Now that the chips are down, Defiant Black Stars must earn their keep

No rally, no barrage, just a meek wilt, and surrender: The Black Stars have a lot of soul-searching to do going forward.

Defiance.

It’s not the worst tool in the box, but it could be when wielded wrongly.

Three years ago, Ghana’s senior national team misused it spectacularly, defying the powers-that-be — and logic itself — in holding the nation to ransom at the Fifa World Cup in Brazil, refusing to play a minute of football till huge appearance fees owed them were paid in full.

It was a show of defiance the boys would get condemned for by their countrymen; an ill-timed, ill-advised display of guts they’ll pay for till this hurt and scarred generation is replaced by the next. The Black Stars have tried all they could in quest of redemption: they’ve been contrite, resolute, even brilliant on occasion. Heck, they even attempted winning the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations — coming desperately close, in fact — just to reclaim some love!

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What they hadn’t tried, though, was the one thing which got them entangled in this mess in the first place: defiance. They had a couple of chances building up to this failure to secure a World Cup berth in Russia next year to right their wrongs and perhaps warm their way into the hearts of Ghanaians again; the first – most probably the biggest – of which came against Rwanda in their final Afcon 2017 qualifier. It wasn’t an opportunity they were expecting, however, only one afforded them unwittingly by the Ministry of Youth and Sports’ reluctance to provide the usual luxuries on offer when international assignments were due.

Armed with the excuse that Ghana’s place at the following year’s Nations Cup in Gabon had already been booked, and that the result versus the visiting Amavubi would be no threat to the hosts’ position as Group H leaders/winners, the State arbitrarily decided to withhold funds allocated to be spent on the players’ ticket fares from their respective stations overseas (reasoning that such expenses could be spared if local players were called up instead, for the game) while slashing the usual winning bonus in half.

Were the already invited foreign-based professionals going to be coughing up their own travel costs? And were they even going to bother being at their best in a game which offered so ‘little’ in any actual gain (financial or otherwise)?

Well, to their credit, they did — and an expression of bloody-minded defiance was key, though for all the right reasons this time. The boys didn’t just show up against the Rwandans. They came with intent to win — even if Grant didn’t exactly put his strongest team out there, perhaps in assessing what alternatives he had with respect to squad depth ahead of an upcoming Russia 2018 qualifying game — and only a late equaliser from the east Africans robbed Ghana of a third straight home win in the Afcon 2017 qualifying series.

Not everyone was impressed, of course; an overwhelming majority of Ghanaians probably still considered the team a bunch of spoilt brats ever so willing to have their way. Still, they’d won some over, hadn’t they?

One venue the Black Stars felt they commanded a fair bit of goodwill was the Tamale Stadium which was going to be the ground the team was hoping get their World Cup Qualifying campaign off to a brilliant start. It wasn’t to be, as the doggedness of their first group opponents – the Cranes of Uganda – coupled with the harsh afternoon sun as one would expect at any venue in Northern Ghana – temperatures topping 37˚C as some points – meant the best Ghana could get from that game was a goalless soulless draw.

Not the kind of result you’d expect from a team with any fighting chance of making a Mundial more so, when Egypt – also housed in the same group and have been absent that the world stage for nearly three decades – was breathing down their necks, hellbent on wrestling that sole ticket the group had to offer from Ghana. A subsequent, almost inevitable defeat to Egypt in Alexandria were all the signs the Nation needed to realise situation was dire and that the time had come for everybody to put their shoulder to the plough and rescue our ‘beloved’ Black Stars from the quicksand it was in however traitorous we feel the team had been in the past.

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The nonchalance and a resolve not to forgive the players by a large section of the Ghanaian media and the general populace might have overstayed their welcome and probably left a tad bit too late when the final nail was all but driven into the Stars’ coffin after yet another damning draw at home to group minnows Congo Brazzaville. Now, with nothing to play for, a new-look Black Stars’ fight and defiance in Kampala in the penultimate group game won a few more admirers and left many feeling they could have done a bit more to help the team fight. Ghana has now finished the 2018 World Cup Qualifying series in third place – behind Egypt and Uganda – drawing four, winning one and losing the other.  Now the chips are down. Time to dress the wounds and pick the best balm to soothe and bring some relief going forward.

