Left at the Altar


Rajevac leaves Ghanaian fans in a lurch


Milovan Rajevac’s departure has touched a nerve among many Ghanaians. It is difficult to put a finger on it but my sense is that the main source of frustration is with the manner in which this departure or non-departure is playing out. We all want to scream “Just leave already” even as we prefer he remains.

The last time a coach garnered such a cult was when the German Otto Pfister came through in the 1990s. But while he will be remembered for coaching the Stars to the final of the 1992 African Cup of Nations, he mainly occupied our minds for the way he wore his jeans – even inspiring a fad in Ghana where young people sagged their jeans. Rajevac is different though. Here is a man who doesn’t speak directly to the Ghanaian public. He speaks through an interpreter. His words are always filtered. He is like a chief in Ghanaian culture who speaks through a linguist in that sense. He seems detached from us and moreso on the bench; his shrugging-off of assistant Kwesi Appiah after beating Serbia this summer an example of that. Yet, if he seems inaccessible to us, he is tied to the national identity which is the Black Stars. 

And he wanted to stay. Rajevac was probably the first foreign coach in the last decade who seemed ready to remain for a prolonged period. His assurances after the World Cup that he was committed to coaching the Black Stars were unusual in that often the coaches remain non-committal. They repeat variations of the phrase ‘I don’t know what the future holds but my people will meet with your people and see whether we can come to an agreement’. Typically, these statements are uttered knowing full well that there are lucrative offers they are likely to accept. The other tactic is to say after a campaign that they will go on holiday and will weigh their options. The final one is when there is silence.

But Rajevac was different. His public pronouncements were firm and they were music to our ears. He was not after money. He enjoyed working with the boys and wanted to continue and we felt his sincerity. Even as we thought his conflict with his manager was strange, we wanted to believe him.

The dance with a coach is akin to a romantic exercise. Our relationship with some coaches in the past has been either like casual relationships where both parties knew it was going to be short term or serious dating where the parties grow apart. Milo seemed ready to make that leap. He had found the one. And it made sense. He would have the opportunity to coach a young team for the next four years, earn some good money compared to other national team coaches (based on reported salaries of coaches at World Cup),have some stability and probable success. On Ghana’s end, Ghanaians liked the success at the Cup of Nations and World Cup and had warmed to his team even as they expressed frustration at times with his tactics. His team building approach, injection of youth and discipline won general support. The GFA would avoid the thankless job of looking for a new coach with no guarantee of finding one who worked as well with this team as Milo did.

So in many ways he has left us at the altar. At the point of saying ‘I do’ he ran out of church to check on the damsel he saw on his way in, whose dashing smile and gorgeous eyes made him pause and think of what could be elsewhere. 

Like the jilted lover at the altar we are in shock, confused. We cannot believe he would take us for a ride in this manner and worse prolong our agony in an endless ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ routine. In addition, Rajevac would join the legion of foreign coaches who have used Ghana as a stepping-stone on the way to riches. Ultimately, some of that backlash among fans has been because no one likes being used time and again. But it is worse this time because we thought this was a different man.

Placed in a larger context, our history has suggested that the relationship with foreigners can be exploitative, and these developments may feed into that narrative. But one must not overreact. 

It will be a pity if the recent developments reinforce this thinking because it need not be. For there are areas where through joint cooperation and mutually beneficial partnerships, local capacity can be built and national objectives achieved. After all, many local coaches will acknowledge that there are benefits from their exposure to foreign expertise and ideas.

In the search for a new coach, we must not make a decision on the rebound.

All He Does Is Win

Will he stay or go?

Ghana’s Black Stars strode to an easy 3-0 win against the Sihlangu Semnikati (King’s Shield) of Swaziland Sunday. The victory has since been overshadowed by uncertainty surrounding coach Milovan Rajevac’s stay as Ghana’s manager.

