The build-up to the 2022 Fifa World Cup qualifiers between Ghana and Nigeria, on 25 and 29 March respectively, has been typical of clashes between the two teams: lots of banter and assertions of superiority by everyone.
The African continent can lay claim to some of the most colourful football rivalries, but few match the history and intensity of Ghana versus Nigeria, at least at international level. So after the fixture, when one of them will be celebrating their place in Qatar, the other will be cowering under the weight of trolls in a West African derby given a significant new dimension by social media.
“There is no hiding place in this fixture,” said ex-Ghana international Nii Odartey Lamptey, who played in the 1992 semifinal against Nigeria. “You want to win. You want the bragging rights so badly.”
The intensity of the build-up is such that Sulley Muntari, the former Inter and AC Milan midfielder, said he wished Ghana had not drawn Nigeria. Ex-Ghana midfielder Laryea Kingston called the clash “very, very big”. “Even regular friendly games are massive, but this is huge beyond what words can describe because of the World Cup place. When I look at the build-up, it’s been fantastic,” Kingston added.
Neither of these giants of African football will want to miss out on the World Cup. Ghana is desperate for a return to the stage after missing the 2018 edition. They also need to compensate for a disastrous outing at the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), where their defeat to Comoros sealed their worst showing since 1984.
The ramifications have been huge. Head coach Milovan Rajevac is gone and with him a significant number of the players at the heart of that miserable Afcon showing. Rajevac’s return to Ghana had been primarily with the World Cup in mind – an attempt to wind back the clock to 2010 when he masterminded an amazing run to the quarterfinals in South Africa.
Now the job of ensuring a similar performance rests with former international Otto Addo as interim head coach and ex-Brighton boss Chris Hughton as technical director, but it is understood by all insiders in Ghana football that the latter is the main boss.
The technical direction of the Black Stars remains a curious issue. The Ghana Football Association (GFA) employs a technical director, but it found it necessary to hire one just for the Black Stars. What happens after the two qualifiers against Nigeria remains unresolved.
A possible lifebuoy
For now, all attention is on the two defining games, which some say could paper over the many cracks that have become apparent in Ghana football over the past few years should the Black Stars book a ticket to Qatar. “We all expect Ghana to qualify for the World Cup, but it won’t be easy,” Addo said. “But we are Ghana and we have what it takes to come out victorious.”
Addo’s optimism is in sharp contrast to the almost dark mood that preceded the final week before the first play-off. Former Ghana captain Asamoah Gyan called the exclusion of one player, Anderlecht midfielder Majeed Ashimeru, “nonsense” in a social media post. He later apologised.
Prior to that, conversations in the media in Ghana had been dominated by why the GFA had not named an official squad for the match, doing so finally only four days before it’s taking place. Then they turned to the GFA’s attempt to have the coaches address the nation through an app, for a fee.
This riled the Sports Writers Association of Ghana, which said in a statement: “Our worry is that by continuing to limit access to the handlers of the Black Stars, players, the GFA is not only denying journalists the free room to operate, it is denying the Ghanaian public access to their own national team and in the process hurting the efforts of everyone, fans and journalists alike, to rally support for the team.”
Kwabena Yeboah, the association’s president and a dominant voice in Ghana football, said: “I’ve not seen a more complicated build-up to a World Cup qualifier like this before. But in this country, on Friday when it matters most, people will rally behind the team. Winning against Nigeria is the only thing that matters.”
Hughton said he hoped that would happen. “I would like to urge Ghanaians to remain calm and positive about the team because we have the quality, desire and hunger to achieve the result we want.”
Optimistic and hungry
The hunger for victory has never been in doubt. For a long time, getting to the World Cup was the only thing Ghana wanted in international football, and then they did it three times in succession: in 2006, 2010 and 2014. By their third appearance, the Black Stars had built a reputation as a strong football force full of talented players, but one prone to chaos as unhappiness over bonuses and allowances boiled over in Brazil.
Ghanaian football fans have come to consider the World Cup a stage on which the Black Stars belong, but in the words of Nigeria Football Association president Amaju Pinnick, it is “a birthright” for Nigeria. And given their stellar cast of players, it is understandable why they are so confident. The mood in Ghana, however, is that this Nigeria team, no matter how talented, are beatable.
That belief stems from having the better head-to-head record between the two. Ghana won their last two competitive meetings, both in the Afcon, with back-to-back wins in 2008 and 2010. But Nigeria striker Ahmed Musa is unperturbed. “They have a good record against us, but this is a new generation of Super Eagles,” he said.
The Black Stars are in perhaps their most complicated transition phase in years. Apart from the technical direction of the team, there has also been a never-ending and sometimes vitriolic debate about the future of several members of the squad. And a continuous sense that the current GFA leadership has not done much to improve either the Black Stars or the overall future direction of football in the country hasn’t helped.
Qualification for the World Cup will make a lot of these conversations moot. And with Thomas Partey in great form at Arsenal, a centreback pairing of Alexander Djiku and Daniel Amartey going strong and the return of Mohammed Kudus, there is quiet optimism in Ghana.
“It is our aim to qualify for the World Cup,” said Hughton. “We have done it before and we can guarantee that everyone associated with the Black Stars wants this opportunity to perform on the world stage and we are all committed to it. This moment presents an opportunity to write history and we are all committed to it. We are Ghana and we are ready.”
Given the rugged recent times in Ghana football, the next week could change a lot of things. But in light of the history of previous years, there is no guarantee it will be a change for the good.