Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Ghana qualifies for a third straight World Cup

By Fiifi Anaman

2014 World Cup Qualifier, 2nd leg of play-off, 30 June Air Defence Stadium, Cairo: 

Egypt 2-1 Ghana [Amr Zaki 24, Mohammed Nagy 83, Kevin Prince Boateng 88']

The first time, in 2006, was laced with ecstatic relief. After conquering the continent on four different occasions in the space of 19 years, the Black Stars of Ghana had finally, finally, qualified for a FIFA World Cup. It was a dream that had outlived most of it's cherished proponents, an obsession that had proved chronically elusive.

After Ghana had finally caught the "snitch" after years of frustrating futility, little did Ghanaians know that the first would open "the floodgates."

On Tuesday evening, at the Air Defense Stadium in Cairo and against African football's most successful nation Egypt, Ghana -- the "Brazil of Africa" -- made it three World Cup qualifications in a row. If the first had been sweet, and the second sweeter, this was, by far, the sweetest, given it culminated arguably Ghana's most devastating run of form in a qualifying campaign in it's history.

Eight matches played, six won, and 25 goals scored. It didn't come easy though. Ghana were made to look deep within themselves to find the strength to scale the final hurdle.

Six minutes into the game and with a five goal advantage from the first leg in Kumasi last month, one would have thought the Egyptians would have had the first chance. Wrong.

Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah had said before the game that his team will go out. "The best way to defend -- and I've always known -- is to attack," he had said. Seems his boys got the memo, with Majeed Waris getting the first shot of the game after being brilliantly played through by 'veteran' Michael Essien.

On nine minutes, Egypt had their first shot -- the incomparable Mohammed Aboutreika, on his 100th cap and last ever international game, hitting low and wide, a free kick from about 30 yards.

On the bench, Egypt's substitutes looked on quietly, most with hands on their chin, staring at ongoing events on the pitch with an uninspiring gaze. Despair visible through their eyes. But beneath all that, though, there was a scintilla of hope, which helplessly showed in the way they would stagger from their seats anytime Egypt attacked.

And they attacked well, with finesse too. They piled on the pressure on the Ghanaians, who themselves looked dangerous on the break, determined not to let the atmosphere -- 30,000 fans in full voice -- intimidate them. Amidst the charged noise as well as the blatantly visible and distracting laser beams, the stars, on the brink of achievement, kept their composure.

Egypt coach Bob Bradley, at the end of that humiliating 6-1 first leg defeat, had said qualifying for the World Cup at that point was "nearly impossible." Of course, that was just being realistic, but it was also a way of relieving pressure. Of secretly harbouring aspirations of a miraculous comeback."We have to create a miracle before going to the World Cup," he said before the game. And it was evident in how he gesticulated animatedly as he paced up and down the touchline, impatiently waiting for goal number one to kick start it all.

Goal number one did come on 24 minutes. Aboutreika's beautifully accurate cross was missed by Fatau Dauda, the ball coming off striker Amr Zaki into the goal.

That goal was fully deserved, as the Egyptians were in authoritative command of the duel. Their passing was enchanting in it's seemingly rehearsed patterns, and the fusion of speed and intent with which they moved the ball was unreal. They were everywhere, covering every single inch of grass like they were possessed. They suffocated the Ghanaians with their intricate technical brilliance. There was very little to lose at this point, and everything to gain.

For the likes of Zaki and Aboutreika, part of the "Golden generation" that won three consecutive Afcon tournaments (2006, 2008, 2010), a last chance to qualify for the World Cup, that single elusive feather they want so bad in their caps, was at stake and they were going beyond themselves to make it happen.

Amr Zaki, who had been a threat throughout the opening exchanges, lashed in a powerful shot on 34 minutes that was expertly tipped over by Ghana goalie Fatau Dauda. Ghana were shell-shocked and powerless amidst the waves of dangerous attacks, losing at every department of the field, especially the middle. The Pharoahs were were determined to rise from the dead.

They came out of the blocks in the second half too, signaling the beginning of one of perhaps the most important final 45 minutes in their recent history. Coming back seemed as impossible as coach Bradley growing hair on his signature, flawlessly bald head; but they were not prepared to throw in the towel, if their attitude was anything to go by. They picked up where they left of; all guns blazing and determined to starve Ghana off the ball.

Kwesi Appiah by this time was beginning to feel the heat, taking off his black vest that he had worn on his trademark white long-sleeved shirt. On the pitch, Ghana tried to slow down the tempo anytime they had the ball, but the Egyptians were too good. Fatau Dauda meanwhile, was Ghana's brightest spot, dashing out a few occasions to avert danger. Egypt had a notable chance, Aboutrika's scissor kick from a Hosni Rabou through ball looping over the bar.

The Ghanaians defended for their lives, with the same inexplicable zest that the Egyptians attacked with; opposing forces cancelling out each other explosively in a grueling encounter. The Egyptians deservedly got goal number two, with Ghana's nemesis Mohammed "Gedo" Nagy lashing in a second in a crowded box from close range.

Kevin Prince Boateng did get to make his return for Ghana for the first time in two years -- a controversial retirement in between -- when he came on in the 78th minute, just in time to join the party. Approximately 12 minutes to World Cup qualification.

"This is a man whose beard length seems to suggest he wants to be the Moses to lead Ghana to the promised land," remarked ace Ghanaian commentator Christopher Opoku, as Boateng, all-smiles, jogged on.

Ten minutes later, he did just that, slamming in an Asamoah Gyan cross to crush Egypt's hopes of a miracle.

Egypt XI: Ekrami – Hazim Emam, Rami Rabia, Mohammed Naguib, Abdel-Shafy – Hossam Ghaly, Ahmed Fathi(Hosni Abd Rabou 55'), Mahmoud Kaharaba (Mohammed 'Gedo' Nagy 40'), Mohammed Aboutreika, Mohammed Salah - Amr Zaki (Shikabala 61')

Ghana XI: Fatau Dauda - Harrison Afful, Jerry Akaminko, Rashid Sumaila, Daniel Opare - Andre Ayew (Mubarak Wakaso 56'), Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari (Agyemang Badu 73'), Kwadwo Asamoah; Asamoah Gyan, Majeed Waris (Kevin Prince Boateng 78')

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