Opinion:Brazil 2014- How far can the Black Stars go?
Ghana has qualified for the football festival in Brazil, and have done so for the third consecutive time. For a country that is in so much love with the sport, failure to qualify for the biggest football event in the world would have been disastrous. What has made this time’s qualification even more enjoyable is the fact that for the first time in the country’s history, a local coach led the team in this achievement.
Many Ghanaians are optimistic about the chances of the Black Stars at the World Cup in Brazil. In fact, no one mirrors the thoughts of the Ghanaian people better than the President of the country. In his address at a fair well dinner organized for the Black Stars at the seat of government last week, he said: ‘we expect that Ghana lifts the World Cup for the first time in history’. This is not the first time the President has shown such optimism. In November last year when the trophy made a stop in Ghana on its tour of the 32 countries that had qualified for the World Cup, His Excellency John Dramani Mahama said: ‘the Black Stars can and will bring the trophy to Ghana in July 2014′.
The Minister for Youth and Sports, Mr Elvis Afriyie Ankrah is on record saying that Ghana will win the World Cup and that ‘no man, woman, witch or wizard’ can stop that from happening. In an interview with an Accra-based radio station Peace FM, the President of the Ghana Football Association (GFA) Kwesi Nyantakyi, last week gave an insight as to what the targets of Ghana are at this World Cup. He said that in 2006, the target was to qualify from the group stage. In 2010, the target was to improve on the achievement at the previous World Cup, that is to go beyond the 1/16th stage. This time, he says the target is to improve on the 2010 achievement, that is to qualify for the semi-finals ‘and even win it’. Shortly after qualifying the Black Stars to the World Cup, the coach Mr. James Kwesi Appiah, told the media that Ghana will shock the world. So it is clear that the minimum target for Ghana in this year’s World Cup is to reach the semi-finals. Is this however a realistic and achievable target?
Ghana has been drawn in Group G with Germany, Portugal and USA. In my opinion, this is the toughest World Cup group Ghana has ever been drawn in. The mere mention of the names Germany and Portugal is scary. People have tried to water down the significance of this point by claiming the same was said about our group in 2006. They went on to say that the pessimists at the time predicted doom and gloom for the Black Stars, as they were drawn in the same group as USA, Czech Republic and Italy, who were higher up in the FIFA rankings at the time. In fact, the Czech Republic and USA were ranked second and fourth best respectively. As it turned out, Ghana went ahead to beat those two countries at the group stage. The fact that Italy, who at the time were ranked lower than both USA and Czech Republic went ahead to win the World Cup is evidence that the FIFA rankings really have little significance at tournaments of such nature. There are established ‘football countries’ and the momentary surge in form of countries like USA and Czech does not place them in that category. Form is temporary, class will always be permanent.
A careful review of Ghana’s World Cup history also shows that, anytime we come up against these ‘football countries’, we play our best football but always lose. In 2006, we lost against Italy and Brazil. In 2010, we lost narrowly against Germany and Uruguay. I do not see us winning against Germany or Portugal. Aside from Germany and Portugal being established ‘football countries’, another team that makes our group the toughest we have ever been drawn in is the United States of America. Anyone who thinks the fact that we have beaten them in two consecutive World Cups means our first game in this year’s World Cup is a walkover needs initiation into the dynamics of the game. Paradoxically, that should even be the reason why we should be worried. The USA or any team would not be beaten easily on three consecutive times.
Jurgen Klinsmann, the coach of USA, has declared their match against Ghana their ‘World Cup final’. Addressing his 23 man squad last week, Klinsmann reiterated the importance of their match against Ghana. One other thing that worked to our advantage in our two previous World Cup appearances was the ‘underdog’ tag. Unfortunately, due to our showings in those World Cups, we have lost that tag and every team that meets us will do so with all the respect and seriousness we deserve. Inasmuch as I would not want to go into the player-for-player analysis, the fact that the current world’s best player will be playing for a country in our group cannot be overlooked. He will get, and rightly so, all the protection available from referees and any little indiscretion from our defenders around or within the penalty box might prove costly.
Aside from Ghana being drawn in our toughest World Cup group yet, we also go into this World Cup with the weakest squad so far. Not that we could have any better players than the ones named by coach Kwesi Appiah, this is fairly the best available at the moment. However, I think our squad strength does not compare to that of 2006 and 2010. Our 2014 World Cup squad has a lot of players who are out of form and pace, and are either carrying injuries or are injury-prone. Our midfield trio of Essien, Muntari and Appiah was about the best on the continent in 2006. Michael Essien was at the heart of the Chelsea midfield and team in England. He had even been voted Chelsea players’ and fans’ Player of the Year in 2007 and 2008 and went into the World Cup as a premiership winner. The same cannot be said about Michael Essien today as he has been more or less a bit-part player for AC Milan this season after been consistently overlooked on the bench by his ‘father’ at Chelsea. Muntari, who entered the 2010 World Cup as a Champions League winner is suffering the same fate as Essien at club level under new manager Clarence Seedorf.
