Ghana and Nigeria have gambled on leaving out their disruptive influences – but history has shown that the team is paramount
There is a new mood of militancy about west African football. The buildup to previous Cups of Nations has often been dominated by will-he-won't-he sagas as big-name players decide whether they really want to take a month out of the league season to go to play for their countries. This year, the coaches have hit back. The Ghana coach, Kwesi Appiah, on Monday omitted Marseille's André Ayew from his squad after the Marseille winger reportedly turned up late for a squad get-together; he follows Nigeria's Steve Keshi, who had already refused to select Peter Odemwingie and Shola Ameobi on the grounds they didn't seem bothered enough about representing their country.
There are those who insist Ayew is the victim of a personality clash with Appiah but the coach's reasoning seemed clear enough. "All the players were given the deadline of Saturday to report to camp in Abu Dhabi," he said in a statement on the Ghanaian FA's website. "Unfortunately André did not turn up despite being released by his club and air tickets provided by the GFA for him to travel from France to beat the deadline. As he did not turn up by Saturday night, I ordered for him to be contacted over his absence, but he said he could not depart from France because he was seeing his doctors."
Problems began early last week when Ayew suffered a hamstring pull in training. Marseille wrote to the GFA to explain the situation and seemingly accepted a request to release the winger so he could be assessed by Ghana's team doctors over the weekend. With the squad on Wednesday due to leave for the tournament in South Africa, which begins on 19 January, Ayew was then given an extension to Monday but, when he failed to meet that, Appiah decided he had no chance to assess his fitness and therefore had to leave him out.
It may be that the hamstring injury is a useful excuse for both sides. That relations between Ayew and Appiah were tense was obvious in October when the player appeared to insult the coach as he left the pitch having been substituted in Ghana's final Nations Cup qualifier against Malawi. Ayew then refused to shake hands with the team director, Sabahn Quaye, and his team-mates on the bench. The GFA gave Ayew a week to apologise. He did so, but Appiah issued a warning even in accepting it: "I wish to remind all players of the Black Stars that any act of indiscipline will not be tolerated as we focus on preparing for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations." Leaving out Ayew reinforces that message.
Less dramatically, it's been a similar story in Nigeria. Keshi was a tough and muscular centre-back and he is a tough and muscular manager, as anybody who saw him grab Emmanuel Adebayor by the throat on the team bus after Togo had lost to DR Congo at the Cup of Nations in 2006 can attest. He has been adamant since taking the job last year that he wants only players who are fully committed. That initially meant leaving out Mikel John Obi and Odemwingie but although the Chelsea midfielder has returned, the West Brom forward has not.
Odemwingie has proved a disruptive presence in the past, publicly criticising the tactical approach taken by Shuaibu Amodu at the 2010 Cup of Nations, blaming the then manager Lars Lagerback for Nigeria's early exit from the 2010 World Cup and engaging in a Twitter spat with Samson Siasia, Keshi's predecessor.
"He said he was unhappy at how he was treated in the past in the national team. He explained that prior to Nigeria's participation at the 2010 World Cup, he played in all the qualifying games but was dropped at the finals," said Keshi. "He said he was angry at the treatment meted out to him but did not discuss it with anyone. I told him that was not the best way to handle issues and that if he had already decided not to play for the national team, he should have opened up to me when I invited him to play."
The 31-year-old took to Twitter to criticise Keshi and subsequently explained that he had asked to be considered for the Cup of Nations but hadn't been able to get hold of the coach. Communication seems an ongoing issue with Nigeria and with Keshi: he gave up his attempts to persuade Ameobi to defy Newcastle United and play in the Cup of Nations after repeatedly failing to get through to the centre-forward. With Taye Taiwo and Obafemi Martins also omitted, Keshi has sent out a statement just as clear as Appiah's: nobody is indispensable.
Adebayor bucks the trend. He has finally decided to play for Togo at the tournament after initially expressing fears over security. His position in Togolese football is, of course, very different to that of Ayew in Ghana or Odemwingie in Nigeria, as by far the biggest name, but if anybody can be forgiven hesitation, it is surely a player who was on the bus attacked by gunmen in Cabinda on its way to the 2010 tournament.
Zambia's victory in Libreville last February was a hugely moving and emotional triumph but it also provided a template. That was a squad that included just one player, Emmanuel Mayuka, who played for a top-flight side in Europe. Their success was rooted in humility, togetherness and organisation – and, by the end, an unstoppable sense of their own destiny. There were no stars and discipline was rigorously enforced: early in the tournament last year, the Zambia coach, Hervé Renard, sent the midfielder Clifford Mulenga home after he refused to apologise after breaking a curfew.
Ghana, in fact, know from their own recent history the importance of togetherness. The side that reached the final of the Cup of Nations in 2010 and was within a Luis Suárez handball and a missed Asamoah Gyan penalty of a World Cup semi-final in South Africa was effectively formed at the moment Milovan Rajevac dropped Sulley Muntari for his tardiness in paying a fine imposed after he, Gyan and Michael Essien skipped a friendly. Muntari ended up being omitted from the squad for Angola where a young side, forged at the Under-20 World Cup in Egypt a year earlier, proved its worth.
For a couple of decades African football has been beholden to the big names who have established reputations in Europe. In certain cases – George Weah in Liberia or Didier Drogba in Ivory Coast, for instance – the leadership provided by those players has been overwhelmingly positive, but too often egos have been indulged and petty jealousies have developed as a result. What Zambia and Rajovac's Ghana show is that the team is always paramount. Keshi and Appiah have gambled, and if things go wrong there is no one else to share the blame, but at least they will be succeeding or failing on their own terms. It's a shame for the tournament to be stripped of big names and gifted players, but far more important is that teams should play as such.
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