There is much to like about the Ghana team. They have the youngest average age of the tournament, they are remembered for their heartbreak against Uruguay in the last tournament, they have a local coach and a fairytale story in Alber Adomah. During the last World Cup, Adomah was working as a painter and decorator, having just finished a Decorative Finishing and Industrial Painting at the College of North West London.
He’s come a long way since then and, when his place in the 23-man World Cup squad was confirmed, his dad told him there’s no need for a Father’s Day present anymore. They might be brimming with heart-warming sentiment, but sport is not played on sentiment.
Their first challenge is simply making it out of their group. With Germany, Portugal and old foe, the United States, lying in wait, the Black Stars face a stern challenge in the first round. They begin this with a match against the United States on Monday – the same team they’ve knocked out of the tournament twice.
Ghana’s greatest strength, in the group stages anyway, will be in their versatility. Coach Kwesi Appiah does not like formations and tactical restraints. The qualification rounds saw them adopt the 4-4-2 formation, despite having trusted the 4-5-1 approach for so long. Appiah saw that Asamoah Gyan could do with some support and bolstered his charge with Abdul Majeed Waris. Waris might be petite, but he is filled to the brim with energy and keen to charge at defenders, helping open up the field for Gyan.
That’s all good and well – that they can change their attack to suit whoever they are playing, but the trouble comes with the defence, considering the attacking prowess they’ll face in their group. Germany’s squad has scored a combined 219 goals between then, Portugal 141 and the States, 99. Subduing Germany will not be an easy task, but Ghana have very nearly done so before, only narrowly losing 1-0 in the 2010 edition of the competition.
Cristiano Ronaldo – with 49 goals – remains Portugal’s biggest threat and if he can be nullified – or ruled out through injury by a medicine man, Ghana will have some serious belief. But that is worries for later on. They first have to get off to the a winning start.
In their first match against the States, Michael Bradley will be the toughest challenge. The midfielder never, ever stops running. Ghana’s players do have the youthful exuberance to keep up with him, but whether they have the tactical nous is the real question. Fabian Johnson is the other under-the-radar player. Although a defender, he’s prone to forward bursts and can catch teams by surprise on the counter.
Ghana’s inexperienced players – they have just over 680 caps between their players, whereas Germany have got over 1,300 and even the United States with over 800 – are very much in the deep end.
Their experience lies in the heart of the midfield with veterans Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari. But even that partnership has undergone a renaissance with Mohammed Rabiu added in a more defensive role to add both pace and energy. The midfield will have a massive role to play in protecting the defence, especially against the attacking teams they will encounter in the first round.
Their experience lies in the heart of the midfield with veterans Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari. But even that partnership has undergone a renaissance with Mohammed Rabiu added in a more defensive role to add both pace and energy.
While this will be a massive test for the players, it’s an even bigger test for coach Appiah. In an era where African-born coaches are not given as many opportunities as their foreign counterparts, Appiah has been impressive. He and Stephen Keshi are the only two African coaches at this year’s World Cup.
Appiah has risen through the ranks at the Ghana Football Association and, after being an assistant for many years, he eventually landed the full-time gig in 2012. He was assistant during the 2010 campaign and, when then coach Milovan Rajevac left, he served as caretaker only to be shoved to the back of the pecking order in favour of Goran Stevanovic. But now he has a chance to prove himself on the biggest stage.
Despite a disappointing Africa Cup of Nations run in 2013 – where the team finished fourth, capping their run with a particularly listless display in Mali during the third-place play off – Appiah led a solid World Cup qualifying campaign and now faces one of the biggest challenges of his career.
Ghana topped their group, winning five out of their six matches, losing just once. In the next round, they defeated Egypt 7-3 on aggregate to seal their place at the finals. Gyan was in fine form, with six goals in the qualifiers, much thanks to the tactical shift employed by Appiah. The World Cup, of course, presents a whole different challenge for Appiah and his charges. The conditions will be unforgiving, the pressure and expectations will be heavy and everyone will have a point to prove.
There has been an increasing demand to hire African coaches instead of looking to often-overpriced foreign talent. There is also the call for CAF to argue for more African representation at World Cups, but in order to do that, they need to represent a case of African teams performing well, something which has been absent for many years.
The players and the coaching staff all have something to prove for this Ghana team, and that is something which can push players to perform beyond their means. The group stages might seem like an impossible feat, but if, by some miracle, they do progress to the next round, there will be much expectation on the youngsters. They have won hearts and captured imaginations before and while it might seem completely unlikely this time around, the optimist can be forgiven for dreaming big. DM
Photo: A file picture dated 28 January 2013 shows Ghanaian national soccer team players (front row, L-R) Christian Atsu, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, Harrison Afful, captain Asamoah Gyan and Kwadwo Asamoah; (back row, L-R) John Pantsil, Mohammed Rabiu, goalkeeper Fatau Dauda, Isaac Vorsah, Albert Adomah and John Boye posing for photographers before the Africa Cup of Nations 2013 soccer match between Niger and Ghana at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. EPA