No group of death but some countries will be composing dirges early!

The 2012 Cup of Nations draw went ahead over a week ago – ages now with our short attention spans – and now all the 16 participating teams know which lane they’ve been assigned. The allocations are below.

Group A: Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Senegal, Zambia (Bata)

Group B: Ivory Coast, Sudan, Burkina Faso and Angola (Malabo)

Group C: Gabon, Niger, Morocco and Tunisia (Libreville)

Group D: Ghana, Botswana, Mali and Guinea (Franceville)

Before a draw of this kind, a favorite pastime for many is to prepare to name the dreaded ‘Group of Death’ and of course to endlessly speculate on the favorites. After the draw, the debate intensifies with mucho airtime and ink devoted to deciding once and for all who will win and who has the toughest group.

It is as though we NEED a group of death so badly that even when there is none we force it. That is how I felt when I looked at my twitter feed and some websites that often exclusively reveal stuff (even as the whole world knows it already).

Ladies and gentleman, THERE IS NO GROUP OF DEATH.

The word that was dominant in my mind when I looked at the draw was ‘balance.’ I thought this draw was as balanced as I’ve ever seen. Every team will look at their groups and say to themselves, ‘with the right amount of dedication, organization and good fortune we could go to the second round and possibly beyond.’ Well, almost everyone. The co-hosts, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea must be kicking themselves thinking we are spending all this money for this?!!! Then again, good hosts rarely have fun at their events anyways, saddled with the constant fretting and troubleshooting. Don’t believe me? Try hosting a dinner party.

Still, the advantage of playing at home should not be discounted. Equatorial Guinea and Gabon will have some good opportunities to qualify but if I were betting I’d bet against them getting out of the first round.

Few would wager against the Black Stars and Cote d’ Ivoire’s Elephants coming out of their groups. In fact, Ghana and Cote d’ Ivoire constantly pop up as potential winners – Ghana by virtue of a stellar 2010, Cote d’ Ivoire because of their collective of stars, Drogba, Yaya Toure and Gervinho to name a few. I’d add Senegal to that group. A deadly strike force and the emergence of young players should make their opponents’ nervous.

When I think of Senegal’s strikers I break into a cold sweat and want to bang my head against a wall lamenting why we can’t even get two more strikers equal or better than Asamoah Gyan and why Emmanuel Adebayor who seemingly spends more of his downtime in Ghana than anywhere else wasn’t convinced to play for Ghana. Aaaarrrrgggghhhhh. Can you imagine the possibilities? Multiple Azontos every match I tell you. Sigh. Having said aaalllllllll of that, Senegal still have to prove it in a tournament setting.

Add the North Africans – Morocco, Tunisia-  who are typically formidable come tournament time and the tournament might be the most open we will have for a while.

The tournament awaits us all.


Some of Goran Stevanovic's recent decisions have left fans confused

Over the last four to eight years whenever the Black Stars play, there has been a quiet and healthy confidence. We might not have won every match but you got the sense that fans, players, management were all confident of getting positive results. We had the players led by none other than Michael Essien playing at the top of their game. Essien’s play for Ghana has often been criticized but even when he played at 80 percent of his Chelsea peak, he was still the best player on the pitch and Ghana won. We also had the financial support with the headline Goldfields package introducing some financial stability.

Heading into this weekend’s group I game against Sudan, I can’t help but feel apprehensive. Ghana is one of a number of African ‘powerhouses’ who are in danger of missing out on the 2012 African Cup of Nations. The Black Stars merely have to avoid defeat to qualify though and among the South Africa, Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana quartet seem in the strongest position. Given that simple task you would think I would retain this healthy confidence. Not!!! I fear that our past successes have created a false sense of confidence to the extent that we think even when we don’t have our best players on the pitch it’s a given that we should win as comfortably as when all our top stars are present.  So while the financial support remains the same, albeit renewed for just a year and many in management remain, the uncertainty surrounding our team is concerning.

Several key developments have created this apprehension. The latest is the dropping of Andre ‘Dede’ Ayew from the team because he was ‘coming back from injury.’ This ‘coming back from injury’ excuse was mysteriously not applied to John Mensah. In a week in which Dede made headlines on the pitch in European Champions League as well as in Ligue 1 action, the Ayew camp promptly let Ghanaian media know that he never asked to be excused. These two may well be true. Stevanovic may have dropped Dede because he wanted to give a rest and Dede may well not have wanted to rest. Either way, he’s not coming.

Coupled with the rumors of a refusal by Kevin Prince Boateng to play for the Black Stars again as long as Goran Stevanovic is coach. Some news reports Boateng denied this using his twitter account but @kpbofficial which is the verified twitter account I know for Kevin Prince has no record of such comments. Either way, the constant speculation on the status of the relationship between player and coach concern me. After all, if is to be believed, Kwesi Nyantakyi said in an interview that Boateng failed to call Stevanovic back on two occassions after the coach had called him. Nyantakyi subsequently denied using those words. In any case, those two situations for me fall under the ‘there is no smoke without fire’ category. Kwadwo Asamoah’s benching against Swaziland also raises red flags. Even though he came on and played well, his subsequent lackluster performance against Brazil suggests that he stands on wobbly grounds for his inconsistency. In these three instances, what I take away is that the communication between the coach and players could be better. In Asamoah’s case, his benching suggested he wasn’t implementing the coach’s tactics.

Finally, Richard Kingson’s exclusion from the squad while not totally surprising is the final evidence that the spine of the team is changing as I mentioned a few weeks back. The goalkeeper is changing, captain John Mensah’s injuries mean Jonathan Mensah or any other capable defender who will step up will slowly replace him, Agyemang Badu is also nudging Anthony Annan to the bench. All the strikers outside of Asamoah Gyan are a formidable striker away from being replaced so that department is bound to face some changes soon.

Having said all this, it is worth noting that Stevanovic has by and large made a winning start in coaching the Black Stars. Many of these wins are a residue of the quiet confidence instilled in the team and the cohesion promoted by his predecessors. So far, Stevanovic’s imprint does not yet seem to continue that assurance. As he unearths and integrates new players like Albert Adomah, Massawudu Alhassan and Abu Mohammed among others in the squad, he is going to have to settle on a winning style and a team spine which will bring back that stability. Add an improved communication style and he might well fulfill his promise of bringing Ghana multiple trophies.