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19.10.2005 Sports News

CAN 2006, top priority for Dujkovic

By Michael Oti-Adjei
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SOMETIMES it's fun to take a back seat and watch, observing the euphoria and glee of a nation after the historic events of Saturday, October 8, 2005 certainly fits that bill.

If you have so soon forgotten the significance of that date, then you are not Ghanaian enough. Or better still you are not the greatest Ghanaian football fan. That was after all the day we qualified for Germany and though I like most people felt the thrill, the toll of taking that monkey off our back and the excitement of watching and listening to the analysis and endless talk about World Cup qualification took the energy and the desire to write out.

It's been an amazing few weeks for Ghana football and even that is a massive understatement. World Cup qualification, a massive sponsorship deal from Puma and there is more to come.

The next few weeks and months at least until June 2006 are likely to see an unprecedented rise of football mania in Ghana.

At the last World Cup in Japan/Korea, I woke up at odd hours to analyse the games for TV3 Network. It was wonderful to see Senegal go all the way but no matter how much I tried, I didn't feel the pulse others did.

In June next year, it will be different and eccentric but before then, there is the business of taking care of the African Cup of Nations in Egypt in January. By this weekend, we will know which three teams Ghana will play in the group stages of the African Cup of Nations when the draw for the tournament is made in Cairo. The draw is an event that will likely go unnoticed in Ghana, yet it is something we should be keeping a keen eye on.

The reason is simple: before the World Cup, there will be the Cup of Nations and no matter how badly we will perform in Germany, we cannot afford as a nation not to do well in Egypt.

With four triumphs at the Cup of Nations, equaled only by Egypt and Cameroon, the Black Stars will go to Egypt with the force of history behind them. But they will also be fully aware that in the past two decades, Ghana has failed to deliver at the biggest stage of the African game.

You can say whatever you like about the tournament. It's a burden on the players, it takes place too often and it doesn't catch on as much as it happens in the European championships. Yet, it has always been the defining point of African football which is exactly why we must go to Egypt fully armed and eager to prove our worth.

There are, of course, potential problems. With many European leagues likely to be in session during the tournament, there is the likelihood that many key players will be tested to the core about whether to place their loyalty where their mouths are or to remember that there is no place like home.

On the evidence of past experiences from the Cup of nations, it seems many players will prefer to show up in Egypt. Samuel Eto has declared he is prepared to fly between Cairo and Barcelona so that he can play in Egypt for Cameroon. For Ghana, it is important to have players showing the same kind of commitment. There have been media reports suggesting that coach Ratomir Dujkovic is likely to go to the Cup of Nations eager to try out new talent.

As the man paid a fat cheque to manage our football, he takes the flak if things go wrong and the praise as well as the money if things go well but we as a nation need to priorities in clear terms what we want.

The Cup of Nations must mean the world to us. We might be desperate to do well at the World Cup but how about being equally determined to improve our record at the African football showpiece?

Ghana was absent at the last edition, thanks to the heroics of Dujkovic and his team of unknown players from Rwanda. Two years before then, we were present in Mali as the likes of Michael Essien, John Paintsil and John Mensah provided us with the early clues about potential World Cup qualification.

Even then our best was a quarter final exits in a game against Nigeria that did our once famous national pride against the Nigerians absolutely no good. In 2000, we suffered the last of our major defeats at the hands of South Africa when Siyabonga Nomvete's headed goal knocked Ghana out at the quarter final stage in Kumasi.

In effect, it's been a poor Nation's Cup showing throughout with the last win coming in 1982. It will, therefore, be just and appropriate that we go to Egypt determined to rubber stamp our lost image as nation that must be taken serious in football.

Doing well in Egypt too, will put to rest the rubbish notion that Ghana has qualified for the Germany because South Africa were poor. Player for player, Ghana has got a fine squad and it is a fact everyone who has followed Ghana lately knows but many on the continent just don't know, so it will be fine to shut up the cynics.

So it is important to have our key players around in Egypt, and by that I mean the likes of Michael Essien, Stephen Appiah, Sulley Muntari and Sammy Adjei. GFA Chairman Kwesi Nyantekyi has pointed out that there is a real possibility that with many leagues ongoing and with the real threat of burn out, Ghana could lose some key players in Egypt.

Burn out is a real concern but surely those well paid and well fed players can handle it. It must be a little sacrifice and price the players must pay to be at the world cup.

It must also please the GFA that we've got the rule books on our side. Given that the Cup of Nations is an official tournament, no club can stop a player from showing up against their will.

More gratifying for the men in charge should be the pronouncement by Chelsea boss Jose Maurinho that he won't influence the decision by Essien to play for Ghana at the Cup of Nations.

It is a mark of respect for what the national team means and a lead we must follow in stating the significance of the Cup of Nations by taking our best players there.

Maybe the example of Senegal shows that if you want success at both the Cup of Nations and World Cup, you can get them. The Terranga Lions were in impeccable form at the Cup of Nations in Mali in 2002 and proceeded from there to equal Cameroon's record of a last eight finish.

Their superb form in Mali, when only a highly motivated, more experienced Cameroon got the better of them provided Diouf and his colleagues have the self confidence they needed to batter the likes of France and Denmark.

If Essien and the Black Stars can shine in Egypt, rattle the likes of Cameroon and Nigeria and impress, then they will go to Germany with all the self confidence they need and the respect they deserve from opponents.

And in a country like Ghana where defeat in a major tournament is a taboo, doing well in Egypt will mean there will not be several weeks of fault finding, player and coach bashing and the traditional changes that has often rocked the boat when it is smooth sailing.

We will rock the boat by not taking our best players to Cairo.

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