June 18, 2024
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Caf Champions League: Medeama Showing Kotoko and Hearts How to Do It

Following Medeama SC’s qualification to the Group Stage of the CAF Champions League, Joy Sports editor, Fentuo Tahiru Fentuo, explores the factors that have led to the club’s latest success, and argues that the country’s two biggest clubs, Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko, can learn from the Mauve and Yellows.

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The year was 2012.

Atumpan had just burst onto the Ghanaian music scene with his hit single “The Thing”. Sarkodie’s “U Go Kill Me” was voted the Most Popular Song of the Year at the Vodafone Ghana Music Awards (VGMAs). Jesse Lingard hadn’t yet kicked a ball for Manchester United’s senior team, despite being included more than once by Sir Alex Ferguson in a matchday squad. Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” was a viral global sensation. And, oh, the iPhone 5 was king; everybody — the ladies, especially — wanted one.

In the football world, Chelsea FC of London ruled Europe, having just won their maiden Uefa Champions League title after a gruelling duel with Bayern Munich.

Berekum Chelsea competed in the CAF Champions League group stage in 2012

Some eight thousand kilometres south of the Atlantic, another club, similarly named, drew inspiration from the Blues’ march to glory.

In Berekum, a town in western Ghana, Chelsea FC were readying themselves for a maiden Caf Champions League group-stage campaign. They’d successfully gone through a qualification phase that followed their first Ghana Premier League title conquest, overcoming heavyweights like Raja Casablanca and Coton Sport Garoua, to reach the competition’s lucrative ‘money zone’.

That did prove a bridge too far for Chelsea, but, to their credit, they didn’t simply roll over. Failing to emerge unscathed from a tough Group B pool — where they had the competition’s three most successful clubs for company — was no great embarrassment, as Chelsea only lost one game of six; only record [and eventual] champions Al-Ahly had any fun against Medeama, handing out a 4-1 thrashing that would ultimately come back to bite the Ghanaians.

Chelsea defeated Zamalek and Mazembe at home — despite not being able to play in their own hometown — and didn’t get beaten by those opponents on the road. But for their failure to win the one home game against Al Ahly, whatever lay in the semi-final and beyond would have been theirs to aspire to and reach out for.

Any disappointment that was felt in the immediate aftermath of Chelsea’s early exit has certainly been dulled — entirely replaced with pride, even — by the fact that they remained the last Ghanaian club to have made it that far… until now.

Medeama have booked a place in the Group Stage of the Caf Champions League for the first time in their history

It has taken Medeama SC, another side making its Champions League debut, to break that 11-year jinx.

Prevailing against Nigerian opposition, Remo Stars, via a penalty shootout in late August, was the first step towards doing so, before securing their place with a 4-3 aggregate victory over Guinea’s Horoya AC. At the final whistle inside Conakry’s Stade du 28 Septembre on September 30, with Medeama having pulled through despite losing to their hosts, club president Moses Armah Parker led the celebrations.

He was captured in an emotional head-in-hands moment, an image that summarised both his disbelief and relief at having achieved a feat that felt so far off when, in 2010, the successful businessman acquired Kumasi-based Kessben FC and relocated it to Tarkwa, a mining community in Ghana’s Western Region.

The work that has gone into transforming the fortunes of the club has involved more than simply changing its name to Medeama SC, and Parker would proudly point to significant milestones that have  marked the team’s upward trajectory towards this all-time peak.

Medeama President, Moses Armah Parker acquired the club in 2010 and has overseen its transformation

Medeama’s first major piece of silverware came in 2013, when they won the FA Cup, an achievement repeated in 2015. Those two successes brought their earliest involvement in African inter-club action, specifically the Caf Confederation Cup, and they made it to the group stage at the second time of asking (2016).

Like Chelsea before them, Medeama failed to make it any further, albeit narrowly, but their campaign would forever be recalled for famous victories over TP Mazembe and Pitso Mosimane’s Mamelodi Sundowns. Having sufficiently proven their worth at that level, Parker and his team set their sights next on the more prestigious platform of the Champions League, but gracing that bigger stage would require that they first conquer their local realm.

Medeama SC team photo for the 2023/24 season

In 2018 and 2020, they were halfway through attaining that target before circumstances beyond their control — in the form of a corruption scandal, first, and then the COVID-19 pandemic — stopped them in their tracks. But then came 2023 when, after a slow start, Medeama recovered and built considerable momentum to upset the title race and overtake the early favourites, eventually claiming the long-desired prize.

Finally handed their chance in the Champions League, the Mauve and Yellows have made the most of it, and this year, irrespective of how the rest of it goes, would surely go down as their annus mirabilis.

That isn’t to say the road to this point has been smooth, however, as Medeama have made their fair share of mistakes and suffered significant setbacks, including the loss of key playing and technical personnel to local rivals and foreign clubs, but their ability to withstand those shocks and remain competitive has been impressive.

Indeed, in an era where Ghanaian clubs have struggled to balance the pursuit of success on the pitch with efforts to grow off it, Medeama have stood out as a shining example of how to do both.

