For the first time in 14 years, the Black Stars aren’t considered as one of the AFCON favourites. Gideon Mensah, who represents a high number of tournament debutants in Ghana’s squad, spent some time talking to Owuraku Ampofo on behalf of The Analyst. He touches on his beginnings, the impact of Andre Ayew, team objectives, competition with Baba Rahman, and Ghana’s next generation ahead of the showpiece in Cameroon.
A quick glance at the AFCON favourites, according to the Stats Perform’s AI model, reveals that Ghana are nowhere near the top three for this tournament. In fact, you’d need to look a further five rows down to catch a glimpse of the Black Stars. Currently ranked eighth in the projections, Ghana was given a pre-tournament chance of 7.3% to win AFCON 2021.
That figure doesn’t come as too much of a surprise to Ghanaian football fans. A poor performance in the 2019 edition, change of coaches (two in two years), and a massive transition with new players stepping in are all among factors why this sentiment prevails.
A New Black Star is Rising
In the 1960s, Ghana earned the tag “the Black Stars of West Africa” and “the Black Stars of Africa” purely based on their performances. They won successive AFCON titles in 1963 and 1965 while finishing as runners-up in 1968 and 1970. The 20th century ended with Ghana picking up two more titles to raise their tally to four.
Ghana is still yet to add to that number, 40 years on, and will attempt to do so with an inexperienced side in 2021. Milovan Rajevac’s 28-man squad has an average age of 25 – the third youngest team at this tournament, with 17 of their 28 players making their AFCON bow in Cameroon. One of them is Gideon Mensah.
The left-back was born into a football family, his father was the coach of the school team which he joined at a very young age. Playing with older peers allowed Mensah to improve quickly, and in no time, he was catching the eye of many.
As Mensah grew, he moved to Ghana’s Ashanti Region to further his education. But a visit to the coastal city of Cape Coast – the capital of the Central Region – changed his fortunes. What was supposed to be a one-day visit became a permanent stay after impressing the coach of a local team.
Mensah’s dad had to go back home for his son’s clothes and personal belongings. Cape Coast had become his new home. Eventually, the player was scouted by the West African Football Academy (WAFA, formerly called Feyenoord), during a regional tournament in 2009. He joined a year later. After six years, Mensah got his first move to Europe, settling in with FC Liefering in Austria.
Fast forward to 2021 and the 23-year-old has over 100 club appearances and currently is on loan at Ligue 1 side Bordeaux. Despite being a full back, Mensah’s attacking tendencies are quite evident.
In his youthful days, he used to play as a winger before being moved to left-back. This season, despite seeing limited minutes, the Ghanaian has an expected assists total of 0.94 – the fifth highest in Bordeaux. Mensah has made completed 10 out of 15 dribbles, played 20 open play crosses and created six chances.
Having made his international debuts with a couple 2020 friendlies, last year was serious business for Mensah, who got involved in more competitive action. The former Vitoria Guimaraes defender featured in an AFCON qualifier and a World Cup qualifier. After getting six caps, Mensah is now at his first AFCON.
“I was in Bordeaux when I heard the list was going to be out. My club manager told me [the Ghana FA] had sent the invitation to them before the list even came out so I knew I was going to be in the list. But before [this message from my club], I didn’t know I will be part. I had hopes that when they [were] going to call for left-backs, I was still going to be in there. I wasn’t so sure but I wanted to work hard for it,” Mensah told The Analyst.
The last time Ghana won the AFCON was in 1982 when the Black Stars beat Libya via a penalty shootout. Between the 2008-2017 AFCONs, Ghana made consecutive semi-finals, even reaching the finals twice. Having come so close on numerous occasions, Mensah believes the new generation have the honour of ending the drought.
“As a player it’s not a good feeling when you think that it’s been 40 years since we won the Africa Cup of Nations. [But] now we are here to represent Ghana and have the chance to change that mindset. We can also win the trophy.”
Mensah adds: “But on the other hand it feels good because you have pressure; support from Ghanaians that ‘we are putting our trust in you to end the 40-year drought’. [The pressure is] not a nice feeling for me but it’s not going to be something Ghanaians will get used to. There has to be a stop to [the drought] and I think we have the quality and potential [to do]. Wearing the jersey means something to a lot of us here; we are here to win something for Ghanaians and give them something to celebrate.”
