Sitting in the stands, wearing a brightly coloured shirt, David Osafo can give a brief career synopsis of every boy in Ghana colours. Engrossed in the game, he is on his feet watching a Ghana forward fly down left flank, the blazing run coming to an end only after the defeated Niger defender commits a foul. “Ghana players have that raw pace,” Osafo says. “The way they grow up, they cannot help but be fast.”
Osafo is a journalist with a news channel, but has travelled to India to cheer for the Black Starlets as a part of the Ghana Supporters Union. He’s seen most of the players in the squad since they were pre-teens, playing on uneven muddy grounds littered with sharp stones. “These boys have all come from poor families and cannot afford to play on good fields,” he says, as the free kick sores over the bar. “They don’t have shoes, so they play barefoot on those gravel pitches. But they learn how to be light on their feet and run on their toes. That makes them very fast runners.”
It was evident when Ghana ran past India 4-0 in the group stages. On the night, their pace and touch on the ball made all the difference as they out-classed Niger 2-0 to secure a spot in the quarterfinals.
Indeed, the second goal on the night, by Richard Danso, was a testimony to the blistering pace the Ghanaians seem to generate at ease. The striker was passed the ball when he was near the centre circle. A quick glance up to note the onrushing Niger defenders, and he set off at speed to make space for himself. Two touches to get past the opposition, and then he unleashed a 25-yard screamer that gave the goalkeeper no chance.
The first goal had been courtesy an Eric Ayiah penalty. To accompany their superior speed, Ghana played a long-ball game, relying on their expert ball control skills to pluck a heave upfield. There is a story behind that too, Osafo explains.
“Kids can’t afford to buy footballs. So they take a few oranges and tie it up in an old sock and use it to juggle. Sometimes, they just find old rags and tie it in a sock and play like that,” he says. The harsh upbringing has in turn ingrained in them a battling mentality. African teams are known for their physicality, which sets them apart especially at this level.
Osafo remembers a “brutal” slugfest when the two teams met in the U17 African Cup of Nations semi-finals earlier this year. It was similar on the night, as 21 fouls (13 by Niger) were committed.
Coaches from traditional footballing powerhouses use the U-17 World Cup as an avenue for players to gain experience as they make their way to the professional world. In Ghana, football is seen as the ticket to a better life. “All the players come from poor backgrounds, but they’ve seen players from Ghana go to Europe and do well in life. So this is their way out of poverty” says coach Samuel Fabin.
Ghana has previously won the U-17 edition twice, back in 1991 and 1995. But the current tournament is the first time since 2007 that the team has qualified. They missed out in the last edition after one of their players was found to be overage during the continental competition.
It’s a malaise that has plagued a lot of African teams, including defending champions Nigeria, and the Ghanaian federation is doing its bit to keep it in check. For the past five years, they have resorted to selecting youth players from school programs rather than clubs or academies.
“MRI scans only give you an age range, it’s not accurate,” asserts Kwadwo Agyemang, board chairman of the Ghana National Sports Authority. “But we know that boys are six years old when they start primary school. So we know exactly how old they are.”
The current squad too is made up of mainly school boys, who the coach – himself a school teacher – had scouted. “Only Danlad Ibrahim plays for a club. But that happened only after the African cup,” Osafo chips in. The team’s national camp therefore could only start on July 18, once the academic year ended. The Black Starlets next come up against another familiar foe, Mali, in the quarterfinals. The pair had last met in the final of the continental event, Ghana losing 1-0. “It’s going to be another cagey encounter for us,” Fabin concludes.