If the team’s rebelliousness in the past implied they didn’t give a damn about national interests, they’ve now oozed the same trait to show they do care after all.

With so many more battles to be fought — versus a fandom which remains largely skeptical of the Stars’ motives, a sports ministry growing increasingly hostile towards the team, and an FA caught in-between — in going forward, they’d have to ooze some more of that.

Defiance.

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Teach Us To Number Our Days Oh Lord!

Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.”(1)

It is a rare gift, in this age of distractions, to have five minutes to rest and reflect. Recently, I had the opportunity to take an entire afternoon and do nothing. I was sat in the botanical gardens of the University of Ghana, Legon, Accra surrounded by huge trees, and the singing of birds. As I looked out over the contrasting horizon of azure sky and the green earth, I was struck by my own insignificance—something I rarely allow myself to think about as I routinely fill my days with a kind of busyness to make me feel important. That topography of sky and bird and the greenery had been there long before I arrived and would surely remain long after I had departed—both from my visit and upon my departure from this world.

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Despite this more sobering thought, the gift of undistracted space nourished me. I could revel in the symphony of songbirds all around me; marvel at the cataclysmic forces of nature that formed the mountains and valleys around the globe. I could wonder at my place in the vastness of the creation and feel my smallness and my transience. Having this kind of time to sit and to reflect is a rarity, and was just as fleeting as the birds that flew around me.

Though writing hundreds of years ago, Blaise Pascal serves as a prophet for this contemporary age. With the transience of life and the specter of death facing all, most seek lives of distraction. Whether or not we recognize that the fear of death is an underlying, albeit unconscious motivation, we nevertheless recognize how often we fill our lives in order to obscure these realities. Whether it is in juggling endless priorities, the relentless busyness of our age, or perpetual media noise, our lives are so full that we rarely find space or time to reflect honestly about anything. Particularly in this day and age, mindless consumption numbs us to the eventuality of our mortal condition and our finitude. The advertising industry is not unaware of our propensity to consumptive distraction. Marketers spent over 295 billion dollars in total media advertising in 2007.(2) Perhaps they know that humans mistakenly equate vitality with the ability to consume.

It is easy to understand how the fear of death and suffering would compel human beings to live lives of distraction. Yet, the cost of that distraction is a pervasive and deadening apathy—apathy not simply as the inability to care about anything deeply, but the diminishment for engagement that comes from caring about the wrong things. Kathleen Norris laments:

It is indeed apathy’s world when we have so many choices that we grow indifferent to them even as we hunger for still more novelty. We discard real relationships in favor of virtual ones and scarcely notice that being overly concerned with the thread count of cotton sheets and the exotic ingredients of gourmet meals can render us less able to care about those who scrounge for food and have no bed but the streets.

The ancient Hebrew poets, while meditating on the brevity of life, prayed: Teach us to number our days that we may present to you a heart of wisdom. It was the inevitability of death that motivated this prayer for wisdom. This was a wisdom that didn’t try to hide from the realities of life—be they joys or sorrows—but rather sought to keep finitude ever before it. Indeed, the poem ends with a cry for God to confirm the work of human hands. Whether a cry of despair over finitude or a cry of affirmation, numbering life’s days can lead to meaningful engagement in the world and in human work—and this was the mark of wisdom.

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As I pondered the beauty around me, I thought of dear loved ones, both family, and friends, who will not look on this earthly horizon anymore. I counted myself among them for one day my own eyes will cease to behold this kind of earthly beauty. Despite the temptation to disengage or distract myself from the pain of these thoughts, contemplation reminded me that I too must number my days. In dealing with significant loss and pain it is certainly understandable how one would long for escape, but facing mortality and attending to it is the way to develop a heart of wisdom. Only then can one be open to the possibility of meaning and confirmation.

