In an exclusive interview at his Doha residence, the experienced midfielder opened up to the Editor of the Graphic Sports, Maurice Quansah (MQ), about leading the young team to the global tournament, how the national team is going through its transition, his thoughts about the technical team led by Otto Addo, as well as his career with the Qatari side Al Sadd.
Captain, you’ve played in the top leagues of Europe — France, England and Turkey — but now in Qatar. How’s your new life in Qatari football?
It’s a great country, the people are very nice and I’m enjoying my time here.
The football level is very good and it’s a different chapter in my life.
I’m enjoying football here; I won the league and the FA Cup last season and hopefully, we can do that again, but there are good teams behind and we’re going to continue working hard.
Generally, I’m happy to be at such a big club and hopefully, we can keep winning trophies.
Generally, big stars move to the Gulf region when they are about wrapping up their careers, but for you what was the motivation to come here at this time?
There’s this perception we have that good football is only played in Europe. It’s true that every player wants to play in a league around which there is a lot of hype or at a top level. But I’ve been there (Europe) and I can say that you can also enjoy the game, have the same work ethic, make a lot of money and do your job the right way in another continent. Seeing that, looking at the options available, and also looking at our former captain (Asamoah Gyan), when I look at his statistics when he was in Al Ain (Dubai-based club) and coming back to play for the national team, I realised his numbers did not drop, his performance level did not drop. When I considered that and also looked at all other issues football-wise — the World Cup was coming here, the quality of the stadiums here, that the club after me was the biggest club here, and financially also the whole package looked good — I felt it was the right time to come here.
Honestly, since I came here I’ve been enjoying my time playing in a good team and scoring goals, and we’ve qualified for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. I can only say it’s all been positive for me
As a player having previously played in some of the top leagues of Europe and still captain of the national team with some major competitions ahead, will you be able to maintain that hunger and that level of fitness and consistency to help achieve some of the things you’ve also set for yourself?
Yes, I think it’s all about you wanting to do something and taking care of your body. We have a lot of players here also playing for their national teams — Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Cote d’Ivoire, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others — and I realised early that it was no joke playing here, so I got myself together and started working hard and whatever was necessary to keep my top shape and things started working well.
With the World Cup coming up, your mind is more focused on the national assignments, so I can assure Ghanaians that I’ll be ready, I’ll be fit, Insha Allah if there is no injury. Personally and collectively we’ll be ready to give our best.
You said you were enjoying your time here. But the year didn’t start well, particularly for the Black Stars when we put up one of our worst performances at the Africa Cup of Nations but managed to qualify for the World Cup nonetheless. Have you been able to distil the whole AFCON thing and get yourself and your teammates psyched up for the bigger competition ahead, which is the FIFA World Cup?
Being in the team for a very long time and today being the leader of the squad, looking back at what happened in Cameroun was very difficult for me. But maybe it was supposed to happen due to certain situations, it was supposed to happen to teach us certain things we were not doing. I think it was a wake-up call for the World Cup playoffs which were coming up in March, so we had to be ready.
Personally, I knew what was supposed to be done and took advice from people, including some senior former players, on things to do to qualify. And honestly, since we qualified for the World Cup a lot of things have changed, the confidence and belief are back; now we just have to get stability and a lot of games together, and I think we can make a good impression in this World Cup.
At the World Cup we are drawn up against Portugal, Uruguay and South Korea, teams that have talent just like us and have some semblance of stability. What do you make of the group and how are you guys psyching yourselves up for the challenge?
It’s a tough group, no doubt about it. The first match is against Portugal which is one of the favourites in the tournament, but we are ready. As I said, we have the players, we have the quality and the staff to help us go through this. But if you look at all the teams they are ranked higher by FIFA than us, so on paper they are favourites and we are the underdogs. We take it like that.
Does it make the job lighter when you go into the tournament not as the favourites but as the underdogs?
For me, it’s no because every game has the same goal: you have to win. So the fact that you look like the underdog — they themselves (opponents) know whether or not we are the underdogs, they know what football is all about. So we just have to be ready and make sure that we make that tag switch. But personally, I’m not worried about the fact that we’re behind these teams in the FIFA rankings, but we’re going to give them a tough time and try to go through. And if we go through, so be it.
However, I want us to showcase a good Ghana side, one that is very competitive and doesn’t give up. It’s football and anything can happen, but whatever happens on the field we need a team that possesses such qualities and values to also show that we’re ready to give everything for the country.
As captain, you speak to your teammates on a daily basis. Do you get that same level of hunger or desire in them?
Oh yes. My boys are very hungry and can’t wait to be there. It’s hard to say much today because the tournament is about two and a half months away and the squad is not yet out. A lot of things can happen between now and then because you can have injuries and all that, so you can’t really predict. But for a majority of the boys who have been in the last two camps, they want to be at the World Cup, everybody wants to be in the squad and everybody wants to write their names in the history books of the FIFA World Cup.
It’s very good and I have a very good feeling about the squad and everything around the team. We have some friendly games coming up (against Brazil, Nicaragua and Switzerland) and we’ll see how we’re going to perform against them.
You’re going to your third World Cup but this time as captain of the national team. Do you feel the weight of expectation of a nation which always expects the national team to succeed no matter how the team looks?