In the last decade, Ghana has been knocked out of the AFCON on three occasions via penalty shootout. In 2013, Burkina Faso edged the four-time champions 3-2 on penalties in the semi-finals.
Perhaps the one that left an indelible mark was at Equatorial Guinea in 2015. Ivory Coast actually missed their first two kicks in that final’s shootout in Bata, only for the Black Stars to falter and hand the trophy to their westerly neighbours.
In the most recent tournament in Egypt, Tunisia knocked Ghana out in the round of 16 courtesy a 5-4 penalty shootout win. Failure – or to be more precise, penalty failure – has been Ghana’s Achilles heel on the continent.
Who can forget possibly Ghana’s biggest penalty shootout heartache of all – the FIFA World Cup quarter-final against Uruguay in 2010, when they were cruelly robbed of a place in the final four by a 120th minute Luis Suárez handball, before Asamoah Gyan’s penalty miss against the bar and the eventual 4-2 defeat in the shootout.
Mensah is well aware of this ignominy and acknowledges the need to focus on that. “It’s a matter of learning and practicing. I’m a player and I think every footballer thinks when a penalty comes, I can score, that’s why we’re still training. One of our plans was to consistently work on penalties [at the Doha pre-AFCON camp] because we know that for the past years it knocks us out. I’m just hoping we win games without penalties,” Mensah hoped.
The Rahman-Mensah Conundrum
Since Mensah made his international debut against South Africa in November 2019, it has been an outright battle between him and Reading’s Baba Rahman for the left-back spot. Rahman joined compatriot Andy Yiadom at the Royals at the beginning of the season and has been key to the club’s ascendancy.
The pair have made the most open play crosses for Reading, showing that they are able to get forward and support the attack – together creating 21 chances for their teammates. They also lead Reading’s ranking for tackles and only Josh Laurent has made more interceptions than the Ghanaian international pair.
As evident in the graphic below, both players feature in the most open play attacking sequences for Reading in the league this season, either as the player to attempt the shot, create the shot or be involved in the passing build-up to the shot.
“Rahman is a good player. Relationship wise, he’s a guy I can talk to anytime I want and he can also talk to me,” Mensah said. “We play in the same position sometimes in training and we have drills where we have to stay in the same position but we still communicate and tell each other what to do best. We’re all playing in the name of Ghana so I don’t really see the competition. Growing up, I was looking up to him because he was playing left-back for Ghana and I watched him every time. It’s a good thing for me to play alongside him.”
Captain, Leader, Andre Ayew
Ahead of the 2019 AFCON, Andre Ayew was appointed captain of the Black Stars. Recently reaching a century of Ghana caps, Ayew will be playing in his seventh AFCON. He became the country’s all-time top scorer in the competition after scoring his ninth against Benin in 2019.
The 30-year-old will join an exclusive list of African football legends if he scores in his sixth AFCON tournament, equalling the record set by Samuel Eto’o, Kalusha Bwalya and Asamoah Gyan.
Ayew is currently the third-highest scorer in the Qatar Stars League in 2021-22, with nine goals in 10 games, averaging a goal every 87 minutes.
The Bordeaux left back admits Ayew is a crucial player both on and off the pitch for the Black Stars.
“I think on the field you’ll see Andre as a captain and a fantastic player but when we come back to the hotel or we’re eating, you see him as one of us because he’s the one who likes to joke with everyone. He speaks a lot of languages, French, English, [and local Ghanaian languages] Ga and Twi, so it’s a good thing. You can go to him anytime, speak to him and so I think he’s been a good captain.”
Something happened recently that sent Ayew’s street cred through the roof among fans.
After dropping points away against Ethiopia in the ongoing FIFA World Cup qualifiers, Ghana’s chances of qualification hung in the balance. It was a disappointing result, one which meant the next game, a home tie against South Africa, had to end in a win. It was then that a frustrated Ayew delivered a speech for the ages.
He told the team to fight for the badge or to leave the camp immediately the plane landed in Ghana. The ferocity of the speech split opinion, but Mensah stands with Ayew and thinks the talk was necessary.