Jesus, himself, faced his own death with intention and purpose. “I am the Good Shepherd…and I lay down my life for the sheep… No one has taken it away from me, but I lay it down on my own initiative.”(3)

READ: MAKING CHRIST KNOWN

The way of wisdom demonstrated in the life of Jesus gives flesh and new possibility to the ancient psalmist’s exhortation. As he numbered his days, he calls those who would follow to engage mortality as a catalyst for purposeful, actual living. While following Jesus insists on laying down our lives in his service, it can be done in the hope that creation’s abundant life is truly made new even in the darkest of places. For the one who laid his life down is the one who was raised. He is the one who declared, “I am the resurrection and the life; the one who believes in me will live even though he dies.”

 

 

(1) Blaise Pascal, Pensees, (New York: Penguin Books:, 1966), 37.
(2) As referenced by Allan Sloan in “Fuzzy Bush Math,” CNN Money, September 4, 2007, money.cnn.com, accessed October 15, 2009.
(3) John 10:14a-18.

Making Christ Known

Author John Stackhouse describes the discipline of “apologetics” as the Christian work of commending the faith as much as it is about defending the faith.(1) Commending the faith, he argues, is something the Christian community does wherever it is—with one another, with neighbors, with the world. Consequently, it is also something the Christian community does whether they are aware of it or not.

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In his sermon before the Areopagus, the apostle Paul commended the gospel with reason and rhetoric that would not have gone unrecognized. This is the good news, he professed, and the good life depends on it. To the Athenian philosophers, he commended the gospel in terms that mattered deeply to them. “Since we are God’s offspring,” he said quoting an Athenian poet, “we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.”(2) For on the contrary, he told them, the real and present Deity is now calling people everywhere to turn around and come near.

The apostle then followed this bold notion with a proof that would have caused as much, if not more, commotion in first century Athens as in hyper-rational modernity and cynical post-modernity. We know that God is the true creator, sustainer, and friend, he reasoned, because God “has given this proof… by raising [Christ] from the dead.”(3) Paul is telling the story of God in the world here, but he is also telling his own story. This Deity he commends to the Athenian philosophers is the risen Christ who appeared to him on Damascus road, who became friend instead of foe, and turned his own philosophy and consequently his life around.

Paul’s use of the resurrection as proof of all he has proclaimed to the Athenians is interesting on several levels. To begin with, while the apostle clearly sought to ground his Mars Hill message on a common foundation, he ended with a proof that must have seemed to some like a foreign tidal wave. For the Athenians, resurrection of the body was absurd and unreasonable, as much of an obstacle to them as the scandalizing cross to men and women of Jerusalem. While the philosophers of the Areopagus may have believed in the immortality of the soul, the body was what confined and imprisoned this soul. In their minds, there was a radical distinction between matter and spirit. Bodily resurrection did not make any more sense than a god with a body. For the Athenians, and indeed for all of us, this very proof required a radical turn of heart, mind, soul, and body. For some, this babbler’s new teaching was immediately labeled absurd. When they heard of this resurrection of the dead, reports Luke, there were scoffs and sneers.

 

Yet Paul’s apologetic, which was carefully researched, powerfully worded, and respectfully delivered, was not here ending on a careless note. On the contrary, he was ending with the chorus itself. For Paul, all of the words uttered up until this point would merely be noise had they not come from this very refrain. For if Christ has not been raised, both preaching and faith itself is useless, as he said elsewhere. Though it would have been a foreign language to the crowd at the Areopagus, Paul commended the resurrection as the very proof of his apologetic—for the entirety of his message was authoritative only and specifically because the resurrection had indeed occurred. Authors Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon note the central task of commending the Gospel: “Our claim is not that this tradition will make sense to anyone or will enable the world to run more smoothly. Our claim is that it just happens to be true. This really is the way God is. This really is the way God’s world is.”(4) For Paul, and for the apologist, the important Christian act of finding common ground must never involve burying what is real and living: Christ is risen from the dead.

