Stage Set For A Clash For The Ages

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By Fiifi Anaman | Kumasi

On Tuesday night, Zambians converged at the Holy Cross Cathedral in Lusaka. They knelt before God. They sought his grace and favour.

Only one thing would make the Government of a nation organize national interdenominational prayers; something they need badly. That something, is qualification to their first ever FIFA World Cup. To do that, they need to clear one last hurdle. They need to beat Ghana on Friday.

As the prayers were in session, Sports Minister Chishimba Kambwili was fully confident that calling on God is the right thing, and will cause the scales to tip in their favour.

“Cognisant of the fact that we cannot achieve the victory and glory we so much desire on our own, we congregate here today, to seek first the kingdom of God as we play Ghana in Kumasi on 6th September 2013 knowing, believing and accepting that all these things shall be given unto us, as the Bible clearly states in Luke 12:31,” he said.

Zambia would not have been on the back foot had they not gifted Ghana the advantage on Match Day five. They failed to kill off Sudan at home, at the Levy Mwanawasa Stadium in Ndola, a result that meant Ghana beating Lesotho 2-0 in Maseru a day later sent the Black Stars to the top of Group D, one point clear of Zambia.

Now, they need a win, whilst Ghana need a draw. Whilst the Ghanaians have been buoyed by the return of star players Kevin Prince Boateng, Michale Essien and Andre Ayew from temporary retirement, the Zambians believe they can cause an upset by triumphing in Kumasi. And they are not ashamed to involve God. They have asked, as echoed in Kambwili’s comments: “As the Bible states in Matthew 7: 7-8, `ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and it shall be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks, it will be opened. Who are we not to ask for God’s intervention and favour? Who are we not to claim that which God has told us to do so?”

On Friday, after 90 minutes, they will know if it has been given unto them.

Captain Chris Katongo, who turned 31 last Saturday, says Brazil 2014 represents his last chance that he has to ever play in a World Cup, and he wants it to happen. He wants to, in his own words, “fight like a soldier” in Kumasi to keep Zambia’s hopes alive.

On Wednesday, the build up’s tension heightened. The Zambians boarded a chartered aircraft in Lusaka, en route to Kumasi. But there was a problem. Ghana’s Aviation authorities denied their application to land at the Kumasi Airport – a situation that blew up and sparked heated debates and exchange of words between Ghanaian and Zambian fans on social media.

Apparently, some sections of the Zambian media had misinformed fans – claiming the denial of their Kumasi landing request was an indication of dirty tactics that Ghanaians had plotted to intimidate the Zambians ahead of the all-important game. “This war of refusing to grant permission for a 100-seat plane to and in Kumasi is totally uncalled for. Come on Ghana, let Chipolopolo land!” head of the Football Association of Zambia’s media chief, Eric Mwanza, tweeted.

Zambian fans picked up Mwanza’s seemingly calculated negative signals and bought into the feeling of being intimidated, villifying Ghana for being desperate to win the tie.

It would turn out to be an expression of ignorance, as the Kumasi Airport – owing to it’s status as a domestic airport – by inference, is not allowed to receive International flights or flights that arrive at night. That meaning the Zambians had to land in Accra before continuing on a domestic aircraft to Kumasi. The Ghana Football Association (GFA) quickly issued a statement condemning the Zambian media’s “calculated attempt” to “taint Ghana football.”

The Zambians finally arrived in Ghana on Thursday, with players not bothered too much about all the travel arrangement drama. “Surprisingly, we haven’t had any sulking from the players or the technical bench,” an insider told Zamfoot.

The drama wouldn’t end there. It just wouldn’t. The Zambians arrived at the Baba Yara Stadium – venue for the game – late on Thursday evening, at a time that the floodlights had been put off. The match commissioner insisted that he had been at their hotel to inform them that they were to train at 16:00GMT, after which Ghana would train, to “avoid tension”. Their lateness meant an inability to train, with the team confined in their bus; Ghanaian fans surrounding the bus and jeering them.

The team trained at the Stadium’s car park and the media team of FAZ (Football Association of Zambia) kept tweeting pictures that sought to establish themselves as victims of hostile reception, to solicit sympathy and spark disdain for Ghana amongst African football fans.

There was even a picture tweeted, that had team doctor Kabungo attending to James Chamanga (who seemed to have nothing wrong with him), with the caption: “Striker James Chamanga being checked by Dr Kabungo after he was attacked by Ghana fans in the car park.”

A technical meeting was convened, with a controversial decision emerging that the Zambians would not be allowed to train at all, due to the lateness being their own fault. An emergency, impromptu arrangement was agreed: Zambia would train the following morning. The very morning of the game, barely eight hours before kickoff.

