Malabo’s Sofitel President Palace is one of the more desirable residences in Equatorial Guinea and, at an Africa Cup of Nations where hotel quality has never been too far from the agenda, it feels as if Ghana have hit the jackpot in terms of preparation during the knockout stages.
It costs a visitor £4 to purchase a bottle of water; this is not an inconvenience Kwesi Appiah will encounter but he laughs when told of the difference between these surroundings and those currently occupied by his Crystal Palace clubmate, Yannick Bolasie, whose DR Congo side resides in something approximating to an Equatoguinean Butlins across the sea in Bata.
“Really? You must be joking. He hasn’t mentioned that to me, but perhaps he’s just stayed in worse.” In fact he has, in the last fortnight alone. Appiah himself is not one to take comfort for granted: his selection for the Black Stars’ squad caused no little surprise when considered in the context of a peripatetic career that has taken time to ignite.
Although a Palace player since 2012, he has played next to no part in their recent rise and has contented himself with loans at Aldershot, Yeovil, Notts County, AFC Wimbledon and – most successfully – two separate spells with Cambridge United. Five and a half years ago, he was scoring goals for Kings Lynn in the Northern Premier Division while on loan from Peterborough; two years prior to that, he was coming through the youth setup at Ebbsfleet.
Seven goals for Cambridge this season were enough to prompt his call-up and he has gone some way towards silencing the doubters. Named in Avram Grant’s starting XI for the quarter-final against Guinea on Sunday, he played an important part in Christian Atsu’s opening goal before finishing calmly to double the lead after a miskick by Baissama Sankoh had fallen for him. He was named man of the match after the 3-0 win and, in the circumstances, could have done little more.
“People were amazed that I was selected in the first place but the same people who said ‘he’s not this, he’s not that’ are now the ones patting me on the back and saying congratulations,” Appiah tells the Guardian.
“I’m just enjoying every minute. This is something I’ve always imagined and now I’m living the dream. It has been an incredible journey so far and the goal just continued that. It was a bit of a gift to be honest with you, but still you have to stay quite calm to put it away – it was a bit of a poacher’s finish.”
There have been plenty of those during Appiah’s career, but up until now none had come at a level higher than League Two. He is 24 and his current level of exposure – such a rarity for a player who has dotted around the lower leagues – has not come before time.
“The timing has been perfect for me,” he says. “Coming after a good loan at Cambridge and with the prospect of introducing myself back to Crystal Palace when I return to England, it’s worked out well.
“Some people like to sit around and just train every week if they’re not playing, but that’s never been my mindset. You can see from my career and the number of clubs I’ve had that I’m not happy to do that – I want to play football and it’s what I get paid to do. I’ve been at Palace for three years now and would love to break into the team, so that will be my goal until it’s no longer possible.”
A loan at a level somewhere between those occupied by Palace and Cambridge looks more likely but Appiah believes that the step up in class to international football has allowed his qualities to shine through.
“I wouldn’t say I play differently here, but my strengths can be more facilitated by these quality players,” he says. “Likewise, my strengths can be better received by them, so it makes it a lot more relaxing. I find it quite special really because at most of my clubs I’ve been the guy people look up to and want to produce the goods, so I can see things from a different angle now. Everyone is chipping in here and giving everything; you can see exactly why they play in the Champions League and across the best leagues in the world.”
A conspiracy theory has been doing the rounds since Appiah was first called up for Grant’s preliminary squad. The story went that Saif Rubie, Grant’s agent, also happened to represent Appiah and that this had forced the situation; tales of nepotism trumping meritocracy in football are as old as the hills but the player says such a conclusion is wide of the mark.
“I know of him [Rubie], yeah, but he’s not my agent. He’s a well-known character in England, in football, so I know him but it’s up to people if they want to link that – I’m not fussed. People make up stuff to try and bring you down, so you’ve just got to remain strong and you’ll get through it.”
Even if you sense an elision or evasion here, Appiah’s Ghanaian credentials are in no doubt. His father, James, instilled that part of his identity in him from a young age and, should a battle of allegiances ever have been on the table, he is adamant that there would only have been one choice.
“My dad’s been the biggest influence in my career so it would have been silly not to take that side of things. I had a lot of Ghanaian culture in my life while I was growing up, and he’s been very supportive of me throughout so it’s my way of repaying him and my family. I’ve always been a Black Stars fan – you might even have seen pictures on Twitter of me at games supporting them – so to be here now is amazing.”
Appiah has surely done enough to be selected for Thursday’s semi-final against the host nation, whose progress to this stage has been mired in controversy. The home crowd in Bata has created an intimidating atmosphere and Ghana will not be unhappy that the last-four tie will take place at the smaller stadium in Malabo, where passions are displayed less intensely.
“I don’t mind either way,” he says. “The size of the crowd, the support, it just gives you more energy. Whether it’s with you or not, you can still hear the noise and it just makes me more pumped. You want to play harder, run harder and fight even harder. So that’s not too much of a problem for me.
“We just need to keep improving as we have been. We didn’t get the result we wanted in our first game [ they lost 2-1 to Senegal ], but we kicked on from then and we’ve had some good results and performances. If we’re hitting some kind of peak now and can maintain it, then it’ll put us in good stead.”
It is the kind of circumspection – some might say caginess – that you would expect from a more experienced squad member. Appiah looks entirely comfortable here but had he ever started to think, during the lower-league grind, that the chance to make the grade higher up had slipped away?
“Nah – never, never. You’ve got to believe in your own ability and I’ve always done that. Whether I’ve been down there in non-league or up there as high as the Championship, I’ve never given up hope on this. It’s exciting now that it’s all coming to pass and I’m thriving on it.”
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