Passion. Nationalism. Cohesion. Mental toughness.
March 6, 2021, the Black Satellites of Ghana marched on to victory at the Stade Olympique in Nouakchott, Mauritania as they defeated Uganda 2-0 to claim the country’s fourth U-20 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) trophy thanks to a brace by captain Daniel Afriyie Barnieh.
Before qualifying for the AFCON, the team won the WAFU Zone B tournament, edging Burkina Faso 2-1 in the finals in December 2020.
Prior to the AFCON, many had concerns over the team’s preparation for the tournament, especially when most of the players were not actively playing due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Regardless of this, the coach of the team, Karim Zito, said they were prepared.
“We had won the WAFU tournament but before the country for Mauritania, there was no active football going on in Ghana and that is always difficult because most of them lacked match fitness, and it is worrying because it takes a lot away from the team, but we were ready regardless and that was seen when we went into the tournament,” Coach Karim Zito said.
The team had a perfect start to the tournament, cruising to a 4-0 win over Tanzania in their first game. Sporting Lisbon’s Abdul Fatawu Issahaku (then with Ghana Division One outfit Steadfast FC), scored a goal of a lifetime (a long range effort from his own half) in the game to announce himself to the world.
He reckoned it wasn’t new to him.
“Honestly this is not the first time I have scored goals like that. Everyone who knows me knows I am capable of doing things like that. For me, it was quite usual but for the world and other people, it was amazing. I can tell you for a fact that it was this goal that gave me the confidence to play so well in the tournament, and it has been an unforgettable moment for me. I can say it was the best goal of my entire life.”
Though the team was not playing flamboyantly, it blended well, and that cohesion was almost palpable.
“We were matured, we knew we had a job to do and that was really it. We stayed disciplined, we stayed together and we were very much determined to prove critics wrong. We just wanted it more and we went on to achieve that,” Hearts of Oak’s Daniel Afriyie Barnieh said.
Playing in Nouadhibou was difficult for the Black Satellites because the weather was as cold as it could get. Players had to adjust and play in temperatures as low as 2 °C.
Despite the adversities they faced playing in the cold, they sailed through as one of the best third-placed teams and progressed to the knockout stage to play in Nouakchott, a place that was more favourable.
According to Coach Karim Zito, the team was motivated to reach the AFCON final to qualify them for the World Cup. Despite suffering a setback in morale when they lost to The Gambia in their last group game, they bounced back against Cameroon, edging them 4:2 on penalties in the quarter-finals to set up a semi-final clash with familiar foes The Gambia.
The Gambia proved to be a strong opponent for the Black Satellites. But this time, Ghana had the upper hand, edging them through Percious Boah’s 34th minute lone goal to book a place in the final. And once they were at the final, they were even more determined to win it.
The team’s style of play
Despite winning the tournament, the team’s lack of flamboyance divided opinions among football analysts and fans. While some raised serious concerns about the team’s seemingly haphazard style, especially for a youth team, others believed what mattered ultimately was winning.
Coach Karim Zito believes the team had a working system, one which was different to what he had been using over the years.
“Everyone who knows me I play a different system, one which involves pressing, but this is a tournament and the most important thing is to win and that is what we worked on. It is not the beautiful football that wins you games. You can play all the nice football but you can lose and that is what we avoided once we got out of the group stages,” Coach Zito remarked.
Commitment and passion of players
In all these, something that was clear for most people was the commitment and passion with which the youngsters played the tournament. Their determination to win a trophy for the nation on its Independence Day and to make a name for themselves and their country cannot be underestimated.
Individually, the players gave outstanding performances, showing individual brilliance and talents. It explained why Danlad Ibrahim and Abdul Fatawu Issahaku emerged as the best goalkeeper and best player of the tournament, respectively.
Already, some of these players have started proving they are the future of the senior national team, and truly they are. Fatawu is already showing he is a great national asset, and so are the remaining players.
President of Ghana, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo after the tournament rewarded each player of the U-20 team, the Black Satellites with an amount of USD 10,000.
But it was not the money, it was the smiles these youngsters put on the faces of Ghanaians; it was seeing progress and growth; the joy of seeing young footballers achieve big things and the hope to become the next big star in world football, that truly defined their journey; and with it, their futures too.