Early in February, CK Akonnor, coach of Ghana Black Stars named a 32-man squad made up entirely of players plying their trade in the Ghana Premier League. The assignment: to prosecute the last two qualifying games of the Africa Cup of Nations Championship. Ghana will face South Africa, then Sao Tome and Principe.
It’s not all cut and dried for Ghana yet, because the Black Stars are tied at the top of the qualification Group C table with South Africa on nine points. They still need to get a win against at least one of the teams, to ensure qualification; because Sudan, who are third in the group with six points has an ‘easy’ game against Sao Tome – the whipping boys of the group, before hosting South Africa in their last game.
The Bafana Bafana will want a win against Ghana to prevent broken hearts in their final game which will likely be a death-battle at Omdurman.
That is the reason a large section of the Ghana media were left wondering what C.K was up to, when the 32-man list was released. The players gathered in Accra February 15, and trained together for four days. They have since gathered again and added a further seven days training, before breaking camp to prepare for the League games coming up this weekend.
That decision to invite, work with, and integrate the home based players may turn out to be a master stroke, as clubs in the Premier League have started sabre-rattling, grumbling that they may stop their players from travelling for the qualifiers. And FIFA have opened a door for them to insist on their players staying put, ignoring the call to national team duty
Should the teams decide to do this, the Super Eagles of Nigeria may be the worst hit, as the players may decide to stay away from the two games, knowing that the usually belligerent Nigeria Football Federation will not be able to do anything about it.
This covid-induced headache will likely just exacerbate the issues that had been floating in the Nigerian media over the past few days, as the NFF flew the kite that the team may travel to Benin for their game against the Squirrels by boat. When news filtered back that some of the players were not comfortable with it, that arrangement became “not cast in stone”.
Now, the NFF may have to move quickly, if they are to avoid witnessing a mass boycott by the top players in the team, as the Premier League cracks down on travellers. Nigeria has been flagged a ‘red country’ which means the possibility of getting infected is high. What that translates to for any player who makes the trip, is a quarantine period of 10 days or more, when they return to their clubs. And the managers can’t afford that.
Translation: the chickens (may) have come home roost.
For years, there has been noise in the media that ‘The Keshi Protocol’ be adopted. The late Stephen Keshi put into practice the same thing Akunnor did: intermittent camping of home based players before the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. And despite the difficulty in managing that situation, it paid off.
The odds are that we may not witness a wholesale boycott of these two games by all the regulars in the Super Eagles that we know. But the fact is that the team, as it is constructed now, is thin; when certain players are not available, they struggle. And the majority of these ‘certain players’ are in Premiership teams. We do not know yet if the rest of Europe will adopt the same stance, we can be sure that with the FIFA announcement, the odds are that Napoli will not allow Victor Osimhen travel, given the outcome of his last visit to Nigeria.
The argument in the recent past, which is tenable, has been that the pandemic which forced the Nigeria Professional Football League to shut down meant that the players would not be in shape to participate in the Super Eagles program. Now, the players have seen 13 weeks of action, and nothing has changed. (Akunnor assembled his home based team after Week 14)
Now we are here, hoping that the fear of Covid infection, plus the mandatory isolation after travelling, will not make Premier League clubs play the card dealt them by FIFA. But these could have been avoided, if only the NFF had activated the Keshi Protocol