Nigeria and Ghana may meet in the Africa Cup of Nations final – but only if they can beat teams bidding for a first victory
As the dust settles after the quarter-finals, the landscape looks strangely unfamiliar. The favourites, Ivory Coast, have gone; the hosts, South Africa, have gone; and Egypt, who dominated the tournament in the last half of the first decade of this century, didn't even qualify. So the Africa Cup of Nations will go either to one of the traditional powers of African football, Ghana or Nigeria, both of whom nurse the pain of years without a title, or to a first time-winner, Mali or Burkina Faso.
Ghana, who face Burkina Faso in Nelspruit, haven't won the tournament since 1982 when CK Gyamfi returned to lead them to a third title, 17 years after he had led them to defend the title they had won under him two years earlier. The present coach, James Kwesi Appiah, was part of that squad and could become only the second man, after the Egyptian Mahmoud El Gohary, to win the Cup of Nations as both coach and player. So too could Stephen Keshi, the Nigeria coach who captained the side that won the tournament in 1994.
It is significant, Appiah believes, that after regular dabbles with Europeans – he is the first Ghanaian to manage the national team in a decade – both West African giants are prospering under local coaches. "There's no difference between a foreign coach and a local coach," he says. "But the thing they tend to get is respect. The management shows respect to the coach, the media shows respect to the coach and automatically the players follow."
Having served as an assistant coach under Goran Stefanovic a year ago, Appiah represents both continuity and a return to faith in Ghanaian coaching – but he still isn't taken entirely seriously. Shortly after the 2-0 quarter-final victory over Cape Verde, he was asked if he were planning to resign. "It's not easy building a national team to participate in competitions and to perform," he said. "A local coach needs support when things aren't going well. You need people behind you saying you can do it. But in the case of a black coach, there are so many people who will turn around and say: 'We said you couldn't do it. You're nothing.' They try to bring you down. Once the media starts, the management gets involved too and it puts so much pressure on you. You get distracted and there's no way you can make it."
Keshi, meanwhile, has faced criticism from the off – and there have been suggestions that Nigeria's sports minister Bolaji Abudullahi tried to depose him a matter of days before the tournament. As one Nigerian columnist put it after the 2-1 quarter-final victory over Ivory Coast, probably Nigeria's most striking result since they beat Spain 3-2 at the 1998 World Cup, even in glory he disappointed fans who had been preparing for the condemnation and ritual dismissal that traditionally follows Nigerian Cup of Nations campaigns.
The "Big Boss", as he is known, has responded with magnificent bloody-mindedness. In press-conferences he happily takes the fight to any journalist he feels is trying to needle him. He is funny, punchy and, uniquely among Nigerian managers of the past decade, gives at least the impression of being utterly in control. "Everybody wants to tell you who to play, how to play," Keshi said. "If you have 10 Nigerians, you'll have 10 lineups. You have to close your eyes and your ears and do what you think."
The result is a squad that appears unified behind him, not least because he has culled any dissenters. Shola Ameobi, Peter Odemwingie and Obafemi Martins were among those left out essentially for not being committed enough. Even Mikel John Obi served a brief time in exile; he has returned to produce his best form for the Super Eagles, overshadowing Yaya Touré in Sunday's quarter-final. Keshi's hardline approach meant calling up six home-based players – one of the advantages of domestic coaches, of course, being that they have an in-depth knowledge of national leagues that outsiders could never hope to match.
Keshi was severely criticised for that, but it was Sunday Mba of Warri Wolves who got the winner against Ivory Coast – becoming the first player from a Nigerian club to score in the Cup of Nations since Emmanuel Okocha in 1990 – while Godfrey Oboabona of Sunshine Stars has excelled at centre-back after being blamed for Burkina Faso's equaliser in the first group game, when he lost his footing on the sandy surface at the Mbombela Stadium.
Ostensibly Nigeria have a harder task than Ghana if they are to set up a West African derby in the final, as they face a Mali side that with a quiet doggedness has become the third-highest side in the continental rankings. They are a physically imposing outfit who seem able to absorb prodigious amounts of pressure and in Seydou Keita they have a captain who is not just a fine player but also an eloquent spokesman for his nation. He, as much as anybody, has stimulated the "special spirit" of which the coach Patrice Carteron has spoken. "It was more difficult a few months ago and when the country was invaded," Carteron said. "Now the players just want to give a present back to the country. The atmosphere in Mali is unbelievable – people are much happier because we are getting close to the end of the war and because the national football team is in the semi-finals. It is a fantastic story."
Burkina Faso, meanwhile, while rather less technically gifted than Ghana, have the great advantage of facing them on the dreadful pitch at the Mbombela, where they have played each of their four previous games. Ghana weren't even able to train on it after a torrential thunderstorm on Monday night. Although Appiah spoke of his players being able to adapt, it can't but help the Stallions that they have had 390 minutes' head start.
"We try to circulate the ball from left to right, try to find the openings," said Pal Put, the Burkina coach. "Every time you need to take an extra touch to control the ball so you give time to the opponent to organise themselves. It's not easy if you see the ball is bobbling on the field to have the confidence to take the ball or to hit the ball. Sometimes you hesitate – not just in an offensive way but a defensive way so you don't take many risks. It's always a little bit less spectacular." Spectacular or not, Burkina's progress has prompted mass celebrations in Ouagadougou, especially given Put's target was simply to collect four points and so surpass Burkina's previous best performance on foreign soil.
For Nigeria, this is a fifth semi-final in the last seven finals; for Ghana a fourth in a row. Mali finished third last time round. Burkina are just delighted to be there.