The appointment of young coaches has become something of a trend in the football world thanks to the success of the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola in Europe. Africa is no exception; Aliou Cisse has impressed at the helm of Senegal, while Jamal Belmadi led Algeria to CAF Africa Cup of Nations glory. Also thriving in their jobs are Patrice Beaumelle with Côte d’Ivoire and Charles Akonnor with Ghana.
It is a trend that can be put down to the outgoing mentality of young coaches and their ability to handle superstar players. As Akonnor explained in an interview with FIFA.com, he is relishing his task: “It’s a huge responsibility, even for me in a country where we are so passionate about football. It is gratifying that myself and many other young coaches have been entrusted with such big roles. Many of the young coaches have so far lived up to expectations and some of us are very hopeful of excelling in the roles we find ourselves.
In my case, there is a huge opportunity to take Ghana to the FIFA World Cup™ and to also win the Africa Cup of Nations. That’s what I’m working very hard towards.”
Ghana have been drawn in Group G along with Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. “It’s a tough group,” was Akonnor’s verdict. “Zimbabwe and Ethiopia have qualified for the next Africa Cup of Nations. I’m not sure they could have done so if there weren’t very good, so it is a tough group. I played South Africa when I was the assistant coach. We drew away and beat them 2-0. They will see this is as an opportunity for revenge, but we want to qualify too and we’re going to work hard to beat them.
“There are no minnows in Africa anymore,” he added. “Each and every country dreams of appearing at the World Cup, and the likes of Zimbabwe and Ethiopia won’t leave anything to chance. That’s why we have to work really hard. I believe in the team we have and I know we’ll make it against these teams.”
The Black Stars begin their qualifying campaign at home to Ethiopia. Looking ahead to the match, the 47-year-old coach said: “We need to start the qualifiers well, so this is a game we must win. Fortunately for us, we’re starting at home, but the fans will be expecting a big win from us. We’re not going to leave anything to chance. We’re quite confident about our capabilities as a team, but it’s equally important to keep an eye on our opponents.
“We know how quick they are in the transition, how they like to play attractive possession football, and the cohesion they have as a result of most of the team playing in their domestic league. We’ll be ready for them. We need to take advantage and consolidate our gains. We’ll be aiming for the three points and a decent scoreline.”
After taking on Ethiopia, Ghana travel to South Africa for a game that Bafana Bafana, coached by Hugo Broos, will see as an opportunity to set the record straight. Asked about the keenly-anticipated encounter, Akonnor said: “They’re a wounded side because they failed to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations. They’ve brought in an experienced coach in Hugo Broos, who knows a lot about African football. The last time he played against Ghana, with Cameroon at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, he beat us 2-0. That should tell us that we’re coming up against a difficult side.
“His first squad announcement is a huge statement of intent and shows he wants to give an opportunity to a more ambitious and hungrier squad. We are keeping a close eye on all our opponents, but we take it one game at a time. It’s Ethiopia now. That’s our first hurdle to overcome. South Africa come next in three days’ time. We’ll be ready to meet them and to slug it out.”
Eyes on the prize
Having appeared at Germany 2006, South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014, Ghana failed to make Russia 2018, a major setback for the nation, as Akonnor explained: “When it comes to world football, the Black Stars are torchbearers for Africa. When the best football nations in the world come together, the Black Stars have to be there.
“I’m honoured and privileged to be a part of the success story so far. After three consecutive appearances, missing out on Russia was a devastating blow and a huge disappointment. Maybe we didn’t work hard enough to get there, and it shows that no one has a right to qualify except the hosts. We’ve learned our lessons, and this is another great opportunity for us to reclaim our place and to stand up and be counted once again. And that is exactly what we are going to do.”
With Ghana going through a transitional phase following the departure of a generation that enjoyed great success from 2006 to 2014, how does Akonnor see the new breed? “Every generation has to come to an end sooner or later. That’s the reality. No soccer generation can go on forever.
“Transitional phases can seem never-ending paths, but the key to all these periods is to manage them properly. You need a smooth takeover after an injection of fresh legs and blood to grease the system. It’s all about managing the handover from old to new without disturbing the flow of the team. I think the team has been pretty successful so far and we got to the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations final without most of our household names, like Michael Essien, Richard Kingson, John Mensah, Stephen Appiah, and Sulley Muntari.”
Asked about the dream of leading Ghana to Qatar 2022, Akonnor said: “It’s what every Ghanaian football fan expects, and it’s my desire to provide the technical expertise to make this dream a reality.
“I cannot pretend to be dreaming of anything else. It is what it is. The World Cup is the biggest stage and Ghana are always there or thereabouts when it comes to qualifying in Africa. I’m very aware of the enormous responsibility I have in living up to expectations. It’s more than just a dream and I’ll do everything in my power to ensure that we will be there in Qatar.”