I won’t say that I feel the weight of expectation, but I feel that Ghanaians want us to succeed anyhow, anywhere and anyway. I know it better than all the players because I’ve been in the squad all these years and seen when the squad was made when we had players who were together. I’ve seen different groups, different generations and one thing that I can say about all these squads is that Ghanaians don’t really mind or care if there’s a transition or whatever. They just want Ghana to win, so I’ve understood that as a player and it’s not easy to get results when you’re in transition; it’s very hard. But we have to find a balance to get the result with what we are trying to do because to get the results today and suffer for the next five years doesn’t make sense. But to get decent results today and grow with it and get a solid squad for the next eight to 10 years — how Ghana was between 2005 and 2018 when Ghana was flying high.
We need to get there, we have a young crop of players, Kamaldeen Sulemana, Mohammed Kudus and others who, if there are no injuries, are going to be here for a long while as I have been. So we’re going to help them, we’re going to push them, but I believe that Ghanaians need to be patient with the boys.
Earlier, you talked about the need for consistency in team building, but lately we’ve seen a lot of young players being drafted into the team, including others born overseas to Ghanaian parents and some who have switched allegiance to play for Ghana. As someone who also entered the team as a young player and met established stars such as Michael Essien, Richard Kingson and Stephen Appiah, among others, how are you going to help the new players, including Inaki Williams and Tariq Lamptey, settle down?
First of all, the fact that they considered themselves Ghanaians and are ready to play for Ghana means they are welcome. We’ll open the door for anybody that can help us achieve something in the long term. They should come with the right heart and the right idea and everyone will welcome them into the team.
I know that some people are saying that they have come because of the World Cup, but honestly, we will never know (the real motive), but what we know is that now they have decided to come and if they can help us and they have the right heart, the right determination to die for the team from the first minute to the 90th minute during the World Cup and after the World Cup, we are going to open every door that we have to make them as comfortable as they can to bring something to the squad because these are quality players.
We’ve also had inconsistency at the technical level over the last three years, and for this World Cup we have a mix of four coaches led by Otto Addo, with the others being Chris Hughton, Mas-Ud Didi Dramani and George Boateng. What is special about this group?
I think one thing is very clear, Otto is the boss and we have Chris, Didi and George who are behind supporting him from what we the players see and feel.
We feel they are united and speak the same language. It’s a good mix: Didi has the local and foreign way of seeing things and whom we have respect for, Chris has massive experience in the English Premier League and in the Championship, and we have George who is like the way he was playing… he knows how to look out for things, he’s strong, hard and a bulldozer who knows how to speak to players and how to be aggressive on players.
We have coaches — Otto and George —who are quite young, while Didi and Chris are quite elderly; and everyone has his role, but it is clear that the final decision maker is Otto Addo and we follow that to the letter.
I’m very happy with what has been put in place and we’re having a little bit of stability, but it’s early days yet.
I remember an interview about a year ago during which I said we needed to get some stability in what we did because stability and consistency would take us to the next level and hopefully we could get a core team and a core staff that would be here for a while and from whom we could learn and build something big for this football-loving nation.
Hopefully, I believe we have the technical staff and players with the ability to begin a big chapter in Ghana football.
One of the matches people are looking forward to is our last group clash with Uruguay because of the events of the 2010 World Cup where they prevented Ghana from reaching the semi-final in a match you missed through suspension.
What was your reaction when the draw was made and how are you personally going to deal with all the emotions of meeting Uruguay and Luis Suarez again?
My reaction? Calm.
Whatever they did or whatever happened, we cannot reverse it. We all suffered its effects. Maybe I would have done the same thing if it had been the other way round. It was a decision they took which took them to the last four of the world; it was worth it in their eyes but for us, it was the worst moment in our lives.
For me I didn’t realise the magnitude of it that much then because I was just 20 years; I was a baby and I cried but didn’t realise how big of a loss it was, that we had scored a goal and were going to the semi-finals of the World Cup, but someone used his hand to stop the goal and stop us.
When you look at it that way, then you see how far you had gone and how close you were to achieving something unbelievable. But it’s history.
This is a three-point game and not revenge. It is a group game and could happen that it’s the last and decisive game, it could happen that we would have already qualified from the group stage before meeting them, it could happen that we would be out before meeting them.
We’ll be patient because honestly, Uruguay is the last team on my mind because I’m thinking about Portugal, then about Korea before we deal with Uruguay.
What targets have you set for yourself as a group and what target have you set for yourself as an individual, having played in the national team for 15 years with two senior World Cups under your belt already and over 100 appearances for Ghana?
As a team, we need to be cautious of how we set targets. We’re going into this tournament with all these young guys, some without any previous World Cup or tournament experience. The target will be set day by day, after each game as we grow and as we move forward as a group. We can’t just wake up and say we’ll target the semi-final and then target the final.
But sometimes when you reach a certain stage you live with reality, and today the reality is that we want to get out of the group stage; and how do you get out of the group stage? You want to take maximum points from all of these teams anyhow it’s going to happen. We’re going to do everything and anything to get out of the group stage, and if we’re able to get out of the group stage, then from there we see how we can keep setting targets to match after match.
For myself, to be real, I don’t have personal targets. The only personal target I had— and still have — since I joined the Black Stars was to win a trophy with the team. That’s my only target and I’ve been close a number of times (the 2010 AFCON and 2015 AFCON final).
I won the Under-20 AFCON and won the Under-20 World Cup trophies, but my only target is to win a trophy in the Black Stars jersey, any trophy that I can win — AFCON or the World Cup trophy. That’s my goal, that’s my aim and that’s what I pray and work hard for every day.