Last hurdle and here we are, Russia 2018. The Black Stars open their world cup qualification group account against the Cranes of Uganda at the Tamale Sports Stadium with the hopes of an entire nation riding on the ascendency.
Having already sealed qualification for next year’s AFCON quite straightforwardly, there lies in the other matter of qualifying for what will be a fourth successive world cup appearance and in the same pool as Congo and a resurgent Egypt, the Stars have it all to do to make it four out of four.
A traditional powerhouse in African football alongside the likes of Cameroon, Nigeria, Egypt et al with four AFCON triumphs to show for it, Ghana watched in agony as the likes of Cameroon, Nigeria and Senegal bore the torch for the continent in world cups. But all of that changed in 2006 when the Stars emerged from the doldrums to seal a maiden appearance at the global show piece. The first chapter was written in Germany and in some style. Ghana put her name on the map with some scintillating performances en route to qualifying for the last 16 stage to be undone by the mighty Brazil. And then in 2010 there was more history to be written by the Stars. Ghana made it all the way to the last eight in South Africa solely flying the flag of Africa high and was a last-kick-of-the-game away from sealing what would have been a historic semifinal showing.
Save the calamitous and ignominious happenings in Brazil in 2014 where the nation’s football became an object of mockery, it is fair to say that Ghana have had some fond memories of showings at the global showpiece and the fans certainly want more. The nation wants more. Ghanaians want more.The world cup is increasingly turning out to be the bread and butter of the nation and it makes it all the more imperative that the Stars qualify this time around as well starting with the game against the Cranes at Tamale.
It is crucial that the Stars kickoff the group campaign with maximum points at home and why? On paper, the home and away fixtures against Egypt looks the more daunting and difficult not ruling out away ties to arguable outsiders Congo and Uganda. And let’s not even forget how the Stars comprehensively shellacked the Pharaohs in Kumasi the last time the two sides met in the playoffs for qualification for Brazil 2014. What it might imply is that, the Stars could have potential banana skins in the away games, which makes the 9 points at stake in the home fixtures practically non-negotiable if qualification is to be sealed.
And starting against Uganda, the Stars have some serious convincing to do. Avram Grant came in at the time when our football was in turmoil after the Brazil happenings and with barely some few weeks before the commencement of the AFCON in 2015, Grant had his work cut out seemingly. But the Stars were delectable in Equatorial Guinea en route to winning silver losing out to the Ivory Coast on penalties. But after that sumptuous showing in Equatorial Guinea, such performances have been very few and far in between. Granted qualification for the AFCON was sealed quite comfortably and save the 7-1 annihilation of Mozambique in Accra, it is hard to pick out any other convincing performance from the Stars in the campaign entirely. Victories were picked no doubt as the Stars amassed 14 points out of a possible 18 but it is the manner those victories were picked that was the cause for concern albeit qualification was sealed before that dead rubber against Rwanda on the last day.
Avram Grant has come in for a lot of derision from the local media about issues pertaining team selection, tactics and what not and though the criticism seems a little overblown considering the strides he has made as coach of the national team, his Stars are yet to really convince after the impressive showing in last year’s AFCON. The Stars look arguably identity-stricken in their recent outings and Grant has his hands full in trying to restore the sort of swagger his charges play with and with the squad he assembled for the double header of the qualifier against Uganda and the friendly against South Africa a few days later, there are some teething problems he needs to immediately address.
In goal, Razak Braimah has hardly looked convincing since showing up and it is quite mystifying that his stay of execution stretches further even after Adam Kwarasey returned from exile. Grant should quickly put the goalkeeping conundrum to bed with barely 3 months to the commencement of the AFCON. In defence, the quartet of Harrison Afful, John Boye, Jonathan Mensah and Baba Rahman looks like our surest tried and tested bet now with Daniel Amartey looking like the only real contender for a place in central defense though he can slot in in defensive midfield as well. The midfield has always been our stronghold with a plethora of options to pick from. The likes of Agyemang Badu, Mubarak Wakaso and Afriyie Acquah have been mainstays under Grant and are shoo in to play a part. Thomas Partey still have some convincing to do to break into the 11 and the returning of Enoch Adu Kofi and Gilbert Koomson should make the work more arduous for the Atletico man Thomas Teye Partey.
Grant has done admirably well so far especially in beefing the midfield options of the Stars but he has been shorn of the qualities of arguably the nation’s best midfielder, Kwadwo Asamoah. The Israeli trainer is yet to have the luxury of having to pick from darling boy Kwadwo Asamoah and the rest of the midfield pack due to persistent fitness problems for the Juventus midfielder. The prospect of a fit and firing Kwadwo Asamoah in Grant’s midfield is a tantalizing prospect and there might be hope of the midfield lynchpin recovering in time to feature in next year’s AFCON.
In attack, Andre Ayew is sidelined but the return of Asamoah Gyan and the resurgent Christian Atsu means the Stars should have enough firepower to see off the Cranes. Grant has kept faith in Atsu throughout his struggles at club level and looks set to be rewarded with Atsu increasingly finding his feet under the tutelage of Rafa Benitez at Newcastle. He scored on his first start for the Magpies and looks revitalized which is good news for Ghana. Add the supporting cast of the impressive Frank Acheampong, Jordan Ayew and David Accam and the Stars have no business not starting their qualification campaign on the right path.
In all in all, the task might not be as straightforward as it seems. The Stars have struggled and labored their way to some unimpressive victories over the Comoros, the Rwandas, the Mozambicans and the other so called less fancied nations. No disrespect to the Cranes( and they are a more established outfit than any of the aforementioned) but nations that are not Cameroon or Senegal or Algeria have worried the Stars a great deal in recent times.
That increasingly looking trend should be bucked and with the GFA and the Ministry locked in an obviously looking not-ending-soon power struggle, the Stars can get a whole nation’s hopes of qualifying for yet another world cup appearance in place with a massive performance against Uganda on Friday.
The GFA- ministry of Sports feud has grabbed the headlines in the local media for far too long. The Stars should recapture the headlines for all the good reasons on Friday.
By Enoch Andoh-Mensah