Sports Features of Saturday, 17 May 2014

Source: Papa Appiah

Black Stars - Credit Where Credit is Due

It's been a long journey. But now the Rubicon is crossed and there is no turning back. The players are called and ready and come next month, the Black Stars go into battle, in a bid to hoist the red, gold and green and the Black star aloft and make Ghana proud. It all began a few moons ago with the appointment of Kwesi Appiah as coach. We criticised the appointment and with good reason. How could we reconcile our desire to advance our game with the appointment of a coach who had stopped playing football at the turn of the century and yet had no real managerial achievement at senior level to boast of. We looked at the CVs of managers of serious title contenders like Brazil, with Scolari, England with Hodgson, Spain with Vincente del Bosque and threw our hands up in despair. There is no comparison in terms of experience and managerial achievement and all talk of winning the World Cup or even going one better than the last, sounded like utter hogwash.

And yet there were others who felt, that we have been taken for a ride far too long by second rate European coaches and that this was the right time to appoint a local coach, pay him well and support him to achieve even more than the overpaid Europeans did. Who can argue with that? And yet the arguments turned into unpleasant exercises in xenophobia and jingoism. If you were against it, then you were a brainwashed African failing to appreciate your fellow black man, even when that fellow black man happened to have nothing on paper to be appreciated. But that is all water under the bridge.

The country threw it's weight behind the team. There was unprecedented support for the Black Stars. From Cape Coast to Bolgatanga and from Aflao to Dormaa, the people yelled for victory. And victory we did attain, crowned by a rather impressive 6-1 victory against Egypt. National adulation for the coach soared. A doctors degree was awarded a coach who, to be fair, has maintained a calm dignity throughout all the criticisms. What more can we ask for? He was given a job to do, and he has, so far, done it admirably. And to top it all, he has gone on to select 26 players for the squad, devoid of vindictiveness nor favouritism, that very few can argue with.

We can argue forever whether a player like Adomah should be in the squad. But we should give credit where it is due. The guy has done well for himself and moved up into the Championship in England and was, throughout the season, one of the brightest players for Middlesborugh. Anytime he has been called upon to perform for the nation, he has done so with enthusiasm and dedication and made up for his comparative lack of skill with a keen tactical awareness and hardwork, playing solely to the coach's instruction rather than for himself. He deserves a chance. Accam has been banging in goals with ease, and Afriyie Acquah is making headlines in Italy. Jeffrey Schlupp has just helped his team qualify for the Premiership in England. Not even with the European coaches did we get a squad selected solely on merit, without the influence of football agents and officialdom, and the coach needs to be applauded.

Ghana has a good squad. There is no doubt about that. Muntari and Gyan are playing in their third World Cup! Dede Ayew, Kojo Asamoah, Prince Boateng, Jonathan Mensah, Agyemang Badu, Michael Essien and Inkoom all have World Cup experience, not to mention a wealth of experience in various other tournaments. Add to these Kwarasey, who has had a brilliant year in Norway and young and gifted players like Atsu, Wakaso and the ever dependable Boye, and we have a team that can stand up to any team in the world. What we probably lack is true depth. To put things in perspective, France have announced their squad and left out Nasri and Gail Cliche. We should pray to banish injuries and hope all our top players will be fit.

I am ashamed to say I did not know who our Minister for Sports was till recently. My attention was drawn to him by what I perceive to be his indefatigable efforts to get the team well prepared for the big occasion. Firstly, he called a meeting of all former sports Ministers who had been to the World Cup to share ideas with them so as to avoid repeating previous mistakes. Then I saw him set up a team of former footballers and musicians to help drum up support for the team, not to mention a recent float through various cities in Ghana to whip up World Cup fever. Again, credit where credit is due. A man can only do his job well, and I have been impressed by the young man's enthusiasm and dedication.

Are we going to win the World Cup? No! Are we going to get to the semi-final? I don't know. What I do know, judging from the qualifiers, is that the players will do their utmost, for their careers, their nation and yes, for the coach. Whether that would be enough remains to be seen. Come to think of it, we are going to this World Cup with probably the most inexperienced coach of all the countries. How he will fare tactically against the established coaches is anyone's guess. I sincerely hope, that at the end of the day, the same people shouting "hail him" will not ask for his crucifixion should things go wrong, leaving those of us who crucified him initially to plead, if we really want to stick to our desire to maintain local coaches, that we give him four more years after the World Cup, whatever the outcome, to prepare the team for the next one and gain some more experience.

Papa Appiah