Ghana captured the hearts of Africa and beyond as they swaggered into the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ quarters with flashy football and funky goal celebrations. The frenzy they fashioned evaporated late into a shivery night at Soccer City. Asamoah Gyan was left in tears when his penalty in the dying embers of extra-time cannoned off the crossbar and denied the Black Stars a semi-final spot. He was not the only Ghanaian sobbing once that shootout had culminated in Sebastian Abreu cockily dinking Uruguay through.
James Kwesi Appiah witnessed the Ghanaian heartbreak first-hand, as an assistant to Serbian Milovan Rajevac, and in 2012 he assumed the reins himself – amid sizeable skeptisism. Yet the former Ghana defender has silenced critics of the appointment of an inexperienced, non-foreign coach by directing the four-time African champions to Brazil 2014 in emphatic style. Ghana, indeed, boasted the second-best record of the ten group winners behind Egypt, before thrashing the favoured Pharaohs 7-3 on aggregate to qualify.
FIFA.com caught up with Appiah to discuss how big football is in the country, his coaching style, South Africa 2010, Asamoah Gyan’s place among the world’s best strikers and why Ghana can shock the world in Brazil.
FIFA.com: You were the assistant in 2010. What was the atmosphere like after the penalty shoot-out loss?
Kwesi Appiah: It’s something that I know most Ghanaians would not like to revisit because it broke their hearts. Not only Ghanaians – I believe all Africans were behind the team at that particular time. But we have got to move on. Our captain today, he didn’t convert that [penalty], but it happens – it could happen to any player. Fine, if we had won that penalty [shoot-out] we could have won the [World] Cup that very year. But we’re trying to put that behind us and move on from it.
What was the reception like when you got back home to Ghana?
Even in South Africa, they made a big show to host the Ghanaian contingent, because they really, really appreciated the fact that an African team was able to get to the quarter-finals. We could have done better, but they really appreciated it. When we got home, the president and the whole nation came to the airport to meet us and they had a big reception for the team.
Football is the only thing that unites the country. Whenever there’s football, everyone throws away his political ambitions and puts himself behind the team.
What positives can you take from South Africa 2010 and what will you look to do differently in 2014?
After the World Cup in 2010, I’ve come to believe that if you have some players and you give them the confidence needed, the encouragement needed, automatically they will rise to the occasion. Football is of age. It’s not like before – you mentioned about four, five countries, and you think they are going to win automatically. I believe that looking at the quality of players we have at the moment, the most important thing is how we can psyche them up, how we can force them to push themselves and fight to defend the flag of Ghana.
Ghana had foreign coaches at the 2006 and 2010 World Cups. What advantage is it having a Ghanaian coach?
The good thing is, the calibre of players that we have at the moment, they all have total respect for me and I also have 200 per cent respect for them. They’ve been so competitive, very disciplined, and their willingness to die for the nation is really, really high compared to when I was the assistant in 2010.
African teams have historically favoured having foreign coaches at World Cups. You must feel immensely proud to be leading Ghana to Brazil 2014…
It’s not just about me – all Ghanaians [feel proud]. I was speaking to (Nigeria coach) Stephen Keshi. I believe that all Africans feel proud. When you’re given the chance to prove what you can do, and you get the support and the encouragement from the management… Automatically there’s nothing that a Ghanaian, an African [can’t do] that any other human being can do. Saying that, the most important thing is making sure that you get the respect from your players.
How would you describe yourself as a coach?
I’m a coach who doesn’t talk that much – the players call me a silent killer. The reason being that I have total respect for them, but I always make sure that each and every player does what is right at the given time.
Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari and John Pantsil were the favourites for the Ghana captaincy in late 2012, yet you surprisingly handed the armband to Asamoah Gyan. Can you explain that decision?
By the time I made the decision of who to be the captain, I had been with the team for about three years, so I knew what each and every player had. I got to realise that Gyan is a player who all the players love too much. They listen to him. When the team is down, he encourages them, he brings their spirits up. So I said to myself, ‘Why not give him a try? In the first place, I need him to work [harder], so let me give him the captaincy and trust him with the responsibilities’. For me he’s done so, so well.
Where does Gyan rank among the world’s best strikers?
I know Gyan is not playing in what would say the top leagues, but where he’s playing he’s doing so well, he’s scoring a lot of goals. For me he’s improved a lot. His confidence levels have risen so high and when he has the opportunity, there’s no way he will not put it in. For me he’s one of the best strikers in the world.
How good is Dede Ayew?
Dede is a world-class player. And the good thing about him that all Ghanaians love is that when the team is down, he pushes everyone to fight.
You have a vastly experienced squad, with a number of players who have been involved in previous World Cups. How much of an advantage is this?
The good thing about having experienced players is that at this high level, you need players of high, high confidence to hold on to the ball. And at the same time you need young players who can also do the runs when needed, and fight and do some dirty work, and you have some experienced ones to finish it up.
You left out of a couple of big stars and took a young, largely experimental squad to the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. Do you feel this helped Ghana qualify for the World Cup and will serve them well in Brazil?
After the Cup of Nations, many of them – I took about ten young players who had never been to any competitions before – their confidence levels rose. And since then we’ve started winning all our games. Going to the World Cup, I know it’s not going to be easy. But saying that, the good thing is that my players are all playing at high-class teams, and for that reason there won’t be any panic, the confidence levels are also high, and I have a very good bench as well.
How far can Ghana go at Brazil 2014?
I believe we have got very good players and as I said, any good team is a team that has a very good bench. I believe we will surprise the world.
How big is football in Ghana and what does football mean to Ghanaians?
Football is something that every Ghanaian, every kid [loves]. And that makes coaching Ghana difficult because every kid, every man and woman, is a coach (laughs). And apart from that, football is the only thing that unites the country, because there’s so [many] political things going on. But whenever there’s football, everyone throws away his political ambitions and puts himself behind the team. Ghanaians love football to the extent that they will do anything to get what they want when it comes to football.