Frankly, one suspects none but the neutral desired this nail-biting finale. Seven points dropped between them, however, means neither Ghana nor South Africa has been able to wrap up their qualification business yet and that the contest for that solitary ticket to the final round goes down to the wire.
Still, it’s hard to shrug off the feeling that this is probably just how both teams want it: the adrenaline, the stakes, the excitement, the kicks. The pair do have history, after all, the first eight years — 1996 to 2004 — of which saw Bafana Bafana win two and lose none of three competitive meetings.
The tide finally turned when Ghana beat South Africa twice — 3-0 at home, 2-0 away — in an ultimately successful bid to reach a maiden FIFA World Cup (Germany 2006), breaking the yoke and not losing again to what had been a bogey side in a game of any significance until two months ago.
That was when South Africa, now helmed by 2017 AFCON winner Hugo Broos, defeated Ghana 1-0 the first time the two sides crossed paths in Group G of the Qatar 2022 qualification series. Ghana had three games with which to recover from that setback ahead of the potentially decisive reverse against South Africa on the final matchday, but the Black Stars have only managed to lose further ground after being held by Ethiopia earlier this week.
Disappointing as that episode was, Ghana have their work cut out now, if they want to finish top of the group by Sunday evening, and it couldn’t be more straightforward: beat South Africa. Ghana won’t end up with more points than their guests should they achieve victory, but they’d have the first two tie-breakers — overall goals difference and overall goals scored — to their advantage, edging them through by the finest of margins.
Against a well-drilled and highly driven South Africa side that doesn’t give much away, coached by a guy who has triumphed in all two of his previous encounters with Ghana, the Black Stars would have to play above themselves — and certainly better than they did against Ethiopia last Thursday.
It’s not just that Broos’ South Africa are a formidable opponent; their need to win this game and go on to reach the World Cup is, arguably, bigger than Ghana’s.
South Africa failed to qualify for the upcoming Nations Cup — partly because they failed to prevail in any of two qualifying games against Ghana, including a 2-0 loss at Sunday’s venue — while they haven’t been at a Mundial since the edition the country hosted 11 years ago at which Ghana starred. If international football in 2022 is going to carry any meaning for South Africa, they must emerge unscathed from their trip to Cape Coast.
The last time the visitors got a favourable result here at Ghana’s expense was at the Nations Cup in 2000 — co-hosted by Ghana and neighbours Nigeria — when the legendary Siyabonga Nomvethe scored to eliminate the Black Stars in Kumasi.
This time, though, South Africa don’t even have to win to break Ghanaian hearts once more; they only need to avoid defeat, a task that a team which has conceded just once until this point in the group stage would certainly back themselves to accomplish.
Ghana simply can’t afford to fluff their lines, on a pitch that they’re very familiar with and very successful on. The performance against Ethiopia was far too conservative for a team on a mission, but if that was only because energy was being conserved for the final hurdle, head coach Milovan Rajevac now has no excuse not to let it all loose with so much at stake — securing qualification, most importantly, but also ensuring South Africa don’t get to re-establish their lost supremacy over Ghana.