FC Nania Win FA Cup…Belated Thoughts

Abedi Pele-led FC Nania's win last week was a victory for small clubs

FC Nania won the MTN FA Cup a week today. Predictably, much of the focus in the lead up to the match and after the team’s win was on owner/coach/chairman/inspirer/Mr. All things to the team, Abedi Ayew Pele. Any team that has the best player Ghana has ever produced as its head even in a non-playing capacity is bound to generate lots of headlines. After all, his retirement has robbed Ghana’s journalists of the chance to use the word ‘maestro’ in every other sentence if they so wished.

Yet, I couldn’t help but feel that as integral and instrumental as Abedi is to Nania’s cause (he’s Nania’s Abramovic after all) it is a pity he stole so much of the limelight. A visit to Nania’s training grounds will show Abedi very involved in his team’s affairs. As with many clubs however, there are many people in the background that make it easy for Abedi to impart his knowledge to his players. There are also many who are always at Legon to make sure the club continues to run even in his absence. 

Ahead of their semifinal against Berekum Chelsea, there was mention of Annor Walker as the coach of the team. By the time the final came around, Mr. Walker had disappeared. No word on whether he was sick, had been fired, resigned or just taken the day off. Anyone who has any familiarity with Nania will note that he was right on the bench. He was not prowling along the touchline like his employer but still a close look showed that he was interacting with some of the players at various points in the match. It was disheartening to note that he hasn’t been credited at all with Nania’s success in the way a Steve Clark or a Ray Wilkins is in the English premier league. Not even a mention as a co-coach.

For me, this was even more sad given the way Nania played. They played together. They fought for each other. They played to instruction and were disciplined. Kotoko had the more physically imposing players and better athletes but what Nania lacked in size they made up for in heart. 

One moment apart from the goal stood out for me in reflecting Abedi’s leadership, the players’ respect for him and the collective spirit of the team. In the first half of extra time, Kotoko had a chance after eventual goalscorer, Evans Omani, lost the ball in his own half. After the chance was spurned, Abedi screamed at Omani no doubt chastising him for how easily he had lost the ball. His next move though showed how deep his understanding of his own players and the game is. He substituted his starting striker,Salifu Nuhu who had begun to tire. Rather than doing a like for like swap for Nuhu, he put the well built Musah Yakubu on the right and shifted Omani who was himself a substitute up top as the lone striker. For if Omani didn’t have bulk, he had speed and was fleet of foot, useful at that stage of the game against tired defenders. It was no surprise that he came up with the winner, a cheeky little back heel the Kotoko keeper clearly wasn’t ready for. 

All in all, it was good to see the underdogs win. 

A few complaints however. The turnout for the game was pathetic if you ask me. For a club that boasts the biggest following in Ghana, I was surprised that Kotoko fans alone did not fill the stadium. The Kotoko fans and haters of Kotoko, many of whom no doubt live in Accra should have filled the stadium. After all, there was no direct competition from any of the European leagues. Also, considering the hype that was generated with the presence of John Barnes especially, I expected to see the stadium close to full. 

Often, Ghanaian fans complain about the quality of the games. This was not one of those matches to miss because of quality because it was a fun match to watch. The one concern may have been the referee who was not consistent at all. The importance of a good referee cannot be underestimated. Fans dislike feeling like they are watching something pre-ordained. And sometimes, it seemed as though the referee had bought into the narrative of Nania being so much an underdog that they could not commit hard fouls. Anyone watching the game could see that they gave as good as they got in that regard.

To that end, as the match wore on, I was reminded of the words, “If you are a big big tree, there is a small axe, ready to cut you down, ready to cut you down.”

Belated congratulations to the “small axes” of Nania.


Can Stevanovic steer the Black Stars to three consecutive World Cup appearances?

Ghana’s Black Stars were yesterday drawn against Sudan, Zambia and the winner of a round 1 playoff between Lesotho and Burundi. The presence of Zambia and Sudan means Group D is one of the trickier groups in the Africa Zone. Having qualified twice in a row for the World Cup, Ghana will be tagged as favorites but were they to dare let it get to their heads, they could be shocked. The group phase will mark only the second of three rounds to determine who represents Africa in Brazil. The final round will be a playoff format where the ten group winners will face off. So coming up tops in the group phase will only represent a small feat in the entire scheme of qualifying for Brazil.

It is unclear now whether the group winners will again be put in a draw to decide who plays who. The alternative would be for winner of Group A to play winner of Group B, Group C to play Group D and so on. If this format is adopted, the potential exists for Ghana to face Cote d’ Ivoire in the final round. Now that would be massive!!! 

