems 

Kwesi Appiah returned as coach in April 2017, replacing Avram Grant, who had taken the Stars to the 2015 final and the 2017 semis. Appiah vowed to build a team for the future, but his third stint has been muddled, and he's been unable to break away from shadows of the past.

After Ghana broke new ground by reaching the World Cup quarter-finals in 2010 - a tournament squad which contained four players still present in Egypt - they turned to local coach Appiah, first in the aftermath of that competition, and then again in 2014.

While he oversaw the mesmeric 6-1 World Cup playoff first-leg victory over the dying embers of an iconic Egyptian team, his tenure was overshadowed by player selection issues.

Most notably, there was drama surrounding the big names who only returned to the fold as qualification for Brazil emerged as a distinct possibility, and disciplinary issues that undermined their performance at the tournament.

Two of those big names, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari, were expelled from the camp during the competition, while the image of John Boye kissing a fistful of dollars, after the nation's president flew in the team's contested $3 million bonus payment by chartered jet, became the defining image of the Black Stars' campaign in Brazil.

There have been similar issues since he returned in Grant's stead in 2017.

The Ayew brothers, Jordan and Andre, returned to the squad ahead of the 2019 Afcon after their latest international exile, with the pair having opted out of a World Cup qualifier against Congo-Brazzaville in September 2017 before being overlooked by Appiah in the intervening 18 months.

Another experienced big-name stay-away, Kwadwo Asamoah, was coaxed back to the team by Appiah after sitting out Grant's tenure, only to find himself on a collision course with the football association due to a dispute about his best position.

Ultimately, the 30-year-old Internazionale man, who won six Serie A titles with Juventus, played just 82 minutes in Egypt. He's one player who may have reached the end of the road with the national side; so too may Asamoah Gyan.

The Gyan distraction 

Despite an underwhelming season at club level with Kayserispor - 14 appearances, all from the bench - and also not featuring for the national side after that infamous double-header against Congo-Brazzaville, Gyan was restored to the fold by Appiah.

The issue of the captaincy rose its ugly head before the tournament, when the erstwhile skipper was informed that he was being made 'general captain', and Andre Ayew would be 'team captain' - and wear the armband.

Gyan, who was named in Appiah's preliminary squad, duly withdrew his participation and retired from international football, citing, pointedly, "the purported undermining the country has seen under my captaincy" in a letter published on his social handles.

This prompted the nation's president, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, to 'request' the forward's participation as it was "in the national interest" for him to be present in Egypt.

You wonder what His Excellency made of Baby Jet's showing in Egypt. The Black Stars centurion played 12 minutes against Cameroon, and six minutes of normal time, plus extra time, against Tunisia.

While the players will not discuss the reported rift between Ayew and Gyan, there was a certain frostiness between the duo on the touchline when Appiah replaced the former with the latter as Ghana chased the game.

Instead of handing his armband to the incoming 'general captain,' Ayew sprinted 35 yards to give the captaincy to Boye, having initially considered Thomas Partey for the role.

It was a moment, a detail, but it said enough about the state of this collection of players, the bubbling frissons in the side, and perhaps, Gyan's desire to eschew all responsibility.

Emotion overload

There's always been a seam of emotion running through this Black Stars collective; if channelled correctly, it can be a strength for a team, but if it overspills, it can be fatal.

This was evident in Jordan Ayew's hysterics at the conclusion of the 2015 final in Bata, and even as Wakaso Mubarak entered the press conference room - weeping unconsolably - after Ghana's shootout defeat this week.

There's something to admire about these visceral shows of patriotism, the agony of sport, but it's hard to ignore the sense that Gyan and the rest believe their own hype and sense of destiny a little too much.

Indulgence by the federation has surely swelled the sense of importance, evident in Gyan's petulant response to having the armband withdrawn from him.

After all, how many other nations of Ghana's relative stature would countenance a captain emblazoning the national team's armband with an image of himself, as Gyan did in June 2017?

In how many others would the 'general captain,' the most experienced player, and the nation's leading scorer of all time, be allowed an exemption from penalty-taking duties in the shootout?

"I blame you people for that, you understand?" Gyan told journalists when questioned about the pressure of the shootout getting to the players.

"I don't want to get emotional, but that's all I can say."

At least Ayew did stand up to be counted after the match: "We fought as a team, and I feel, as a Ghanaian, as a leader, that no player should be held responsible.

"As the leader of the team," he added pointedly. "I take all of the responsibilities for the players, and we are going to work and make sure we come back stronger.

"When you do good, you have to say it, and when you do bad, you have to also take responsibilities for it."

Penalties: Truly a lottery for Ghana?

Ayew, along with coach Appiah, rued Ghana's luck after their shootout loss.

"Penalties are a 50-50 game," said the captain. "Sometimes you're lucky, sometimes you're not."

"When it comes to penalties, it can go either way," added Appiah. "So it was just unfortunate."

But that's not strictly true for the Black Stars, and for this collection of players. They've now lost their last four shootouts at the Afcon, and are without a win from spot-kicks since defeating Libya to win the title in 1982.

In fact, this collection of players have been eliminated from three of the last four Afcons on penalties, with the only exception being their semi-final defeat by Cameroon in 2017.

"It's true," Appiah reflected. "On several competitions Ghana have lost out on penalties, it's something we've been working on since we started camp in Dubai, but when it comes to penalties, it can go either way.

"It's easy to [make judgements as to] why the country is not performing."

Perhaps Ghana must look within, at the emotion and the entitlement, to understand why they continue to fall short at the sharp end of the competition.

Eye to the future

There's optimism, of course, and enough reasons to understand why Appiah's line after the match was one of evolution rather than revolution.

"Even though we could not qualify for the next stage, I still think we have a good crop of players, a good blend of the young and the old," he said.

"Personally, I think that it's not the best to just build a new team, you have to build on what you have."

The return of Abdul Rahman Baba to form and fitness for the first time since the 2017 Afcon is a significant positive, as have been the performances of Kasim Adams and the emergence of Samuel Owusu, even if a mid-tournament injury to Christian Atsu denied Ghana their most creative player.

"The future looks good," said Jonathan Mensah, optimistically. "In general, [the tournament] was good, even if we didn't get to where we wanted to be. It's promising."

"We have young [players] in the team who need to be given the chance to blossom in the national colours," concluded Gyan, when asked about his own future.

"I could call this tournament my last, having represented Ghana at this level seven times."

There are green shoots, perhaps, but it may well take a significant mentality shift and a calmer, more measured approach if Ghana are going to realise their title ambitions.