False start. This was the genuine thought of some great football minds that I saw the Ghana-Uganda tie with. These were individuals who were buzzing with loads of confidence ahead of the game last Friday, never mind all the talk about supposed distractions. For them, these guys were very experienced and too professional to be distracted by the feud involving the Sports Minister and the Football Association. Add the quality of the pitch and the humid conditions in Tamale and that didn’t seem to deter them either. For them, victory was a certainty. In a qualifying phase like this for a place at the biggest football spectacle in the world, performances at home were going to be extremely key in determining whether a side made it to Russia or otherwise. Ghana’s strong home performances en route to Germany (2006), South Africa (2010) and Brazil (2014) contributed strongly to qualification berths. Nothing more than a dream start was going to be good enough.
Inasmuch as these great friends of mine seemed all too confident of a result, the distractions clearly could not be ignored. It’s baffling why the seeming feud between Mr Vanderpuye and the Football Association’s leadership has hit such heights. I am not too sure if these two may have naively closed their minds to reason. We live in a part of the world where politics plays such a huge role in our daily lives and, come to think of the fact that the elections is only two months, one would naturally assume that egos may be cleverly dropped with a focus on the bigger picture. I recall the thoughts of a former Deputy Sports Minister on a campaign platform literally indicating that his party (the ruling National Democratic Congress) had overseen two World Cup qualifications (2010 & 2014) compared to the single occasion in 2006 by the opposition New Patriotic Party, never mind the fact that it was a historic maiden appearance at the Mundial. If such talk could find its way into the campaign space to supposedly woo voters, you would bet that the ruling party was going to do everything possible to make it a third in the row granted they end up winning the elections in two months’ time. Minister Vanderpuye would clearly know this, the politician he is. FA boss Kwesi Nyantakyi would as well be celebrating a fourth successful World Cup appearance under his watch. I would be delighted to have that on my CV as a Minister or an FA boss. Difficult to comprehend if both parties may have lost sight of that.
And for those blaming the pitch, spare us such cheap talk. Did the Cranes impose the pitch on us? My understanding from the comments of the Black Stars Deputy Management Committee Chair, Wilfred Osei Kwaku Palmer, was that assistant manager Maxwell Konadu had been dispatched up north to assess the pitch three full weeks ahead of the game and had presented a report to the Stars Management. Comments by the Director General of the National Sports Council, Joe Kpenge, though, brought to the fore the level of seriousness we may have attached to the game. According to the NSA boss, his outfit did not hear from the FA for a whole week after their recce and that it was his outfit that rather followed up to ascertain whether the FA was indeed happy with the surface. He further suggested that the unavailability of certain FA big shots led to the late response from the football controlling body on whether they were happy with the pitch or otherwise. Shocking to say the least.
I would be honest to admit I may not have visited the other available stadia (Kumasi, Essipong, Accra and Cape Coast) in the last few weeks to know their level of readiness for a game of this magnitude. Question is, what expert advice did the FA seek before taking the game to Tamale in the first place and what was the level of assuredness by Green Grass Technology that the pitch was going to be in a decent state come last Friday? In any case, save Jordan Ayew and Jeffrey Schlupp who may not have ‘benefited’ from such pitches, almost all the other players have played on worse pitches along the line during their colts careers and still do when they are home on holidays playing on their ‘favourite’ Monday Stars pitch scattered all over Accra and beyond. It cannot and should not be an excuse.
As for the humid levels, one of the players on match day confided in me that at some point, he had to slow the tempo of the game to allow his colleagues to recover their breaths when he had to initiate attacks. Some friends who sat comfortably in the stands to see the game looked tired at some point. Even the watchers were tired. Again questions would be raised about the decision to play the game in Tamale. Most of our players ply their trade in Europe and inasmuch as they may be conditioned to such humid levels, they are almost all about hitting winter in their adopted countries. The conditions average 12.5 degrees Celsius. Now juxtapose that to that of Tamale on Friday (averaging 38 degrees Celsius I am told) and how we were expecting our charges to quickly adjust to such humid levels after only touching down in Tamale under 72 hours to the game. Now that is difficult to comprehend.
Manager Avram Grant has been severely criticised for resorting to a template of team selection with such rigidity. Difficult to overly criticise the gaffer. To be fair, his losses on the competitive side is very much on the low (Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire at AFCON 2015) and Uganda in the qualifiers. There is a chance he has loads of trust in his rigid template and since football seems to be all about results these days, it is understandable why he would not want to risk it by altering his trusted starting X1. Makes sense but his propensity to stick to this rigid template has led to the predictability of our side and the Stars approach to their game. Milutin Sredojevic clearly knew what to expect after playing the same side twice in the last year. Not a bad way to get to know your opponents. Even substitutions have become that predictable. From our build, transitions, movement on and off the ball, the defensive frailties of the team as a unit to that of individuals, set pieces, positioning, it all seems pretty too predictable. Strange bit was Jordan taking corner kicks ala Harry Kane for England at the Euros when he should be in the box as one of tallest players to head home or knock down for the short players to drive home. He may be great with that but truth is he is needed in the box and NOT taking corners. Grant surely has to earn his wages against Egypt in November with an A performance from a technical point of view.
Andre Ayew’s absence
Tenacious players would always be key to the teams but they could also be suspended, injured or be out of form. Andre Ayew has proven such a tenacious character in recent years. Truth, though, is he would not be available for selection and it is up to the manager to get the best out of the players available to him on match days. We cannot be so overly dependent on a single player to be a game changer all the time. Players would come and go just like a Pele, a Cryuff, a Maradona or a Messi. The onus lies on the players available for selection at a particular time to make things happen with the support of the technical team of course.
In the aftermath of the drawn game though, I have also heard of the fact that on the day, “the operations team” also failed woefully to glitter. I tried to satisfy my curiosity on who constituted that team and what their duties were. Granted this team even exists in the first place and are great at “achieving results”, how long was that going to play to our favour in these days of television coverage when match officials are under such intense scrutiny? I am not insinuating anything here o please!
Operation Cairo/Giza/Alexandria/Port Said
It’s sad how the Arab revolution robbed the Egyptians of some amazing talent from the Egyptian football space. Back to back to back AFCON trophies and a dominance by Al-Ahly in the continental football space were all blown away by the Arab Spring. Since the annihilation by the Stars for a place in Brazil, though, they have qualified for the 2017 AFCON with club giants Zamalek also making the CAF Champions League final, where they play Mamelodi Sundowns. And what a way to start the World Cup qualifiers by coming from behind at the Kintele in Brazzaville against Congo. The Pharoahs’ squad must be buzzing and very confident going into that match day 2 fixture against the Stars. They would know that a victory would do their qualification hopes a world of good and you bet they would not let that opportunity slip away. If we really want to be there, the draw against Uganda must have been a massive reality check. It’s about time we drop all this unnecessary egos and focus on the ultimate, which is qualification to Russia. This unnecessary bickering between the Sports Minister and the FA should be halted immediately. It’s leading us nowhere to be honest. And to the players as well, someone should gently remind them to focus on the bigger picture of working hard and securing bigger contracts on the biggest stages unless they are happy serving as loanees and playing for some unfancied clubs in Europe, not to talk about those who do not even play in the first tiers in their adopted homelands.
We have botched it against Uganda. There are still 15 more points available for the sole qualification slot to Russia. It is possible. Game on.
Thanks for your attention.
By: Kwame Dwomoh-Agyemang
The writer is the Sports Editor @ Class 91.3FM. You can follow him on Twitter @ DwomohKwame and on Facebook at Kwame Dwomoh-Agyemang.