While the Ghana Football Association are ready to consummate a deal there are a few hitches. The latest hold up is a dispute between Rajevac and his manager. It is unclear how any disagreement with his manager is an impediment to him remaining as Ghana’s coach. Adding more fuel to the fire has been the story of ‘Milo’ bolting to Saudi Arabia to coach Al-Ahly football club. Through all of this Rajevac’s public posture has not changed. He wants to remain Ghana coach. In the next week we will know whether he stays or goes.

Despite the success of the Stars over the last two years, one of the recurring criticisms against Rajevac has been that he is too defensive so if he leaves a cross section of fans may well be happy to see him go. But the Swazi match shows that the Stars can still bury weak teams with multiple goals and should comfort those fans. Yet it is my guess that Milo could care less whether it was 1-0 or 2-0. All he cares about is the W and the clean sheet. And who can begrudge a man when all he does is win?

The Swaziland game though was a good reminder of what the Black Stars have become under ‘Milo’ and what FIFA’s technical committee during the World Cup recognized. They are stingy defensively, well organized and opportunistic. In modern football, you are never guaranteed a win but that formula combined with the strength and skills of the Ghanaian player could form the basis of a winning tradition for the next few years.

Sunday’s match was a clear example in showing how he manages like he is playing chess. He plans for the opposition in front of him but in the process thinks a number of steps ahead. This is clear in how he varied tactics throughout the game and in the way he used his substitutions. After eschewing the 4-4-2 for the World Cup, at times in this game he played with Prince Tagoe and Asamoah Gyan as out and out strikers. That combination led to the second goal. It is a permutation the public has clamored for. But Rajevac, did not do it to satisfy the public. My guess is that he was keen to see how his team adapts to a 4-4-2 and among the things he was looking for was how vulnerable the Stars would become defensively with that adjustment. Also he would have wanted to see what personnel he can rely on to play that system. Rajevac has shown that he is not afraid to bring in new blood and he did it again by bringing Jordan Ayew on. At first Ayew played on the right but after a few minutes he was shifted to a more central striking role to support Tagoe. In 15 minutes Rajevac assessed Ayew in two positions, something he can draw on in the future.

It is this sort of thinking, in-game management and forward thinking that makes Rajevac one of the better coaches we’ve had in recent memory and why it would be disappointing if he does not return. Still not convinced? Let me recap. First African country to qualify for 2010 World Cup finals.  Only African country to go past first round at 2010. African Cup of Nations final – something Ghana have not done since 1992 and all with a squad at times devoid of stars like Michael Essien.

Finally and just as important is that to Rajevac’s credit, he has embraced Ghana as much as we’ve embraced the team he has assembled. How many times have coaches left as soon as they preside over modest success? Too many. ‘Milo’ though has shown unusual patience and commitment, even working beyond the stated terms of his previous contract and without a new one.

Now how is that for a winning attitude?

Black Stars Ease to 3-0 Victory over Swaziland


Dede Ayew opened scoring for Stars Photo Credit: Senyuiedzorm Adadevoh


In the Black Stars first competitive match since the World Cup, Andre ‘Dede’ Ayew scored early in the first half in what was a comfortable victory. The rest of the victory were made in Germany. Hoffenheim’s Prince Tagoe and Schalke’s Hans Adu Sarpei completed the scoring in the second half. Sarpei’s goal is his first for the country. Despite the now regular loss of focus at the start of the second half that gave the initiative to the Swazis in an unnerving 10 minute stretch, the Stars never looked in danger of losing. And it was always going to be a question of how convincing the score would be. 

The second goal put any nerves to rest, restored some fluidity to the Stars passing and allowed Milovan Rajevac to hand Jordan Ayew his first cap. The 18-year-old Ayew came on for his older brother Dede and is the next player in what is becoming football royalty. Naturally he was happy with his debut. The third goal put icing on the victory and  Samuel Inkoom came in late to relieve Asamoah Gyan. The switch moved Jordan Ayew from the right wing to a striker. He partnered Tagoe who looked much more comfortable playing up top than as a winger. 

