After weeks of nerve-jangling wait, Ghana’s Black Stars will renew their age-long rivalry with Nigeria’s Super Eagles in a Qatar 2022 World Cup play-off tonight that could have dire or majestic denouement for the future of the nation’s football.
Battlefield for the 7.30pm kick-off is the Baba Yara Sports Stadium in Kumasi, after the Cape Coast stadium was black-balled by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) last week due to the bad state of the pitch.
The game was originally slated for yesterday, but FIFA delayed the titanic duel by 24 hours to satisfy TV rights concerns.
For fans of the two continental giants, the one-day delay probably means a lot to them – as they crave for an early finish to determine the side that boogies its path to the Qatar globular football festival.
There has been lots of talk between disciples of Ghana and Nigeria football, going at it hammer-and-tongs as to who snatches the bragging rights ahead of the return on Tuesday, March 29, at the Moshood Abiola National Stadium in Abuja.
Several battles have been waged between the two Gullivers of the continental game, and each time, it was fought with unfathomable energy and passion. It does not really matter what was at stake. And, such games have attracted the cynosure of all eyes, to the very last signal.
Available records suggest that Ghana has established a robust stranglehold on Nigeria. In the 56 times that they have met, the Stars have beamed away with 25 wins as compared to Nigeria’s 12.
However, with the current form of Nigeria – per what they advertised at January’s Cameroon AFCON, it would take a massive performance from the Thomas Partey-led Stars to crack them tonight. While the Super Eagles lost to Tunisia at the last-16 stage, Ghana were shock first-round casualties, finishing rock-bottom of Group C with just a point, after a stunning 3-2 loss to minnows Comoros. It was the nation’s worst AFCON ever.
Nigeria are seeking to qualify for the World Cup a seventh time and, since 1994, have missed only one of seven editions. The last of three appearances by Ghana was in Brazil 2014.
Indeed, the Super Eagles say they have been itching to punish the Stars in a manner that the four-time African champions and World Cup quarter-finalists would quickly want to forget. For them, it is not about enacting revenge; it is about getting the bragging rights over a country that has been a ‘poisonous’ thorn in their flesh since the June 1, 1955, 7-0 annihilation in Accra.
Aside the bragging rights, the play-off has a lot at stake as the Super Eagles are eager to make the cut to Qatar in order to placate livid Nigerians whose dreams of a fourth Nations Cup coronation ended at the round of 16 stage.
To secure that berth, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) has charged Technical Director Augustine Eguavoen and former national star Emmanuel Amunike to secure qualification for the 2022 World Cup, which is expected to roar off on November 19.
The Nigerians are reported to have been promised colossal sums of cash by their government if they are able to punch the Stars out of their way. Abi State Governor, for instance, is reported to have pledged to give each player one million naira plus a car, should they glide through.
Indeed, the Super Eagles have been talking tough ahead of tonight’s scorching encounter – flaunting their dominant attacking armada consisting of Napoli’s Victor Osimhen, Leicester’s Kelechi Iheanacho and Lorient’s Bonke Innocent.
But just like the Super Eagles, the under-dogs Ghana are equally motivated to sniff out the Nigerian challenge and assuage the pain of the long-suffering fans that are looking forward to join four other African countries to a Mundial that is expected to be the most fascinating yet.
Like their Nigerian counterparts, the Ghana Football Association (GFA) altered its technical base after the abortive AFCON, appointing former Newcastle United and Brighton and Hove Albion manager Chris Hughton as Technical Advisor to the newly-constituted Black Stars Technical team led by Otto Addo. Other members of the new team include George Boateng and Mas-Ud Didi Dramani. There is no gainsaying the fact that this is a quality technical team that can plot an abrasive path, using a handful of debutantes – hungry to carve a momentous niche for themselves.
The concern of Ghanaians, however, is whether Otto Addo and his team can mount together a formidably winsome side – capable of shipping in the goals and defending gallantly as well by putting the Nigerian sizzling attack at bay.
Though he reckons beating Nigeria would not come on a silver platter, Addo is optimistic of the team’s chances.
“The players, technical team and GFA are committed to this task and we want to make the nation proud by qualifying to the upcoming World Cup,” he told the media.
A Sarah Mensah goal settled issues when Ghana clashed with Nigeria during an African Cup of Nations qualifier in Kumasi in September, 1990. It is the same venue that saw the Stars clinch five out of six home games on their way to qualifying for their first World Cup in 2006.
Again, it was the same lawn that produced Ghana’s incredible 6-1 white-washing of Egypt in the 2014 FIFA World Cup play-offs; the return of which became a mere formality.
Tonight, the Stars plunge into action without Captain Andre Dede Ayew, who is serving a two-game ban due to AFCON’s straight red-card, and could be missed sorely for his irrepressible fighting spirit. The captain’s brother – Jordan, is also out of tonight’s tie due to Covid-19. He might be available for the Abuja hurdle. Desolately, midfield talent Edmund Addo (Sheriff Tiraspol) is set to miss both legs due to injury.
Nevertheless, a new generation of youngsters including the likes of young Roma striker Felix Afena Gyan, Mohammed Kudus (Ajax Amsterdam), Yaw Yeboah (Colombus Crew), Issahaku Fatawu (Sporting CP) and Joseph Paintsil (KRC Gent) are fully-loaded-for-bear to defend the national flag with all their sweat and blood.
Though under-dogs, the Stars are determined to dash for the jugular and pluck victory at all cost in order to make the return a less laborious undertaking. And, until victory is achieved, the fans have no option than to be unflinching and thunderous in their support.
BY JOHN VIGAH