Brazil 2014 was a dark time for Ghanaian football. The team failed to win a single match in Brazil, albeit in a strong group consisting of eventual winners Germany alongside Portugal and USA, performing way below expectations of a nation in love with football. Five months later, experienced coach Avram Grant, formerly with Chelsea, Maccabi Tel-Aviv, Portsmouth and West Ham United, was brought in to turn things around. And that he did. At the 2015 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, Ghana made it all the way to the final, only to lose on penalties to Côte d’Ivoire.
Ghana now play Mozambique in two important 2017 Cup of Nations qualifiers on Thursday and Sunday as they look to go one better and march to the title in next year’s tournament. Grant spoke with FIFA.com about the team building on last year’s CAF Africa Cup of Nations final disappointment, qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ and the big future ahead for the Black Stars.
FIFA.com: How has your latest managerial chapter with Ghana been going, and how does it compare with other chapters in your career?
Avram Grant: First, if I speak about myself, I think that I’m lucky. Because of football, I can be in so many places and see different cultures. And now in Ghana, I am enjoying the challenge very much. I always say to myself and to the people of Ghana, ‘How can it happen, with so much talent in Africa, not one team has reached the semi-finals of the World Cup?’ Talent is not enough, you need more than talent. It’s a big challenge, and I’m enjoying it.
During your World Cup qualifying series with Comoros [Editor’s note: Ghana defeated Comoros 2-0 on aggregate in Africa World Cup Qualifying Round 2], did that demonstrate the strides African football’s been making as a whole?
I think what’s happened in Africa is a big difference than in the past. There used to be a big difference between the big and small teams. The system for qualification in Africa is different with the two-legged play-offs. You saw that all the big team had problems with some of the small teams, which has never happened before. I think there are better coaches for the national teams now. This experience [against Comoros] was very important for me personally. In Comoros, it was not an easy game. The bottom line is more important: we are in the group stages (of qualifying) now and we’ll try to qualify for the World Cup.
Are the teams that have not qualified for World Cups putting more into it as they see a two-leg play-off as a massive opportunity to progress?
I think it’s happening all over the world, even in Europe you see Germany having problems against teams they were beating easily 20 years ago. If you speak about Albania now, they’re considered a “small team” but they are not small. If you look at Asia, I was in Thailand for a little bit, if you see the Thailand national team now, it’s not easy to play against them. There’s been a lot of development on the tactical and physical side of the game. The “bigger” teams have an advantage with good players but not an advantage anymore tactically or physically. This advantage is gone.
How did you feel your team responded to last year’s Africa Cup of Nations disappointment? In some ways you could look at it as a success by making it to the final, but to lose in the end, how have they responded since then?
We were very happy with the result because expectations were very low after the World Cup in Brazil because we did not progress from the group stages or win a single game. The expectation was very low and they performed very well in the Cup of Nations, especially to recover from the first game [Editor’s note: Ghana lost to Senegal 2-1 in their Group C opener], they showed us a good mentality. All the aspects was better (than Brazil 2014), so they felt better and, of course, for the supporters the result was good except for the final, but the final was unlucky.
What is next for Ghana leading up to the draw for Round 3 of Africa World Cup qualifying?
We have a very important Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Mozambique in a two-legged qualifier. They are a very good team, so we want to be at our best. And then we look to the next Africa Cup of Nations. We haven’t finished the job yet! I believe when you come to a team, and you see progress, progress and progress, the results will come. Ghana is a country of football, there are very good people there and players with a lot of talent and I can see progress. Every game we are better, every game we improve in other aspects. People say we have a problem with mentality, and that’s not true. We have a very strong mentality. They take on the information very well. I’m enjoying Ghana very much.
What can you tell us about this next generation of players that are coming through?
The Ghana national team has very good players with a lot of talent. We must remember always that talent is not enough—to maximise that talent is my job.
Why will Ghana be the first African country to qualify for the semi-finals at a World Cup? State your case!
It’s very important to put up objectives. I know that it’s looking too far, but I think at the end of the road, Ghana can do it. There are other African teams that are very good. You can see if they will do one, two, three things, it’s achieveable, so we need to do it!