The structures of the club — certainly one of the best in the country — are so solid that, irrespective of who goes or comes (they lost as many as nine players to a club in Malta, for instance, right at the start of their Champions League run), impact on performance has been almost negligible.

Medeama signed Jonathan Sowah in January 2023 and he made his Black Stars debut 9 months later

Some of that has been down to the club’s astute recruitment strategy, which has helped unearth gems like Jonathan Sowah. Medeama signed the young striker from lower-tier Danbort FC earlier this year, a move that immediately brightened their title-winning prospects. Sowah would go on to score a dozen goals in the run-in, and, by September, he had made his debut for Ghana’s senior national team.

Praise is also merited for the club’s retention of some of its most influential figures over the years. Joseph Tetteh Zutah, the former skipper, was on the books of the club for years before moving on last season, receiving the sort of farewell that even the country’s biggest clubs have proven incapable of granting their own long-serving players. Kwesi Donsu, a member of the departed Maltese contingent, also stuck around for a good while and remains a part of the club furniture (he’s only away on loan for now).

Another familiar face is Evans Adotey, the tactician who — across a range of roles, mostly in the dugout — has been present in all the greatest moments of Medeama’s history. He has had a hand in every trophy they’ve ever won, and now, as head coach, has led them to yet another landmark feat.

“I am delighted because my mission here is fulfilled,” Adotey, after seeing off Horoya over two legs, beamed.

Head coach Evans Augustine Adotey has been ever present at Medeama

It could be said now that Medeama, even apart from their recent domestic and continental exploits, are a bigger club than they’ve ever been. Armah has made the smart move of sharing his controlling stake in the club with the Apinto Traditional Council which oversees the area, adding a communal vibe to Medeama’s profile.

Tarkwa had always embraced Medeama, but the people now feel that the club is well and truly theirs. The domino effect of that change in ownership arrangement brought in mining giants, Gold Fields Tarkwa-Damang, as sponsors in 2020.

And even though they have been replaced by another mining firm in the same industry- Nguvu Mining Limited- Medeama are still in line to benefit from the most tangible product of Gold Fields’ investment, a 10,000-seater capacity stadium that is set to be commissioned before the end of the year.

One can’t help but imagine that Medeama hosting games there, and creating quite the atmosphere once they settle, would make the club stronger still.

Medeama are set to open their 10,000 capacity stadium by November 2023, funded by Gold Fields Limited

The world is a very different place now than it was in 2012.

Sarkodie has gone on to amass 18 more plaques from the VGMAs. Jepsen hasn’t had another Billboard No.1 single to her name. The iPhone’s 15th major incarnation just arrived. Atumpan’s career — bar a short-lived, unsuccessful attempt by the currently clubless Lingard to revive it — has disappeared without a trace.  Chelsea of London are closer to the Championship than they are to the Champions League, while Chelsea of Berekum are Ghana Premier League also-rans.

What hasn’t changed, though, is the fact that the teams making Ghana proud in the Champions League aren’t the traditional powers, Asante Kotoko and Hearts of Oak.

Between those two, they’ve won the  aforementioned competition thrice, but never since the end of the 20th Century. In the aftermath of that last triumph, only once has either team featured in a Champions League group stage — both in 2006, incidentally — at a time Medeama didn’t even exist as an entity.

What they have excelled at, instead, is mediocrity, choosing to pin their perennial struggles on a succession of coaches — a total of 20 hired and fired post-2012 alone — when it is obvious to everyone that their problems run much deeper, all the way into the courts of the respective traditional rulers who own the clubs.

Both, unlike Medeama, are in a constant state of flux, with a high player turnover rate that reflects the fact that Kotoko and Hearts are a trigger-happy bunch who feel the need to hit the reset button at the end of nearly every difficult season. Unsurprisingly, that trend, which doesn’t look like ending anytime soon, has had a counterproductive effect on the pair.

Even domestic silverware has been a rarity for them in the last decade or so, but each appears content winning nothing so long as the other also goes empty-handed. Where the rivalry between them was once defined by a burning desire for success, what now binds them is a mutual appetite for schadenfreude and self-destruction.

Asante Kotoko and Hearts of Oak have struggled to make meaningful impact in Europe in recent years

To call them rivals these days is to, in fact, flatter Kotoko and Hearts. They are more like Thomson and Thompson, the fictional twin detectives in Tintin, Hergé’s classic comic, whose uncontrollable penchant for making an almighty mess of even the most basic of tasks is as baffling as it is risible.

Actually, Thomson and Thompson — for all their hilarious shortcomings — always approach their assignments with the sincerest of intentions; that’s more than could often be said about those placed at the helm of these clubs.

Their combined might may have been enough to sweep two league titles and as many FA Cup trophies in two of the last three years, but they’d be deluded to think they’re as dominant as they formerly were.

Two-time champions Aduana have presented themselves as a formidable threat to the long-established duopoly — usurping neighbours Chelsea as the presumed third force — with Medeama now also throwing their hat in the ring.

To keep their patch purple for as long as possible, though, the new kids on the block would have to learn from the pitfalls that have brought the old guard to their knees.

The pursuit of success, after all, could be likened to holding the ears of a wolf; it’s not the easiest thing to do, but never — for your own sake — let go.

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