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This single event is the theological core of Paul’s identity and his highest apologetic. It is also the very pillar which makes abundantly clear that the true work of apologetics does not belong to Christians. Writes Stackhouse, “Spiritual adepts throughout the ages warn us that mere argument accomplishes little even within our own hearts.”(5) No one knew this better than the apostle Paul, who would never have otherwise considered Jesus anymore than one to despise: the work of conversion belongs to the Holy Spirit.

Thus, there were many at the Areopagus that day who sneered at Paul’s philosophical conclusions. There were also many who responded in the same manner they responded to any teaching considered at the Areopagus—namely, with fascination, with discussion, and with barren hearts and minds. But likewise, there were a number who believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.(6) By the grace of God, the risen Christ was commended and the obstacles that kept him from sight were overcome.

Slice of Infinity RZIM

(1) The discipline of apologetics derives its name from the Greek word apologia, meaning defense. “Always be ready to give an answer (apologia) to anyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
(2) Acts 17:29.
(3) Acts 17:31.
(4) Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 101.
(5) John Stackhouse, Jr. Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 82.
(6) cf. Acts 17:34.

 

 

 

 

Time Out! – John Paintsil needed this latest sack.

It’s just what the doctor prescribed for John Paintsil: a fresh start.

Days after announcing his decision to retire from active football and stating his intention to go into coaching, the veteran Ghana full-back landed his first managerial gig — and, given his next-to-no experience in management, it could hardly have been bigger. The former Berekum Arsenal man was unveiled as one of the new faces who was to grace the technical bench of South African giants Kaizer Chiefs nearly a year ago, joining the Amakhosi as assistant to head Steve Komphela. That was really no more than the merits he could legitimately claim after all he’d been through in recent years.

Paintsil, a two-edition Fifa World Cup participant and 89-game member of the Black Stars over several years, received his last Ghana call-up in 2012. His club career — the heights of which saw him represent Fulham and West Ham United in the English Premier League — dragged along to a slow, painful death not long afterwards, eventually ending unceremoniously in the same country where he launched his coaching journey.

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Disturbed thus in his public business, there’s been precious little solace from Paintsil’s private life where a troubled marital relationship has only gone downhill since Paintsil was nabbed by the police in 2013 for allegedly assaulting his wife physically. For a man who’s had so little to celebrate over the years (albeit having himself to blame for some of it) and who has suffered a sudden demotion from being the lovable flag-waving patriot whose victory laps decorated almost every major Ghana win in his time to a deeply-loathed, woman-abusing villain, Paintsil deserved that big break he would have been the first to admit he’d barely earned.

Being at continental heavyweights Chiefs in his fresh role wasn’t necessarily going to cast his demons out, of course. Nor was it going to make him husband-of-the-year. It surely wasn’t going to rid him of the personal demons that seemed embedded in his worryingly worsening attitude… And so, it proved. After twelve months with the South African club, these same news worthy activities, that have come to typify john Paintsil as we’ve come to know him for so long came back to haunt him. The vicious cycle of getting into the headlines and featuring on the frontpages of newspapers for all the wrong reasons wasn’t something those in the helm of the Amakhosi were going to be taking lightly. This latest episode came with a prize tag he could barely afford to pay (all puns intended).

Having been relieved of his duties now, this new phase in his life, instead, represents a clean slate Paintsil would be a fool not to fill with glory. Should he make good use of this me-time, Paintsil could prove even better at coaching than he was at playing; mess this golden opportunity to regroup and restrategise up, though, and his mission of self-ruin would be complete.

Over to you, Jeonju Man.

The Case for disbelief

Reading an online newspaper the other day, I ended up, as I often do, on the religion pages. My attention was first caught by a long list of various world religions, followed by the descriptions of the beliefs and key practices of each one. Interestingly, I thought, atheism was among the many religions listed. And yet in describing the main beliefs of atheists, the first sentence declared: “Atheism is not a belief.” Can a belief-system accurately be defined as the absence of belief? Its very inclusion as a belief-system among alternative belief-systems seemed to negate its first belief.

