AFCON qualifiers expose Ghana and Nigeria cracks.
In the midst of what was a breathless weekend AFCON qualification action, both Nigeria and Ghana paid the price for contention decision making post Brazil 2014 – the super eagles were stunned at home to Congo, whilst the black stars were fortunate to escape the visit of Uganda with a point.
Nigeria’s preparation had been plagued by farcical contract talks between coach Stephen Keshi and the nation’s football authorities, with the hierarchy seemingly putting minimal value on the man who has hauled a nation from its knees back to the apex of African football.
When Keshi took the reins Nigeria were in dire straits – a situation which on the pitch cumulated in the ignominy of failing to reach the 2012 AFCON – yet the former skipper has completely reversed fortunes – guiding the super eagles to an unforeseen title in 2013 before a first World Cup knock out appearance since 1998.
The majority of coaches would have walked away long ago – Keshi’s contract expired back on July 30th – with the powers that be continually attempting to cut corners surrounding a new deal. It is testament to Keshi’s commitment to his country that he agreed to take temporary charge for the current round of qualifiers, but inevitably such uncertainty was always liable to harm Nigeria on the pitch.
The Nigerian FA’s history is ropey to say the least – Keshi has constantly been hindered by interference and nonsensical decision making – with this gross undervaluing of the inspirational coach’s monumental impact just the latest episode of a long running calamity – reports indicate the figure being offered is substantially down on what Nigeria’s rival are paying their respective coaches.
In the case of Ghana, the situation is starkly contrasting, with the Ghanaian authorities opting to retain Kwesi Appiah in spite of a World Cup campaign that descended into complete chaos – the black stars were heavily tarnished by both bonus disputes and infighting. That wasn’t Kwesi’s first disappointment either, given Ghana had fallen at the semi-final stage of the 2013 AFCON.
Neither Congo nor Uganda represented straightforward proportions – such is the depth of Africa’s football that there are now minimal easy games on the continent, at the same time the argument could be made that both were more competition ready than their more favoured opponents. Both had negotiated two rounds of knockout football to navigate their way this far, perhaps meaning a greater degree of sharpness – although it is worth pointing out Ivory Coast also endured an equally if not more testing examination against a qualifier from the opening two rounds. Unlike Nigeria and Ghana however, the elephants were able to navigate choppy waters, coming from behind to down an ever improving Sierra Leone – in contrast the black stars and super eagles were left to rue their respective disappointing showings.
Nigeria had not lost competively to Congo since 1981 at the same time they could boast an unbeaten home record stretching back 33 years – at the same time the red devils had only made it this far courtesy of Rwanda fielding an ineligible player and thus being thrown out. It would be a disservice to discredit Congo – who enjoyed a largely fruitful World Cup qualification bid – however undoubtedly the uncertainty surrounding Keshi’s future naturally had a bearing on the fixtures outcome.
Discipline issues once again reared their head in the case of Ghana, with Asamoah Gyan leaving camp just hours before kick-off in order to provide his brother with bail following an alleged role in a planned assault – Africa’s leading World Cup scorer would return but that episode wouldn’t have benefitted preparations.
Throughout Uganda – who are targeting a first AFCON in 36 years and arguably commenced the group as favourites to progress after Ghana – were the games dominant force with Ghana again cutting a disjointed uninterested outfit – the black stars only salvaging a draw via a debated Andre Ayew spot kick. The crowd in Kumasi – still hurting from Ghana’s disenchanting showing in Brazil – inevitably were quick to turn on their side, with Ayew’s spotkick only able to temporarily able to ease the growing pressure on Appiah’s shoulders.
The Ghanaian hierarchy have previously been quick to defend Appiah – laying the blame at the players door post World Cup, however the appointment of Milovan Rajevac – who Appiah assisted in guiding Ghana to an unprecedented last eight spot at the 2010 World Cup – raises contention surrounding even their faith in the current coach.
Neither will be afforded time to lick their wounds with Nigeria visiting a buoyant South Africa – who opened their account with a comprehensive win in Sudan – on Tuesday night, whilst Ghana travel to Togo. The pair remain overwhelming favourites to progress – in comparison to others both have been handed generous groups – nevertheless recent history has highlighted on countless occasions that reputation counts for little in modern day African football.
Nigeria would be well advised to make Keshi a realistic offer before the iconic coach finally loses patience and walks away – with it igniting the potential for the super eagles to fall at the same staggering rate that they have risen under his stewardship. There is unfortunately a growing worry that only when it’s gone will the Nigerian hierarchy realise what they had.
In Ghana’s case, the situation is somewhat more complexed with those at the top table clearly possessing faith in Appiah, despite growing signs that he is out of his depth – both tactical and motivational wise – in relation to extracting the best from what is undeniably a high maintenance yet extremely talented group.
What is for certain is that neither can take their place in Morocco for granted – the rest of Africa will not think twice about exposing their evidence cracks.