JOHANNESBURG, January 9 – Ghana will try again at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations to bridge the ever-widening gap since they last lifted the most prized piece of football silverware on the continent.
Favoured to top the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and Niger and win Group B, the west Africans could face much greater challenges in the knock-out phase, including title favourites Ivory Coast and title holders Zambia.
It is 31 years since the ‘Black Stars’ last collected gold medals, winning the first final settled by a penalty shoot-out, against hosts Libya in Tripoli after a 1-1 stalemate.
Then teenager Abedi ‘Pele’ Ayew was part of the winning team and went on to become one of the first African footballers to make a splash on the European scene, including a Champions League winners’ medal with Marseille.
A couple of his sons also play for Marseille and had hoped to be part of the 2013 Cup of Nations, but a hamstring injury ruled out midfielder Andre and striker Jordan failed to win a place in the squad.
The loss of 2011 BBC African Footballer of the Year Andre is a major blow, coming less than a week after leading Ghana Premier League goal scorer Yahaya Mohamed was forced out by a groin injury.
Andre Ayew provided midfield creativity and the absence of Mohamed means extra pressure on captain and striker Asamoah Gyan to snatch match-winning goals.
Gyan went into temporary international retirement last year after furious supporters blamed him for a shock semi-final exit from the 2012 Cup of Nations because he had an early penalty saved by Zambia goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene.
“It is so frustrating for us,” admitted Gyan to reporters in Accra. “Every day we get reminded that we have not won a major trophy despite putting Ghana on the map with what we have done at the last two World Cup tournaments.”
The Black Stars reached the second round of the 2006 World Cup in Germany and the quarter-finals in South Africa three years ago before losing on penalties to Uruguay.
But the shoot-out could have been avoided had Gyan not slammed a penalty kick against the crossbar seconds from the end of extra time at Soccer City stadium in Soweto.
Some pundits have questioned coach Kwesi Appiah — a member of the 1982 Cup-winning team — adding the burden of captaincy on Gyan as he seeks to re-establish himself as a deadly penalty-area predator.
Appiah is unmoved by the criticism as he seeks first place afer the country finished third on home soil in 2008, second in Angola two years later and a disappointing fourth in 2012 in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea.
“I must pick players who are prepared to die for the nation and win. We do not just have to go to the competition — we have to go to South Africa and try to win it,” stressed the first local to coach Ghana for many years.