That is getting way ahead of ourselves though. In the last five years, the fortunes of Ghana and Sudan in qualifying for major tournaments have been closely linked. The two teams were put in the same group in the qualifiers for South Africa 2010 and again for the ongoing 2013 Cup of Nations qualifiers. Our record against them has been two wins and one home draw in Kumasi. I saw the home draw live and was impressed with the Sudanese. They had clearly improved and they even had opportunities to win that match especially after Ghana was reduced to ten men. That Kumasi qualifier was odd because you never got the sense that it was about just the game. The atmosphere throughout the game suggested that the fans and the players thought the match would be easy. In addition, the uncertainty surrounding the coaching situation introduced a certain instability that was absent when the Rajevac-led Stars destroyed Swaziland. Even the practices leading up to the game had a certain complacency, a ‘fait-accompli’ surrounding them. The Black Stars had all of a sudden assumed the posture of bullies but the Sudanese had developed some steel the biblical David would have been proud of. 

Despite their improvements, the Black Stars’ “A” game should beat Sudan’s A game especially at home. I never count on wins away in Africa as all manner of tricks can be used to unsettle a visiting team. So a win at home and at least a draw against the Sudanese and Zambians would be good results.  

A lot could happen between now and next summer when the Black Stars play their first qualifier. Until then, we still have qualifying for the 2013 Cup of Nations and hopefully going on to win it. It’s been too long.

Meteors End Nigerian Dream

Top Dog Inkoom Marshalls Meteors to End Nigerian Dreams

Where was this focus when we needed it a few months back? The Black Meteors qualified for the All Africa Games in September Sunday by beating “The Dream Team” from Nigeria. For the Nigerians, who have qualified for the next qualifying phase for the more prestigious London Olympics next year, this was more Nightmare on Yaa Asantewa Road than Elm Street. It was a chance to affirm their progression in the London 2012 qualifiers and for further preparation as they look to repeat their Gold winning performance of 1996. The ‘Dreamers’ will however take solace in the fact that their neighbors will be sitting in front of the TV cursing their luck for not beating Sudan in April no chance to join them in London.

Technically, this was a draw, 3-3 with the away goal Ghana scored in Lagos the only thing that separates the two teams. Ghanaians won’t want to hear that explanation. This was redemptive. So while we will never stop licking our collective wounds at the failure to go to London, this is akin to applying Gentian Violet to them. It is an opportunity to brag another day and add another winning chapter in our storied rivalry with Nigeria. As I said in an earlier post, even if these two countries played at the toddler level, they would want to beat each other ‘well well.’

After recent failures of youth teams in qualifying for international tournaments, the Meteors fought like dogs to qualify. Led by top dog Samuel Inkoom whose old school ‘I’ll die for my country even if it means giving up money‘ commitment cannot be questioned, the Meteors scored two unanswered goals in either half. They were cheered on by the equally encouraging Kumasi crowd who had previously assured victory should the match venue be changed. Back to Inkoom, in this age of spoilt diva ish players, it is encouraging to see young players like Inkoom, Agyemang Badu and Dede Ayew speak of and back up their ‘undying love’ for their country anytime they step on the field. They pass the eye test in determining their patriotism. Whenever they are on the pitch mistakes or not, you never get the sense they’re giving anything less than 150 percent.

Coach Akwasi Appiah also redeemed himself after a couple of poor results in charge of the Black Stars against Sudan last year and the 3-1 loss in Nigeria in charge of the Meteors a fortnight ago. The flood of criticisms that local coaches have had to endure recently should subside – until the next loss.

The only outstanding issue is when the Nigerians started calling any team of theirs the dream team. And I thought the closest our Anago friends got to a Dream Team was when basketball star Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon suited up for the US Olympic team in 1996. Oh well, to hallucinate is human I guess.

Another Match Venue Change

Ghanaians should be able to support their national teams in as many venues as possible

Another national team match is being moved to Kumasi. If the atmosphere is anything like that for a Black Stars match, it should be a dandy. One of the most fun times I have had watching a football match recently has been in the Kumasi Sports Stadium. Despite the result, a 0-0 draw between the Black Stars and Sudan, the atmosphere before and after the game was unforgettable. It was a carnival.

I was looking forward to watching this match in Accra though and I am disappointed it won’t be played in Ghana’s capital. But that’s my selfish side talking. I do not begrudge the fans of the Garden City for clamoring for this Meteors match. I am certain they will be at their loudest to push the Meteors to perform at their best.

The change got me wondering though, how we could promote other venues in the country. For instance, the stadium in Sekondi lies largely idle especially as the local teams in that area are not competitive in the premier league. Fans look forward to matches of this nature and it could easily attract a full house if the right promotion and ticket pricing is done for it. After all, even at the toddlers level, a Ghana-Nigeria match would excite the most dormant football fan.

I cannot remember the last time a national team match was played in Tamale. In fact, one of the complaints after the Black Stars campaign in South Africa last year was how little the rest of the country saw of its heroes. Whether due to bad organization or thoughtlessness, the floats to parade the players started and ended in Accra for all intents and purposes. Most of the European players could not make it to Kumasi.

So, a more inclusive selection of venues would expose many more Ghanaians to the Stars they get to view only on television playing for European teams. Getting them to play around the country would further cement them as the Nation’s team and allow all Ghanaians to share in the country’s collective success.