Preview: Michael Quaye
GHANA and Nigeria will define another epic phase of their West African football rivalry with a Nations Cup quarter-final encounter in Accra which is expected to vibrate throughout the world.
It is difficult to imagine what else will be in motion, whether in Accra or Lagos, when the Black Stars and the Super Eagles play the first of the Ghana 2008 quarter-finals matches in Accra.
For Ghana, the two successive failures at the Nations Cup at Nigeria’s behest provide reason for jitters, but it is the form of the Black Stars and the resounding backing of the home crowd that terrify the campaign of the Super Eagles.
These factors, along with the influence of Chelsea teammates, Ghana’s Michael Essien and Nigeria’s Mikel Obi, are what have raised the game onto a stage that could perhaps only be equalled by the grand final.
A Garba Lawal strike ended Ghana’s dream at just the quarter-finals in Mali 2002. In Egypt in 2006 (Ghana missed the 2004 tournament in Tunisia), it was Taye Taiwo’s powerful drive from a freekick that started what was to become a miserable appearance for a woefully depleted Ghanaian squad which would not make it beyond group play.
The contemporary times Nigerian dominance over Ghana, spanning the controversial 3-0 spanking of the Black Stars in Port Harcourt in the World Cup qualifier on July 29, 2001, when Ghana finished play with Emmanuel Osei Kuffour in post, was only severed last year when the Stars thumped the Eagles 4-1 in a friendly in Brentford, England.
That outstanding performance was a confirmation of the superb form of the Ghanaian side since leaving the Egypt Nations Cup.
Subsequent outings, including the World Cup appearance, gave the Stars serious international recognition and the team’s unblemished record so far in Ghana 2008 has made the Stars legitimate favourites for a fifth triumph on the continent.
But the refurbished Ohene Djan Sports Stadium, even if it hardly bears any semblance to its old shape and form, must strike a bitter chord in the memory of the Super Eagles. In their last competitive game in Accra, a star-studded Nigerian team were reduced to ordinary players when Ghana paraded a wholly local-based squad in a World Cup qualifier that ended goalless on March 11, 2001.
Apart from their individual talents and the ability to rise to a big occasion, Nigeria’s skipper Nwankwo Kanu and striker Obafemi Martins appear to represent agitated Eagles players resorting to their famous mind game ploy in a tournament in which they have survived mainly on account of an Ivorian fair play profile.
“All of us are serious about this game and for once every player is determined and prepared to die on the pitch to ensure that victory is ours so that we proceed from there to the final,” were Kanu’s words in an earlier interview published in the Graphic Sports.
On the eve of the game, fans’ interest has added to the tension, as long queues draped in real chaos have characterised ticket demands at the various designated sales points in the capital. The one-day exeat for the Ghanaian players was well-intended by Coach Claude Le Roy to defuse the tension.
But the French tactician, who won the continental trophy in 1988 with Cameroun, may be under even more pressure than the players. Apart from a duty to satisfy Ghanaian fans, victory will deliver a present for a birthday that will come three days after the clash.
But whatever experience Kanu brings from his five previous Nations Cup appearances, and whatever quality Martins, as well as John Utaka, Yakubu Ayegbeni, central defender Joseph Yobo, Taiwo and Mikel Obi bring on board, the Stars counter with an almost unmatched unity in camp, an unyielding hunger to satisfy an impatient home crowd and a crave to make the “Host And Win” philosophy work.
This is the charge that has kept the Stars’ camp quite restless for the day of reckoning.