Richard Kingson continued to show that age is nothing but a number as he kept a clean sheet. Kwadwo Asamoah looked reborn in the midfield. More solid performances from him and he will put his so so World Cup behind him fast. 

In other group I news, Sudan beat Congo 2-0 and will probably be our main challengers in qualifying for 2012. Ghana plays Sudan at home on October 10.  

But before that, the Black Stars will face the Warriors of Zimbabwe in a friendly on Wednesday. Look for Rajevac to make some changes and try some of his bench players. He will also be keen to try out different formations and see how versatile some of his players are.


I remember eagerly anticipating Accra Hearts of Oak vs Kumasi Asante Kotoko matches on Ghana Television in the 90s. Those were the days of Joe Debrah, Sarfo Gyamfi, Shamo ‘leather’ Quaye, Ablade ‘Sabato’ Kumah and Emmanuel Armah ‘Senegal’ to name a few. One league match in particular sticks out. 

Kotoko were leading in the match, the ‘rees’ and ‘ofuns’ were ringing out in the stadium when the party tricks came out. Sarfo Gyamfi had the ball around the center circle and after a couple of dribbles decided to sit on the ball in a showboating gesture. It worked. The crowd went wild!!!

The football was beautiful and the passion for local teams fervent. The local game was built around stars. Their stardom was not contrived. You didn’t need radio or television to hype their skills. Their play on the field spoke for them and we felt like we knew them all personally. We could vouch for them. There were not multimillionaires but behind their modesty was a star’s game. All witnesses to matches were filled with joy. Or pain. One way or the other, fans were always filled with emotion. Many of the top players made up the core of Black Stars teams and so to see them on a weekly basis was a thrill and a privilege.

Joseph Boakye, an Accra taxi driver recently shared some of his laments on the local game with me. “Now no one goes to stadium,” he said. “We used to go to Tema, Takoradi, Akosombo, Juapong” just to watch football. He said in his day they used to come back home with hoarse voices. He shared tales of a time gone. Kofi Abbrey, Mama Acquah, Mohammed Polo, Addae Kyenkyenhene, Opoku Afriyie and Abukari Gariba were all names that rolled off his tongue as he looked back with fond memories. 

But no one writes anymore. It is now the age of cell phones and the internet. And just as the internet has made letter writing scarce, so has the availability of English Premier League and the European Champions League made matches at stadia all over the country unattractive. Groups of friends hardly suggest to each other meeting times and locations around the Ohene Gyan Sports stadium in Accra to watch the latest playing sensation. Then again, few players can be called ‘playing sensations’ and even fewer last long enough in the league to be identified in folk tales.

Perhaps the upcoming season will signal a change? Quick and skillful, Hearts of Oak’s Edwin Osei Pele lit up the top four by scoring five goals in three matches. He was involved in a goals race with Hearts of Lions Gilbert Fiamenyo who scored four. Will the their play in the preseason tournament translate to the regular season where it really counts? Will their form force us to pay attention to the local game and fall in love with it in much the same way we did with our darlings, the Black Stars? Sekondi Hasaacas, Eleven Wise and Accra Great Olympics have been relegated but one should look no further than Ebusua Dwarfs as a club that represents their tradition. Other old guard teams like Kotoko and Hearts have retooled with new players and coaches all with the aim of dethroning new kids on the block Aduana Stars who won last year’s league. Will one of them reclaim what they’ll feel is rightfully theirs? Will the so called ‘smaller’ clubs like Liberty Professionals or Kpando Hearts of Lions show that there are no longer walkovers in football?

The league starts this Sunday. According to the fixture list released by the GFA, here are a few matches that may give some answers. The first week’s games include Kotoko versus Kessben, Hearts versus King Faisal, Ebusua Dwarfs versus Tudu Mighty Jets in a battle of newly-promoted clubs. The grounds at Baba Yara stadium will suffer on October 31 when giants Kotoko and Hearts face each other for the first time.

This article was first published in a print newspaper “The Bugle” which I contribute to bi weekly.