“I think sometimes when it’s needed for him to be aggressive, he has to be. That’s why he’s captain and leader. If he sees something is not going well, once in a while he has to come out like that. If every player is doing that in the dressing room, you won’t see the difference between him and other players. I was injured [ahead of that game] but when I saw that video [later], it wasn’t a new thing [for me]. He’s sometimes like that before and after games. He doesn’t do that to put pressure on anyone but to prove to Ghanaians that we’re ready to do the job.”
The Standout Next Generation
His last game was against South Africa November 2021 when he suffered a rib injury. The Ajax midfielder has returned to training and even joined the club’s mid-season camp in Portugal.
Regardless of the injury, Kudus was still added to Rajevac’s AFCON final squad.
The Serbian coach, who was re-appointed to lead Ghana last September, explained why he’s still trusting the youngster, who isn’t fully fit yet.
“For this competition we can register more than 23 players and we can go up to 28. We all know the quality of Kudus and he is definitely the future of Ghanaian and African football. He plays for a strong team in Europe for Ajax, so we know how much he can contribute to the team and we are ready to wait for him. At some stage in the tournament when we feel he is fit he can step in and help the team because he has the quality.
“It is a big competition so we will monitor the situation about his injury and training, and we will see when he is fit. He is always competitive and motivated to play for the Black Stars so it is important to have him around,” he added.
In 2020-21, Kudus appeared 22 times in all competitions for Ajax, scoring four goals and assisting three more over just 887 minutes. He was involved in four goals in his first three appearances for the club (all in the Eredivisie), with one goal and three assists.
Since the start of last season, Kudus has averaged more dribbles (5.8) per 90 minutes and completed more dribbles (4.1) per 90 minutes than any other Ajax player in all competitions.
So far this season, he’s scored just once in six games (219 mins) for Ajax in all competitions, this goal coming in his first appearance of the season: against Fortuna Sittard in the Eredivisie.
Mensah, who made his international debut with Kudus, understands he will be a big miss.
“I think for the past months he’s been one of the best players in the team. Missing him in the early part of the tournament will make us miss the Kudus we know, but I’m not sure we’ll miss the position where he plays because everybody is here and everybody is ready to play that position when given the chance,” Mensah said.
Star boy Sulemana
One player who could lead the team in the absence of Kudus in the early parts of the AFCON is Kamaldeen Sulemana. Despite being the third youngest name in Ghana’s squad for the AFCON, Sulemana has showed maturity in his first five months at Rennes – scoring four goals and assisting two more in just 996 minutes of Ligue 1 football.
Aside being directly involved in goals, the winger has 23 shot involvements from ball carries – the second-best average in Ligue 1 at one every 43 minutes. The only player to have played 900 minutes or more and to have a superior rate is Kylian Mbappé (every 42 minutes), which shows the level the Ghanaian is operating at.
Mensah, who is over 400km away from Sulemana in France, thinks the 19-year-old has the potential to lead the team in the near future.
“My team faced Rennes just some weeks after the Zimbabwe [qualifier] but I didn’t play that game. He’s a good player, a young talent just like me doing his own thing and still learning. I think he has a long way to go and from the way he has started, he’s going to go to reach the top. He’s a very good player and it’s good for the national team to have players like that. We had good players before him in the national team but as time goes on, they’ll move on and we’ll need guys like Kamaldeen to hold the team.”
A Future with Silverware
Gideon comes across as a very optimistic person and always never hid the fact that he wants to make history with this Black Stars team.
He speaks for a new generation of Ghana players taking their place. It is a period of transition for the four-time AFCON champions; however, the ambition remains.
“First of all, I want to be part of the team that ends the 40 years of Ghana not winning the AFCON. I also want to help the country qualify for the World Cup in Qatar and the subsequent ones. Any player who’ll win the AFCON with the national team will be a household name. People are going to be talking about it for I-don’t-know-how-many years to come. I want to be on that list.”
The AFCON in Cameroon will be remembered for so many things, from a different setting thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, to VAR being used throughout the tournament for the first time. But Ghanaians will never forget this year’s edition of the Black Stars – and Gideon Mensah – if they can win that elusive fifth AFCON title against the odds.
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