Though atheism contends disbelief in God, it is rightfully placed among the many belief-systems that inform life itself. As the atheistic worldview offers certain perspectives about the world, like Christianity or Hinduism, it requires certain faith assumptions: that the world exists in ordered, knowable nature, that our senses and intellect are reliable in discovering truth, that there is a uniformity to nature extending from past to future. At the foundation of every worldview, a number of interconnected beliefs are held in faith. The question then becomes, which faith provides the most coherent foundation for understanding the world?

Some insist the atheist’s insistence of reason as the foundation for non-belief creates a tension of incoherence within the belief itself. “Reasons require that this universe be a reasonable one that presupposes there is order, logic, design, and truth. But order, logic, design, and truth can only exist and be known if there is an unchangeable objective source and standard of such things….Like all non-theistic worldviews, Darwinism borrows from the theistic worldview in order to make its own view intelligible.”(1) In other words, the very foundation of atheistic faith allows for an unstable structure of interpretation.

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Either arrogantly or boldly, Jesus of Nazareth is one who proposes himself as a foundation for belief. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on a rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.”(2) It may sound to some archaic or odd. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life… I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved… I am the wayand the truth, and the life.”(3) Others might note sounds of this bold and arrogant foundation in the contemporary wisdom that occasionally cries out for something more certain.

In 1960, famed psychologist and avowed atheist Hobart Mowrer wrote an article entitled “Sin, the Lesser of Two Evils,” in which he decried the loss of humanity in our attempts to free ourselves from the notion of sin. “In becoming amoral, ethically neutral and free, we have cut the very roots of our being, lost our deepest sense of selfhood and identity. And with neurotics themselves, asking, ‘Who am I? What is my deepest destiny? And what does living really mean?’”(4)

At the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. there is a large wooden altar from a synagogue that was vandalized by Nazi soldiers who had come to remove the Jewish citizens of the city. Across the altar is a single phrase of Hebrew carved deeply into the wood. Though it bears the hack marks of axes that attempted to delete the words, the phrase is still decipherable. It simply reads: Know before Whom you stand.

We can attempt to eradicate the one at the foundation. We can dismiss the bold declarations of Christ as arcane or arrogant. But it will never negate his presence, nor his ability to answer in his very person the deepest questions of self and human identity.

 

A Slice of Infinity

(1) Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 130.
(2) Matthew 7:24-26.
(3) John 8:12; 10:9; 14:6.
(4) Cf. Hobart Mowrer, “Sin, the Lesser of Two Evils,” American Psychologist, 15 (1960): 301-304).

VAR needless: If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it!

Change, they say, is good, but they also say it could be incredibly difficult to accept, and nowhere is the latter aphorism as truthful as in the world of football. In the last few years, football has proved it wouldn’t embrace any attempts to alter its long-standing traditions warmly — at least not without a fight.

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Indeed, unhappy were many when the ‘golden goal’ — and later the ‘silver goal’ — was introduced to decide the winners of games that extended beyond 90 minutes. And when the matchball for the Fifa World Cup was made considerably lighter for the competition’s 2010 edition, people complained. Goal-line technology and the presence of an additional assistant referee behind the goal-lines, though now fully incorporated threads in the football fabric, took a while in coming and some do still have their reservations about those novel concepts.

Football, to put it mildly, is highly resistant to change, and the latest instance — that of the video assistant referee (VAR) — at the ongoing Fifa Confederations Cup in Russia has, true to form, caused no mean a storm. The period of cruel uncertainty between incidents and the VAR’s reaction times has left many feeling they — and football — would be better off with its many flaws, unless the latest innovation’s own troubling errors are ironed out.

For the conservatives (the vast majority of those who have found joy in the beautiful game over the years, really), though, there may be many more months of heartache and accustomization ahead. Should the sport’s lawmakers, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), have their way, football would soon give its pretty coat one trim too many.