The pregame drama has only raised the stakes even higher. Tickets for the game, which went on sale on Wednesday, immediately experienced a shortage, black market pricing creeping in. As at Thursday afternoon, VIP tickets going for GHS 20 (about $10) had risen to GHS 70 (about $35) on the Black market on the streets in Kumasi, with legitimate sales points either reporting abnormally long queues or tickets being sold out.

There are of course, remote causes for the the rise in stakes. Zambia have beaten Ghana by a goal to nil in their last two games, and have not lost to or conceded a goal against the Black Stars since 1992. Last year, they beat Ghana 1-0 in the Semi final of the Afcon in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea and went on to win it. Later the same year, they completed the double, bursting Ghana’s bubble of confidence by beating them by the same scoreline on Match Day two in Ndola, after the Ghanaians had thrashed Lesotho 7-0 at home.

After that particular game, there had been nasty incidents. Midfielder Derek Boateng had accused the police at the game of assaulting him, causing a post-match mini riot that had Ghanaian players in anger-fueled physical confrontation with the police. The GFA had threatened to report the Zambians to CAF and FIFA too.

Perhaps that loss was made even more painful due to the fact that it had occurred months after that semi final loss.That particular loss turned out to be mightily significant; ending the reign of Serbian coach Goran Stevanovic and seeing the ascent of his assistant James Kwesi Appiah to head coach status, the first time Ghana had substantively employed a Ghanaian as coach in over ten years.

It was fast getting under Ghanaian skins, the fact that Zambia was turning out to be a bogey team for the four-time Afcon champions. Or maybe it wasn’t just ‘bogey’, maybe they were becoming a genuine fear, a seemingly unconquerable adversary.

Ahead of Friday’s game, there seems to have been a shift. Ghana appear to be the side prone to complacency and over-confidence. Zambia appear to be the side gripped by fear. The side under pressure.

Fear that has, going by rumours, caused some Zambians who are not so sure God will come through for them to send witch doctors into Ghana to facilitate a win. Back home, newly born again christian and former Zambian International (1971-1982) Jani Simulambo has told the team to believe and to eschew fear. “We should not fear Ghana. We can beat them at their home,” he said.

That apparent fear seems to be due to the fact that they are so close to a historic first World Cup appearance. “I and my friends tried but we failed but this group of players will do it in style,” Simulambo added. That fear, could turn out to be their motivation to kill themselves for that course.

For Ghana, the sense that needing just a draw; implying a job half done, could end up fueling unconscious complacency. Moreover, they will hope the return of their stars will not unsettle camp unity, as many have observed that these players have been given far too much attention, whilst players who played the qualifiers to this point have hardly received the praise due them.

Coach Kwesi Appiah, who has guided the team through four wins out of five games in the group with a current record 16 goals scored, has it all to do. Draw or win, and Ghana will make it a third straight World Cup appearance, and more significantly, he would become the first local coach to qualify Ghana for a World Cup.

Allow Zambia to conquer Ghana, and not only will fufu and light soups (meal emblematic of Kumasi, enjoyed by fans after victories by their teams; appetite for it lost after losses) across the city go cold on Friday night, but he might lose his job too. (Worth noting that fufu going cold has accounted for the sacking of many coaches in Kumasi!)

There were calls for Appiah’s head after Ghana failed to win last January’s afcon in South Africa, and coupled with the feeling that the tie is Ghana’s to lose as well as the entrenched skepticism that local coaches are subjects off, he might not survive the ensuing heat after a loss.

Zambian coach Herve Renard’s job is not too safe either. Zambia, as mentioned earlier, should have been in Ghana’s shoes, regarding the possession of the advantage, be it technical or psychological. After getting awarded boardroom points (Sudan beat them 2-0 but were punished for fielding an unqualified player), top spot in Group D was theirs to lose, and they lost it.

There are already whispers flying around that he has spoken to Moroccan football officials, trying to secure a fall-back insurance should he lose and get sacked.

The pressure to deliver, amidst prayers and a peculiar interest shown by the Zambian Government in this crucial tie, is raging. “You should go and conquer in Ghana. Government has done its part and it is now up to you the players to rise to the occasion,” Zambia’s President Michael Sata told the team before they left Lusaka.

Renard knows that Zambians have checked two boxes; God, and Government support. And in Africa, you don’t get these rare fundamental incentives and mess up. Its now all up to him, and his boys. Very few people can afford to be in theirs shoes.

This game has turned out to be larger than life itself.

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