Only one other man at the Cairo International Stadium understood just how Ghana forward Kwabena Owusu felt that Friday night: Ibrahim Tanko, the Black Meteors’ head coach.
From the touchline, Tanko watched a team he had technical responsibilities for lose on penalties for a third time this year — all on Egyptian soil, incidentally.
“It’s our last game in the tournament and it’s also a game that can qualify us to the Olympics so we will put in our best efforts to secure the ticket,” the one-time Uefa Champions League winner assured before Ghana’s playoff clash with South Africa, three days after a first shot at grabbing a slot for Tokyo 2020 had been missed against neighbors Ivory Coast via another shootout heartbreak.
To be fair, the lads did put in their best — or thereabouts — in getting as far as they did: overwhelming Togo and Gabon, and stealing an unlikely victory over Algeria to reach the Africa U-23 Cup of Nations. And at the finals itself, the Ghanaians’ appetite for pulling off the improbable — first seen in Setif during the final qualifier — saw them narrowly slip into the knockout rounds from Group A with a defeat of Mali, following a poor start. In the semi-final and third-place games, Ghana fought back twice from behind and tied both 2-2, before being sunk by a couple of terrible penalties.
Ghana weren’t perfect at the tournament, of course — it’s why they went to so much trouble to fetch the desired prize, after all, and also why they eventually returned empty-handed – but, for sheer effort and heart, the lads couldn’t be faulted. Winners they weren’t, but fighters Tanko’s charges definitely were. In the end, the feeling lingered of a story unfinished.
The likes of Evans Mensah, Samuel Obeng Gyabaa, Kwabena Owusu, and Yaw Yeboah could reasonably hope to make further strides with the senior national side, the Black Stars. Tanko’s own prospects, though, are far less certain. His place on the Stars’ bench as an assistant to Kwesi Appiah has been taken by former international colleague Charles Akonnor, and unless another is carved out for him after the Meteors’ fiasco, there’s no way back.
Even with the Meteors, by far the least active of the country’s male national teams, there isn’t much to do until the 2023 African Games — which Ghana automatically qualifies for as hosts, anyway – comes around. Thus far in his career, Tanko has mainly built his profile as an able right-hand man — mainly to German mentor Volker Finke and, more recently, Appiah — and although his first stint at the helm ultimately under-delivered, it’s hard to be tough on a rookie.
Some of his substitutions at the just-ended Afcon proved impactful, while the Meteors almost always came back stronger from his half-time sessions. Like his team, however, Tanko has rough edges that require smoothing, and whichever form — or however long — that process takes, an eye should be kept on him for the future.
He’s a keeper, I tell you.
NY Frimpong — Daily Mail GH