ONE HURDLE CROSSED, TWO TOUGHER ONES TO GO…Kwesi Appiah’s ‘doubleheader’

Apart from 2004, when Ghana failed to qualify for the Tunisia Africa Cup of Nations tournament, the Black Stars have been conspicuously present in the flagship tournament of the Confederation of African Football the last decade. No wonder Ghana’s 19th appearance in South Africa next year will be the 3rd highest on the continent after Egypt (22) and Cote d’Ivoire (20) . As a result, among the tasks lined up for a new coach of the Black Stars, qualification to the Cup of Nations is the easiest. It has even been tougher for some coaches as qualification to the world cup is paired with qualification for a world cup and so it turns out that coaches, who handled the Black Stars during those series performed a good job by proverbially killing two birds with one stone.

Upon being confirmed as the permanent coach of the Black Stars after the termination of the contract of Goran Stevanovic, James Kwesi Appiah was handed a three-pronged task by his employers, Ghana Football Association. He was first and foremost to qualify the Black Stars to the 29th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa, to win the trophy at stake in South Africa and, equally important, to qualify the team, again, for a third successive world cup.

Qualifying for AFCON 2013

As easy as it looks on paper, these tasks are tough especially from the point of view of a coach. Kwesi Appiah’s work was cut out for him when Ghana drew Malawi for the home-and-away format qualifiers for South Africa 2013. Of course, there was a change in the format of qualifiers as a result of changing the tournament from an even number year to odd number year though it remains a biennial tournament. As a result of the Black Stars’ participation in the 2012 Cup of Nations, Ghana, like the 15 other nations which took part in the Equatorial Guinea/Gabon tourney, drew bye in the qualifies and went into ‘sudden death’ with Malawi in a form of a home-and-away tie. Fortunately, Kwesi Appiah lived up to the task and followed the footsteps of his predecessors by booking qualification to the Cup of nations. Task One achieved!

Appiah on course to achieve Task two with the appointment of Gyan as permanent captain

Appiah on couse to achieve task two with the appointment of Gyan as permanent captain

Inasmuch as the first task was a tough one and a sine qua non in achieving the second task, that booking of qualification for an Africa Cup of Nation was equally met by Appiah’s Serbian predecessors and it comes as no surprise to some of us who rooted for a COMPETENT Ghanaian to be coach of the Black Stars. Apart from Burkhard Ziese, whose second attempt at the helm rather turned disastrous, most of the coaches Ghana has hired have achieved this task. The next two are relatively more difficult.

Winning the AFCON

Indeed, winning the Africa Cup of Nations and qualifying to a world cup are as equally tough as qualifying for an Africa Cup of Nations tourney. Nonetheless, the latter has been made ordinary by Kwesi Appiah’s Serbian predecessors and one of them brought Ghana closer to achieving the former. Apart from Ratomir Dujkovic, who could only manage a group stage participation of the Black Stars in Egypt’s 2006 Africa Cup of Nations, the rest have taken the team to at least the semi-finals. Unfortunately, some came under a barrage of scathing attacks from football lovers for only reaching the semi-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations. In what many other nations would have religiously cherished, the semi-final exit of the Black Stars at Equatorial Guinea-Gabon cost Goran ‘Plavi’ Stevanovic his job. As a result, Kwesi Appiah will need to work harder in meeting this task of winning Ghana an Africa Cup of Nations trophy. In fact, Appiah has a tougher task to deliver the trophy because his 2010 boss Milovan Rajevac was just inches away from achieving it. The Black Stars had to succumb to a 0-1 defeat to Egypt in the finals of the Angola 2010 tourney. With issues of discipline already saddling the unity of the team, Coach Appiah’s effort to achieve this second task seems to be a tall order. Fortunately, he has some months to right the wrongs before his campaign to beat the expatriate coaches in delivering the continental trophy. Moreso, Appiah now has a fair idea of the strength of opposition in his first three matches as the draw which revealed Ghana’s group stage opponents was held in Durban 24th October, 2012. DR Congo, Niger and Mali will surely hand Ghana tough opposition in the first 10 days into the South Africa tournament.

Qualifying for World Cup

The last task, which has recently been made ordinary by Serbian managers, is qualification to a world cup. As tough as previous qualifications were, the expatriate coaches met the exigencies of the task by qualifying for the 2006 and 2010 world cups. For Milovan Rajevac, qualification to South Africa took a long journey as the series was in two phases. He managed qualification from the first phase where Ghana was in the same group with Libya, Gabon and Lesotho and shot the Stars to an unprecedented qualification to South Africa 2010 at the expense of Sudan, Mali and Benin. For Ratomir Dujkovic, 40% of the job had been done by Mariano Barretto as the Portuguese tactician had notched up six points before his sudden departure from Ghana. But he did not rest on his oars as he gave Ghana a kind of Holy Graille.

Unfortunately, events in the run-up to qualification for the Brazil 2014 World Cup have turned against the team and I have discussed that in this column. Zambia could not boast of an African Cup when the draw was held in Rio de Janeiro in 2011 but are currently African champions. Worse still, they have increased their points tally after winning a legal case against the Sudanese Football Association. For Sudan, they will put their last penny on the qualification as they will not make it to South Africa for the Cup of Nations after being shoved aside by Ethiopia. For Lesotho, that 7-0 humiliation in Kumasi on 1st June, 2012 will be etched at the back of their mind when they face the Black Stars in Maseru in 2013.

But in all this, there is nothing impossible. Just like managing to beat Malawi home and away after all the noise Malawians and their coach Kinna Phiri made, I believe Kwesi Appaih can meet the two tasks ahead – winning South Africa 2013 and qualifying for Brazil 2014 – just that they will be tougher.

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By Kwame