Feature: Ghana coach Appiah must learn from Nigeria's Keshi at the 2014 World Cup
The Black Stars of Ghana face a mammoth challenge at the World Cup in Brazil, as African sides have, in the past, been pooled in ‘Groups of Death’.
Is this the hardest group Africa has ever faced?
Quite possibly. Few would fancy the Black Stars to oust either a Germany side featuring the likes of Mario Gotze, Philipp Lahm and Thomas Muller, or a Portugal team spearheaded by the seemingly indestructible Cristiano Ronaldo.
However, there are, in principle, two main reasons for optimism on the part of the Black Stars.
First of all, reassurance comes from their recent World Cup record. In both 2006 and 2010 the West Africans were drawn into tough groups from which they weren’t expected to advance. On both occasions they did, moving into the knockout stages after some hard-fought battles against more illustrious and more experienced opposition.
Secondly, hopefulness can be found in the squad’s superb roster of players. The likes of Sulley Muntari and Michael Essien have won the highest honours the European game has to honour, Andre Ayew and Kevin-Prince Boateng are playing for big clubs in major leagues, while the phenomenon that is Kwadwo Asamoah surely ranks among (or perhaps just behind) the world’s finest midfielders.
Add to this collection the likes of Majeed Waris and Jordan Ayew — both of whom are enjoying excellent ends to the season — as well as the talismanic figure that is Asamoah Gyan, and Ghana look unlikely to crumble under the pressure of Group G, nor wilt when the major tests (and the big names) come their way.
I fear, however, that despite boasting one of Africa’s strongest roster of players — arguably the strongest — Ghana will be unable to escape from their taxing group, and it will be one of the continent’s other nations, probably Nigeria, or possibly Algeria or the Cote d’Ivoire who travel furthest in the competition.
While I have explained, briefly, in the past, how Stephen Keshi ought to take a leaf out of Volker Finke’s book when it comes to using the promise of a major tournament to recruit young players for the future (see Frank Bagnack and Jean Marie Dongou), Ghana boss Kwesi Appiah could do well to seek inspiration from the Big Boss when it comes to organising his options.
Keshi’s approach is a risky one.
The national boss realised the importance of the team ethic and a united camp, and sacrificed the underachieving big names to recruit a squad packed with the young and the inexperienced, the domestic-based and the hungry.
It could easily have backfired.
If the Super Eagles had fallen out of the Cup of Nations at the opening stage, as could feasibly have been the case considering our turgid early showings, then Keshi would have been lambasted for ignoring the likes of Taye Taiwo and Obafemi Martins.
Just look at how the cries for ‘The Saviour’ Peter Odemwingie have increased after a handful of impotent attacking displays.
It’s interesting to imagine how Keshi’s decision-making would be were he in the Ghana hotseat instead of Appiah.
Would the ageing, injury-ravaged Michael Essien have been greeted with open arms when he declared his desire to return in time for the Mondial? Would the capricious Kevin-Prince Boateng have been shoehorned back into the squad so readily? And would it be a similar case of ‘Forgive and Forget’ with the Ayew brothers?
Appiah’s decision to recall — en masse —Ghana’s big name players is in direct contrast to Keshi’s approach.
It is, perhaps, the easy option. If Ghana fail with Mohammed Rabiu and Afriyie Acquah in the midfield — the calls for Essien and Prince would become overwhelming. If, however, they fail with the Milan man and the Schalke star, then at least Appiah can’t be accused of neglect.
Or can he?
In turning to the star players, Appiah risks destabilising the side. Far from fostering a selfless ethic and a team determined to fight for one another, the manager has created a climate of individualism.
The likes of Wakaso Mubarak — who proved himself to be a big game player at the AFCON — and Christian Atsu — who offers the width and directness that none of Ghana’s other midfielders can — may well drop to the bench to make way for the big names. Both men found themselves out of the starting XI for Ghana’s play-off double-header against Egypt and risk a similar fate in Brazil.
So too Albert Adomah, he started three games at the Cup of Nations, don’t expect him to match that this summer.
At the centre of this tangle sits Kwadwo Asamoah, a midfielder surpassed only by Yaya Toure in the African game today.
The Juventus man ought to be the Black Stars’ heartbeat, their cornerstone and their touchpoint. Admittedly, he plays an effective role for his club side on the left, often in a midfielder/wing-back/full-back role, but within the context of the national side, Kojo should be at the centre of everything — figuratively as well as literally.
Knowing what Keshi has managed to draw out of John Obi Mikel — a player who once flattered to deceive for the Super Eagles — it’s frightening to imagine how he could have constructed a team around Asamoah.
Who knows how Appiah will choose to use his key talent this summer. One suspects he will continue to exploit the player’s versatility and push him out of and away from the central areas in order to accommodate the Essiens, Muntaris, Ayews and Princes of this world.
Asamoah is a superb player, so I fully expect that he will impress even as a left-back. But it’s not how it should be, it’s not how Ghana will get the most from their resources, and it’s not, one suspects, how Keshi would have done it.
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