There is much more than three points at stake for Ghana against Egypt. Grant’s future and a generation’s reputation will all be on the line in Alexandria
Sunday at the Burg Al Arab Stadium could be what Kumasi Sports Stadium was for Kwesi Appiah on November 19, 2013. It could be the equivalent of his Milovan Rajevac moment that hot June afternoon in Bamako or the Johannesburg moment as it was for Ratomir Djukovic all the way back in 2005.
Since the world cup metamorphosised from a national obsession to the competition the Black Stars are not supposed to miss, the three coaches who have masterminded three straight qualifications have had that moment that defined their world cup qualification campaign but their stay here.
Avram Grant has consistently said he wants to take Ghana further than any other African side in the history of the world cup. First they must qualify. First they must make the strongest statement of their intention yet. And they must not leave anyone in doubt they want and deserve it.
Kwesi Appiah got his when he blitzed Egypt 6-1 in Kumasi. It came at an important time for the former Ghana captain. His quality had been the subject of endless media discussions after the remarkable collapse of the Black Stars in the semi finals of the 2013 Nations Cup was followed by defeat in Zambia in world cup qualifying. But he put Zambia in their place and then with the whole world expecting Egypt to prove too high a hurdle, he pulled one of the biggest wins in Ghana football history.
Rajavac’s moment came in Mali. Once the draw for the 2010 world cup qualifiers were made, the idea was that Mali will be the team that will stop Ghana. It was an idea that took 90 minutes for the Black Stars to dispel with one of their best recent away performances.
Maybe the best away performance came in June 2005. South Africa had recovered from a beating at the hands of Ghana and looked set to overrun the Black Stars. Needing to win, Ratomir Dujkovic pulled off a tactical master stroke that got Ghana all three points in Johannesburg and made his job safe for a considerable while.
Like all three coaches, Grant has had some wonderful moments in charge of Ghana already. Reaching the final of the Nations Cup was good but not unique given that Ghana had done it five years earlier and reach two semi finals with literally the set of players that Grant took to Equatorial Guinea.
In football though, you are as good as your present results and the present for Grant has not looked good. There have been four games for the Black Stars since June. In that period they have won none, drawn three and lost one. The ranking of number 2 in Africa is now number 5 as a result.
None of the draws hurt as much as the last one against Ugandan in Tamale. It meant a 2018 world cup qualifier that was supposed to start on a good footing is already off to a jerky start. And jerky is not how you feel when you are facing Egypt.
The Pharaohs, just like Ghana were in 2006, have become tired of being Nations Cup masters. Now they want to be world cup regulars. They have not been there since 1990. Their last attempt ended in enormous embarrassment against the Black Stars. It is revenge time and they are in the mood for it. Crucially they seem to have found the right mix of personnel and tactical brain for it.
The likes of Mohammed Salah and a new generation of players in mid-level European clubs give them belief that anything is possible. They have already qualified for the Nations Cup, their first since 2010. And they took all three points on the first day of qualifying away in Brazzaville against Congo.
If they get their revenge against Ghana, they would be five points ahead of their main rivals. The motivation to beat Ghana has never been stronger.
For Grant too, the motivation to avoid defeat has not been more urgent. There are growing voices of discontent against the Israeli. A four game winless run against the likes of Uganda, Rwanda and South Africa, whatever the mitigating circumstances is an invitation for a discussion on a coach’s future. A fifth game without a win would increase the calls for him to go.
Having ridden on the back of an established core of players for so long, Grant is having to grind his way through his first potential crisis point. He is without Asamoah Gyan, his players have looked flat on international duty and he himself has looked lost for answers at points while hanging on to fringe arguments.
He loves to point to the Nations Cup final for instance and has claimed, inaccurately, how he is rebuilding the Ghana team. In that Nations Cup, he beat a very good Algeria side but for the two years that he has been here, Grant’s record has consisted of wins over Equatorial Guinea, Comoros, draws against Uganda, Rwanda and Comoros. It is unfair we pick on those but coaches are remembered for the big performances against the big teams and they don’t come any bigger than Egypt.
It is the same for the players. They have mastered the art of asking for the love of fans back. This week one of the most shared videos on Twitter has been of Ghana’s win over Uganda in 2005 that almost guaranteed world cup qualification in 2005. Stephen Appiah marvelled at the crowd. Michael Essien whose goal that day was viewed several times thought the crowed was wow and he felt proud to have played his part. Footage of Stephen Appiah in tears as people carried him shoulder high after that Uganda win drew comments of nostalgic and goose bumps from many people.
And many of them wondered if the Black Stars will be anything like that again. Dede Ayew, Mubarak Wakaso , Christian Atsu and the players who will have the job of representing Ghana on Sunday can provide answer that in part on Sunday.
Victory in Alexandria won’t just light up the path to Russia 2018. It will also win back many, many fans and buy Avram Grant more time. For Ghana football fans, the players and Grant himself, the incentive is huge. You have to hope their brains will communicate that to their hearts and boots on Sunday.
By Michael Oti Adjei
The writer is head of sports at TV3, 3FM & Onua FM