The team were not in great shape before Nora Häuptle took over in January 2023. Now they dream of Wafcon glory.

Ghana’s Black Queens in 2023. Photograph: GFF Communications

In the end Nora Häuptle could not hold back her tears. They were tears of joy. Even for a woman who has played and managed at the highest level, what she had just achieved with Ghana had to be filed under her greatest achievements.

The Black Queens, as Ghana’s women’s national team are known, had just lost 1-0 in Namibia but the result had very little significance because their 3-1 victory in the first leg four days before meant they had qualified for the 2024 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Wafcon) – their first major tournament in six years.

As Häuptle, the entire technical staff and players celebrated, waving back at the singing Ghana supporters in the stands and taking it all in, it epitomised their journey to achieve this remarkable feat. They have made it look so easy with a string of victories yet it has been anything but.

A year ago, this was a team unrecognisable from the one that qualified: fragile and without an identity. Now, they do not just play with swagger but have made a habit of winning games comfortably.

“I’m very happy to be part of the squad that qualified [for the Wafcon] and also very proud of the team,” the midfielder Ernestina Abambila, who plays for the Turkish top-flight side Hakkarigucu Spor Kulubu, says. “The last time the Black Queens qualified was in 2018, which was hosted by Ghana, so returning to the Wafcon feels great.”

Abambila’s sentiments are shared by most of the players. It does not seem to matter whether they start, come on or do not play. They are usually just eager to contribute when given the opportunity. There is now a competitiveness that means no one can take a call-up for granted.

Under Häuptle, the Black Queens train with gravitas and play with a twinkle. The Swiss coach, thanks to her people-management skills, has created a team culture that has every player on the same page. “She has time for every player,” says Abambila. “I have learned a lot of things on and off the pitch since I started working with her in the national team.”

When Häuptle took charge in January 2023 she initiated a rejuvenation of the squad, phasing out the old guard and developing a new core mainly made up of those promoted from the Under-20s. This has led to consistent results – the Black Queens have won 10 out of 11 matches under her, scoring 34 goals, conceding two and keeping nine clean sheets – and are able to control games, create a lot of chances and fight on when things are not going their way.

The refreshing part is that Häuptle learns from her players as much as she teaches them. The 40-year-old is aware of the cultural gap between Europe, where she was born and raised, and Ghana and makes a big effort to assimilate.

“I teach them discipline, but they always tell me that they like that we are strict and demanding,” she says. “On the other side they have an approach, which I learn a lot from, too. The relaxed way, for example, when they dance and sing before a game, I can learn a lot from that. And they sometimes smile when they see that their coach is not in the rhythm.”

Women’s football in Ghana has been through a bad spell. It is hard to believe that despite being one of the pioneers of the women’s game in Africa Ghana have yet to win a major tournament at senior level.

Between 1991 and 2006, Ghana made at least the Wafcon quarter-finals, finishing runners-up on three occasions. However, they have since exited the tournament at the group stage four times and failed to qualify twice.

Ghana, previously bettered only by Nigeria on the continent, have fallen behind countries such as Cameroon, Morocco, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and last qualified for the World Cup in 2007.

The country continues to produce exceptional female players, most of whom are now being noticed by elite clubs in Europe. The biggest bane of the women’s game has been a dearth of investment. Many in the Ghana Women’s Premier League play for free despite the harsh economic conditions in the country and the situation is no different for those who represent the various women’s national teams. It is a far cry from the men’s game, where millions of dollars are pushed into the Black Stars.

The Black Queens have enjoyed an exceptional 2023 but expectations are now very high. They will be back in action in February for a two-leg final Olympic qualifier against Zambia before flying to Morocco in August aiming to win a first Wafcon title.

Häuptle believes there is no limit to what this talented group can achieve but they must be wary of complacency. Abambila agrees with her coach, saying: “Our first target is to qualify from the group stage [of the Wafcon]. Then we take it from there.”

© The Guardian / 01.02.2024