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Ghana and Zimbabwe coaching changes a reminder of the immense pressure when it comes to FIFA World Cup qualifying in Africa

It is a well-known fact that in qualifying for the FIFA World Cup, no national teams have it more difficult than African selections. CAF members have six games in the second round to accumulate points and only one side from each group of four teams makes it to the next round before taking part in an even more difficult two-legged final round tie to clinch their spot. With the urgency required for an African team to qualify, the full pressure of international football is on display due to many CAF members believing that their time to qualify is now.

Another established fact is that being a manager at the international level is very rarely a long-term endeavor, and the week after the opening two matchdays was a stark reminder. A clear picture of the urgency involved in a World Cup qualifying campaign was shown in Group G, which contains Ghana, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia. After only two matchdays, half of the managers who began qualifying are out of jobs even as their former teams remain in contention in a tight group.

Former Ghana national team manager Charles Akonnor

Zdravko Logarusic, former manager of Zimbabwe

The situation in Group G after two games played

Former Ghana manager Charles Akonnor was the most recent dismissal despite facing difficult circumstances. Having completed the job of qualifying the Black Stars to the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations, Akonnor attempted to take advantage of a couple of friendly matches during the summer to build chemistry and try new players out, but there were few opportunities to discover the best tactics and player selection. A transition period between generations within the Ghanaian player pool was always going to be difficult to navigate while obtaining the results required by management and the fanbase, and newcomers like Kamal Deen Sulemana and Alexander Djiku had to adjust to international football on the job. A loss against Morocco and a draw against Ivory Coast in June with zero goals scored for Ghana in both games kept supporters nervous heading into qualifying, and the absence of star midfielder Thomas Partey for the opening qualifiers due to injury made them even more skeptical.

The performances in the friendlies were not pleasing to the eye for Ghana under Akonnor, but it appeared that the Black Stars under him were going to be difficult to score against. However, despite a clean sheet, the opening match against Ethiopia was a major letdown. In the memory of Ghanaian fans and management, Ethiopia was a team they easily defeated 5-0 at home and 2-0 away in their last competitive duels, but this time around a more talented and organized Walias side were allowed to settle into the match. The only reason Ghana came out with an expected win was because a catastrophic goalkeeping error allowed Ghana playmaker Wakaso Mubarak’s long-range effort to stand as the winner in a 1-0 result. Three points were not enough to hide a largely negative reception to the result in the country.

A poor performance by a Ghana side missing many starters in their 1-0 road defeat to South Africa sealed Akonnor’s fate.

Thomas Partey’s long spells off the pitch due to injury have been a major factor in Ghana’s recent struggles. (Image: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

When Ghana’s first qualifying road test came in the second match against South Africa, the circumstances became much more difficult for Akonnor. With South Africa on the United Kingdom’s “Red” list for travel, the manager had to make numerous lineup changes that left the Black Stars trotting out what was essentially a “B” team in Johannesburg. The performance suffered greatly with zero shots on goal and zero corner kicks as Ghana were shut out 1-0. Over the next week an avalanche of pressure from fans and administrators led to Akonnor’s dismissal. Ghana was only a point out of first place in the group, but the lack of goals and chances created across both matches made Akonnor’s position untenable going forward.

The other example from the Group concerns former Zimbabwe manager Zdravko Logarusic. Loga had to deal with plenty of difficulties from the beginning of his tenure in January 2020, mainly due to Covid-19. After doing quite well to obtain a home draw against top African team Algeria to help clinch qualification to the 2021 AFCON, his first full tournament, the 2021 African Nations Championship (CHAN) with the Warriors was a complete disaster. A prolonged period without domestic football in Zimbabwe and numerous forced roster changes due to a Covid outbreak made success impossible to achieve for the domestic-based team.

Early elimination from the 2021 African Nations Championship in Cameroon was a rough start to the year for Zimbabwe.

Logarusic was given plenty of leeway due to these circumstances. Zimbabwe squeezed out a close win against Botswana in March to finish off their qualification for the AFCON, Loga’s only victory in his fourteen games in charge. The CHAN performance was brushed aside without any consequences, and then the 2021 COSAFA Cup during the summer was a similar story as Zimbabwe were unceremoniously bounced from the group stage with only two points from four games.

While Loga was quick to utilize the same excuses for the COSAFA Cup, the summer saw no friendly matches for the Warriors that involved their stars who played club football abroad. The COSAFA Cup featured players who played their club football in Zimbabwe, which means all were fringe members who were never going to take part when an occasion like World Cup qualifying came along. The lack of preparation for a Zimbabwe side that clearly has the potential to do better than its prior group stage exits at the last two Africa Cup of Nations tournaments was frankly inexcusable and played a large part in the current position the Zimbabwe Football Association (ZIFA) finds itself in now.

A 1-0 defeat in Ethiopia for the Warriors was the final straw for Logarusic’s spell in charge of the Warriors (PHOTO: AFP)

Pan-Africa Football gave Zimbabwe zero stars for failing to schedule exhibitions in its progress report of African national teams over the summer, and their opening results in World Cup qualifying provided a confirmation of the impending failure that likely looms ahead. Logarusic and the Warriors failed to generate more than one shot on target in their opening draw at home against South Africa and held on for dear life on the road against Ethiopia before falling to a late penalty kick. Perhaps talented striker Tino Kadewere was not at peak fitness due to injuries, but the excuses no longer apply when a berth in the World Cup is on the line. Logarusic’s defensive tactics meant he had to go, and along with him likely went the last World Cup qualifying opportunity for talented veterans like Khama Billiat and Knowledge Musona (both aged 31).

The stories of both Logarusic and Akonnor highlight the fickle nature of managing in African national team football and how much urgency is placed on every competitive fixture, especially when there is a FIFA World Cup berth at stake. Both coaches did enough to guide their sides through the final stages of the qualification process for Africa Cup of Nations spots, but the more demanding nature of World Cup qualifying revealed their weaknesses to the point where their employers could no longer ignore the worrying signs of underperformance. With another set of two games approaching in October, it is highly likely that more coaches will be added to the list of dismissals before the final stretch.

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