Kevin-Prince Boateng, who was a regular for Portsmouth before the World Cup in 2010, has had reduced game time at Schalke 04 due to injuries. The country’s number one goalkeeper, Fatau Dauda has been playing second fiddle to Senzo Meyiwa (who himself is the third choice for South Africa) all season at Orlando Pirates. The role our goalkeeper, Richard Kingson, played in our feats at the 2006 and 2010 World Cups cannot be overstated, neither can the importance of playing time of a player (especially a goalkeeper). In defense, the most experienced defender in the squad, John Boye, is just returning from injury. Our first choice right-back, Samuel Inkoom was consistently overlooked and benched by Juande Ramos at Dnipro FC until he made the switch to Platanias FC during the winter transfer window. In attack, our leading striker Asamoah Gyan and Ghana’s all-time top scorer is playing ‘retirement football’ in the UAE Pro League, compared to when he was playing competitive football in France for Rennes in 2010. The Andre Dede Ayew of 2010 is not the same one we see today. The only player in the squad, who has shown form and consistency is Kwadwo Asamoah of Juventus, but he does not appear to me as a player who has the mental toughness to take a game by the scruff of its neck. He is yet to replicate his club form for country. I wish Dede Ayew had the form of Kwadwo Asamoah.
Ghana goes into the 2014 World Cup being drawn in its toughest group ever, with a comparatively weaker side and weak coach. And by weak, I do not mean tactically. Kwesi Appiah has proven time and again that he is not a man of his own and does not command the authority that the magnitude of his job demands. In terms of tactical competence or even pedigree, I do not think his predecessors, Ratomir Dujkovic and Milovan Rajevac are any better. Before those two took over the Black Stars job, they were relatively unknown in football circles and have vanished into oblivion after they left Ghana. But it takes more than tactical competence to coach a national team. One needs to be bold, resolute and responsible in decision making. It seems to me Kwesi Appiah is the opposite of all these.
In June 2013, faraway in Maseru – Lesotho, Sulley Muntari reacted angrily to being substituted in a World Cup qualifying match and walked off the pitch into the dressing room. As if that was not enough, he confronted the manager in the dressing room and even at dinner to explain to him why he was substituted. When the coach told him it was for ‘tactical reasons’, he asked ‘what tactical reasons?’. Did Muntari ever have the courage to ask Jose Mourinho why he used to put him on the bench? Has he ever asked Seedorf why he keeps him on the bench at Milan? Did he have the effrontery to ask Milovan why he consistently played a young Dede Ayew ahead of him in the 2010 World Cup? If Kwesi Appiah had any balls, he would have done what Didier Deschamps has done with Samir Nasri. The call up of players like Essien, Kevin-Prince and Jordan Ayew into the World Cup squad is yet another evidence of Appiah’s weakness as a coach. Essien is past his prime, out of form and pace.
The exclusion of Landon Donovan, Kaka, Ronaldinho and Robinho from the squads of their various countries is testament to the fact that at this stage, emotions and sentiments have no place. The inclusion of Essien in this World Cup squad is more sentimental than professional. Kevin-Prince Boateng retired from the national team in November 2011 saying that the physical demands of playing for both club and country at high levels were taking a toll on his health and he wanted to concentrate on his club career. Has that changed?? Why take a player who has shown through deeds and words that he is more committed to club than country to the World Cup? In any case, hasn’t he had more injuries after his retirement than when he used to play for the Black Stars? What’s so special about him now? Is he Ghana’s best player in Europe now? Does he not have the same record as Haminu Dramani at the World Cup (both have scored one goal)? After the President of the country had to personally appeal to him to come out of retirement, I think it would be difficult for a coach to leave Jordan Ayew out of the World Cup squad. Otherwise, I do not see why he should be on the plane to Brazil based on merit. But I think people should have principles, live and die for them. Fabio Capello resigned from the lucrative England job because of how the FA handled the John Terry captaincy saga. Kwesi Appiah could have taken a cue.
With a weak squad and coach, coupled with being drawn in our toughest World Cup group yet, I will need the faith of a mustard seed and even more to expect Ghana to go beyond the group stages in Brazil. I’m a patriot, but also a realist.
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