It has been a surprisingly good few days, relatively speaking, for Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah, after he endured a torrid time in the wake of the Black Stars’ failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
A 3-0 friendly win over Saudi Arabia in Jeddah on Tuesday came just a few days after the 0-0 qualifier draw against Uganda in Kampala, which the Black Stars had needed to win in order to reach Russia next year.
The win in Jeddah featured a goal and an assist by Atletico Madrid’s Thomas Partey, and a debut goal for defender Razak Nuhu of Swiss side Young Boys. But it was played in near ignorance back home, with most fans unaware it was taking place at all.
As Ghana’s World Cup hopes disappeared over the weekend, it reflected the bad omens from before the fixture. When Appiah dropped Andre Ayew, Jordan Ayew, and Mubarak Wakasso, he was accused of using ethnic consideration to make those decisions.
Then, as the days drew closer for the trip to Kampala, the injury count mounted for Appiah too. It threatened an inglorious end to a poor World Cup qualifying campaign for Ghana, and that threat came to pass.
It was a campaign that started with high hopes that Ghana would make a fourth straight World Cup appearance, but ended with the belated realisation that to be a regular at the global showpiece you need to be consistently good, especially at home.
By the time Appiah took over as Ghana boss in April this year, the Black Stars were already playing catch up, five points behind qualifying group leaders Egypt. Two of those five dropped points were at home against Uganda. There were a further two dropped points at home to Congo, before the 5-1 win over Congo in Brazzaville and the recent goalless draw in Kampala.
This qualifying campaign has ensured that it will be an unusual World Cup summer for many Ghanaians, who have become used to getting draped in the national colours every four years, after first experiencing it in 2006.
Part of Appiah’s job now is to ensure that people don’t lose interest in the national team, and in that sense, the last few games have provided good indicators for optimism.
He went to Kampala and Jeddah without Asamoah Gyan, Andre Ayew, Jordan Ayew, Jonathan Mensah, Harrison Afful, or Christian Atsu, all players who have been central to the Black Stars for the past seven years.
How long many of them remain central will be the most intriguing conversation in Ghana football, because Appiah emerged from those two trips with not just his reputation in tact (despite the Uganda draw and resulting lack of qualification) but with his hand strengthened in his quest to build a new Black Stars side.
Nicholas Opoku and Kasim Nuhu of Young Boys in Switzerland put in shifts over the two games that suggest the absent Mensah and John Boye won’t necessarily walk straight back into the side. It helps Appiah’s cause that Opoku and Nuhu are both regulars at club level.
Joseph Attamah’s confidence would be considerably aided by a fine display in Jeddah in central midfield after his horror showing at right back on his Ghana debut. There was also the good shift that the Kazakhstan-based forward Patrick Twumasi put in.
Those performances will be significant in aiding Appiah’s next decisions. Without the complicated requirements of the World Cup squad selection, the Ghana boss can set about building a new team that can make the Black Stars truly competitive again.
It is a cycle that Ghana football has always had to endure. Failure to reach the Africa Cup of Nations in 2004 provided the commitment that eventually led to the team that would go on and reach a first World Cup in 2006. Like now, there were many big names in that side, untouchables entrenched in the belief that the national team revolved around them. There was a similar cycle in 2010 as well, giving birth to a team with the likes of Mensah and Andre Ayew.
This new side will require leaders too, and over the last three games a few have emerged. Atletico Madrid’s Partey has stepped up in fine style for Ghana lately, with a hat-trick against Congo, and a goal and assist against Saudi Arabia. It is no coincidence that his purple patch at international level has coincided with his most prolonged spell in Diego Simeone’s side. It is almost certain that going forward, Ghana’s approach will be built around him.
Ebenezer Ofori has led by being quietly efficient in central midfield, while the normally shy Daniel Amartey has looked animated and full of life in the last two games with the captain’s armband on.
The performances in Kampala and Jeddah may have been too little too late in the grand scheme of World Cup things but those non-defeats, plus that uplifting away performance in Congo-Brazzaville, provide vital rebuilding blocks for Appiah.
By Michael Oti Adjei, KweséESPN