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Among a raft of alterations to be made to existing football laws aimed at addressing the game’s “negativities”, IFAB hopes to make it possible: for a player to be able to dribble straight from a free-kick; for a player to pass to himself at a free-kick, corner-kick and goal-kick; to fix a stadium clock which stops and starts along with the referee’s watch; for a goal-kick to be taken even if the ball is moving; for a goal-kick to be taken on the same side that the ball went out on; for a “clearer and more consistent definition” of handball; for a player who scores a goal or stops a goal with his hands to get a red card; for a keeper who handles a backpass or throw-in from a team-mate to concede a penalty; for the referee to award a goal if a player stops a goal being scored by handling on or close to the goal-line; for referees to blow for half-time or full-time when the ball goes out of play; that a penalty kick is either scored or missed/saved and players cannot follow up to score; and for a game to be played in two 30-minute halves.

Now while the objectives toward which all that is geared is certainly noble — namely, “improving player behaviour and increasing respect, increasing playing time, and increasing fairness and attractiveness” — the actual measures meant to lead football there aren’t exactly going to please everyone; tell me you didn’t find quite a few somewhat ridiculous and barely imaginable as you went through them. Implement these and, at least at the outset, many fans, players, managers and journalists would almost certainly raise one loud, deafening howl in protest, even if — as with every form of change the world has ever experienced that stuck — with time we’d be forced to accept, if not love, them.

Football is already great as it is — though requiring the odd tweak here and there — but somebody shouldn’t have forgotten to attach that ‘DO NOT TAMPER WITH’ tag to the package.

New Dawn: Kwesi Appiah out to prove a point

Tomorrow, Kwesi Appiah would have his second debut as head coach of Ghana’s senior national team, the Black Stars, when he comes up against Ethiopia in the first of Ghana’s six group matches in a bid to qualify for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.

 

 

 

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Of course, given the strength of the teams that share space in Group F with the Stars (Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and. Kenya), it would be quite surprising should Ghana fail to make it to the finals. Merely qualifying, though, wouldn’t be good enough. The Stars need to do so in style, considering how much they’ve underwhelmed in recent months. Failing to make any proper mark at the Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon earlier this year — preceded by patchy pre-tournament form — set the team on a downward spiral that has since seen them plummet on the Fifa rankings, with Ghana currently a disappointing 9th and 49th respectively in Africa and the world. Then there was that technical vacuum which ensured the Stars didn’t have any chance of redeeming themselves in the immediate aftermath of the Afcon 2017 fiasco. Now under a freshly appointed head coach, though, Ghana have no excuse not to rebuild and make progress, starting when they play the Ethiopians in Kumasi.

But this game holds much more for Appiah — and, by extension, his new-look backroom staff — than it does for his players. He’s only been weeks into the job officially, but Appiah has already made it obvious his second stint wouldn’t be business-as-usual. The squad he has invited includes several new faces and excludes almost as many established regulars, forcing on Appiah himself the need to prove he’s made the right calls.

 

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It’s one reason why Appiah’s Ghana 2.0 has to get off on the right foot versus Ethiopia, but not by any means the sole reason. This may only be his first official game in charge since his return, but everyone excited by the teaser Appiah has served with his early decisions and the prospects of his star-studded technical team — which is basically everyone, actually — would wish their weighty expectations be fulfilled from the very start. Besides, there are those who still doubt whether or not Appiah is the right man to take Ghana forward, and the 56-year-old would have to win those Thomases over in earnest. Also, given that this is the country’s only competitive game before the must-win 2018 Fifa World Cup qualifiers resume — friendlies with the USA and Mexico would be played in an entirely different setting — Appiah would have little time to experiment.

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Success wouldn’t necessarily mean burdening Ethiopia with the number of goals that sunk Lesotho in Appiah’s first debut five years ago, but the performance itself must reflect that same dominant, ruthless spirit. Hopefully, there’d be no floodlight trouble to take off some of the gloss this time. Hopefully, a star would emerge from among the new lads trusted by Appiah, in much the same manner that saw Christian Atsu introduce himself to Ghanaians against Lesotho and blossom into an indispensable star ever since. And, hopefully, the Stars would be emphatic in both their approach and product.

Appiah would have it no other way — and so would the millions of observers.