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Sports Features of Monday, 18 November 2013

Source: Nii Ayitey Tetteh

To Rio via Cairo: Black Stars final leg

It is always an anxious wait, until that moment, when the announcement is made over the PA system “Will all passengers travelling to X destination make their way to boarding gate Y”. Depending on who you are leaving behind, your destination, or how long you have been waiting in transit, that simple announcement may elicit a complex set of emotions; relief, delight or even sorrow. So, why am I talking air travel? Well, if you are a football lover or fanatic like me, you will know that Ghana’s Black Stars will be transiting on Tuesday November 19, 2013 in Cairo en-route Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.
The talk of transit gives an emphatic impression that the Black Stars currently at Terminal 6 will definitely board World Cup Flight 2014 ahead of their Egyptian counterparts, the Pharoahs currently stuck at Terminal 1. It’s that moment Black Stars fans have been waiting for ever since Ghana annihilated Egypt 6-1 in Kumasi on October 15, 2013 to more or less book its ticket to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. However, there is the small matter of the second leg in Cairo; a transit of a kind that will confirm or deny Ghana a seat on the flight to Brazil. To get to the boarding gate, the Black Stars will have to go through a couple of transit hurdles to get final clearance which begins as soon as the Stars touch down on November 17 in Cairo from their Turkey camping base.

Security Check

So, you may have heard that Egypt is unsafe for football due to the volatility with the security situation. From Ghana’s Sports Minister, through the Ghana Football Association to Ghana legend and father of 2 of Ghana’s squad members, Abedi Ayew Pele; several calls have been made to the World Football governing body, FIFA, to move the 2nd leg to a neutral venue or provide strong security guarantees that will ensure the safety of Ghana’s delegation made up of players, officials and travelling supporters. If you haven’t heard, then surely, you are the only stranger in “Football-lem”. Amid several meetings between Ghanaian officials and FIFA is a massive apprehension about the venue and possible eruption of violence and its effect on the game. Is this security threat real or has it been overplayed? Well, stick with me, as we analyze the first of the hurdles, the Black Stars need to overcome.
Once upon a time, in late 2010 Egyptians as part of the Arab Spring (Revolution and protests in the Arab World that overthrew presidents) undertook a massive revolution that ousted long term President Hosni Mybarak in February 2011. Democratic elections were organized and Mohammed Morsi took power. Morsi who had links to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist fundamental group, was however alleged to pushing for a stricter version of Islamic law in the country and though most Egyptians are Muslim, Morsi’s method were seen as undemocratic by many. So, the military stepped in and ousted Morsi in a coup d’état on July 3, 2013. Since then, there have been several clashes between supporters of the two groups, with the protestors choosing venues and times to make loud statements. For example, a group of protestors fired rocket-propelled grenades at a police station near Cairo and slit an officer's throat and then smeared the wall with a warning "This is the penalty for the oppressors." That’s how precarious the Cairo situation is.

The violence extended to football grounds and supporters were banned from the Stadia. Indeed, Egypt played all of its World Cup Qualifiers in empty Stadia. So, why FIFA decided this time to allow for fans to enter and watch the Egypt –Ghana game is a little mind boggling. To avert any form of violence FIFA moved the game to the Air Defence Military Stadium which has a capacity to take 30,000. To ensure further security, 20,000 of those in the stadium will be security personnel. At this point you are allowed to say in our local parlance “Ahba!” Surely, it would have made sense to move the game, but now that Ghanaian officials are comfortable with security guarantees, Ghana’s players can confidently play the game and not be physically and psychologically intimidated. It’s one tall hurdle for the Black Stars to scale, but the World Cup ticket might just be enough a motivation to brave this challenge?

Tactics Check

It will be fair to say that Egypt’s Pharaohs have the advantage mentally going into the game. They have had the peace to prepare without any security concerns on their minds. Indeed, word out of Egypt is that, there is a growing sense of believe that a couple of early goals could inspire a famous comeback, one that will even topple other famous comebacks like Real Madrid v Borussia Mönchengladbach, in the UEFA Cup third round, 1985; after 5-1 first leg win in Germany, Monchengladbach had the biggest shock when Real reversed the tie in their favour winning 4-0. Liverpool also made a famous comeback from 3-0 down to equalize 3-3 versus AC Milan and go on to win the 2005 UEFA Champions League on penalties in Istanbul.
So, in as much as beating Ghana 5-0 looks improbable, its football and stranger things have happened. The key for Ghana will not only be getting the psyche of the players up, but also the tactics right on the day. News from the Egyptian camp indicate that Coach Bob Bradley will go for broke and use 4 attacking players made up of 2 conventional strikers supported by 2 attacking midfielders in Mohamed Salah and Mohamed Abu Trika. Ghana’s coach should ordinarily have kept the same team from the first leg, but a certain Kevin Prince Boateng has joined the mix throwing up the ‘Waris- Kevin’ conundrum. With Kevin back in the side, it looks like Abdul Majeed Waris might be sacrificed to accommodate Kevin in the hole and Captain Asamoah Gyan moved further up as lead striker. Now, you know what they say “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. The Gyan- Waris combo has produced lots of goals in the last 3 fixtures, but then Kevin also provides big match performance that is required in a game of this magnitude. I will not offer an opinion and suggest that Ghana keeps the same squad and set out defensively, I will leave it entirely for Coach James Kwesi Appiah to figure out, after all, that is where he earns his money.

Once the Black Stars tune up psychologically, Kwesi Appiah gets his tactics right, then, there will be no doubt it will be the Black Stars responding to the call towards the boarding gate; aboard World Cup Flight 2014. It’s that moment we’ve been waiting for, it’s almost here, until then, it will be an anxious wait.

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(Culled from the 90 Minutes)