There is a cohort of African countries that have been ever-present at the FIFA World Cup™ in recent years: Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Cameroon and Algeria have all appeared at both of the last two editions of the global extravaganza. It will be a different story next time round, though, with Algeria, Cameroon and Nigeria having been drawn in the same qualifying group, meaning that only one of them will make it to Russia 2018. On top of that, Ghana have stumbled in their section early on, enabling Egypt to claim pole position.
This sluggish start, coupled with the Black Stars’ 2017 CAF Africa Cup of Nations disappointment, prompted the Ghana Football Association to make a change in the dugout, drafting in James Kwesi Appiah as the new coach. ‘New’ in a manner of speaking at least. The appointment actually took Appiah back to highly familiar surroundings: he previously served as Milovan Rajevac’s assistant throughout the Serbian’s spell in charge, which included a run to the quarter-finals at South Africa 2010, before taking the top job himself and guiding his homeland to Brazil 2014 via an emphatic play-off victory over the Pharaohs.
Appiah knows full well that repeating the feat this time round will be a tough task, admitting as much to FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “We’re sitting on one point, while Egypt have got six,” he said. “However, we’re going to try to win our upcoming matches and leapfrog them.”
A chance to turn the corner
Ghana’s next assignment consists of a couple of games in close succession against Congo, who are propping up the table after two matchdays. This, therefore, represents a golden opportunity for Appiah’s men to make up ground on Egypt, who themselves face a double header against second-placed Uganda, although the coach was adamant that the basement boys will prove no pushover: “Congo have a good team. Nobody in this group can be taken lightly; on the contrary, we have to approach every match in the same manner, with the same desire.”
Nevertheless, an upbeat Appiah insisted that Russia remains well within reach for his side: “Every team has played two matches, so we’ve got four games left each and 12 points to play for. Anything is still possible, so long as we keep working hard and we perform well. We’ll have to see what happens, but I think anyone in the group can still qualify.”
Aiming for progress on all fronts
Despite Ghana’s chequered fortunes of late, both in World Cup qualifying and at the Africa Cup of Nations, Appiah is confident that his charges have what it takes to rise to the challenges ahead of them: “I’m satisfied with the squad at my disposal. I just want to help them compete better in the remainder of the qualifying campaign and beyond. We have some young players in the team and we’ve got to ensure they kick on in the future.”
What goals, then, has the 57-year-old set for Russia 2018 and Cameroon 2019? “Ghana were knocked out in the semi-finals of the 2017 AFCON, but it was a creditable showing. We’ve got to try to build on that, refine our game and bring through new players. With regard to the next edition, which is two years away, for starters we’re just going to try to qualify and then we’ll take it from there.”
Ghana’s remaining fixtures on the road to Russia 2018:
1 September: Ghana-Congo
5 September: Congo-Ghana
2 October: Uganda-Ghana
6 November: Ghana-Egypt