World Cup 2010 profile – Ghana – Black Stars expected to shine in South Africa

Ghana, giants of the African continent, finally announced themselves on the world stage with an eye-catching performance in the 2006 World Cup. The experience of that event and the location of the upcoming finals have fuelled expectations that the Ghanaians can make an emphatic impression in the knock-out stages.

Ghana has a population of 20m and heralds football as their national sport. According to FIFA, just under 1m Ghanaians play football at some level, including 28 000 registered footballers. Although the majority of the country’s funding for sport goes to football, there is a negligent amount of corporate funding for the national game with the main source of money coming from the Ghanaian FA. A timely and significant financial boost arrived in 2008 when Ghana hosted the African Cup of Nations – notably, Ghana’s national stadium, The Ohene Djan Stadium, increased its capacity to 45 000. The Ghana Premier League, formed in 1956 and consisting of 16 teams, has been dominated by two teams – Hearts of Oak and Asante Kotoko, who have shared 41 of the last 50 titles. Hearts of Oak even conquered the African club scene, winning the 2005 CAF Confederation Cup (a tournament made up of league and cup winners across the continent). Ghana is increasingly recognised as a breeding ground for powerful and skilful players with a cheap price tag. Over 90% of the current squad play abroad in Europe.

The Black Stars have won the Africa Cup of Nations four times (1963,1965,1978 and 1982) making them the second most successful team in the contest’s history, behind Egypt. Impressive wins against Czech Republic and USA at the 2006 World Cup saw them through to the second round where they were clinically dispatched by favourites Brazil. An early exit at the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations led to a managerial change, but this blip in momentum (which saw their world ranking drop from 14th to 36th) has been remedied by seamless qualification for South Africa – the first African team to qualify. In addition, they reached the final of this year’s African Nations Cup in Angola, losing out to reigning champions Egypt. A fine achievement considering the youthful make-up of the squad – eight of the Under-20 squad (who won their respective World Cup in 2009) were blooded due to the absence of stalwarts Michael Essen, Stephen Appiah and Sulley Muntari.

In December 2009, the Black Stars were drawn in Group D along with Germany, Serbia and Australia. Ghana Coach Milovan Rajevac was relatively optimistic about progression: “Germany are quality but I still believe we can match them. I think we can make it into the second round.” This optimism, shared by the nation as a whole, is fundamentally born out of an impressive display of attacking verve in Germany four years ago, combined with Ghana’s gritty displays in Angola this year. Given the nation’s weighty expectations and the fact that the World Cup will take place on African soil, anything less than progression to the knock-out stages is likely to pile the pressure on the Serbian Coach. The appointment of 56-year-old Rajevac in early 2008 appeared a strange one given his low-profile experience in Europe overseeing a handful of Serbian club sides. His most notable achievement came in 2008 when he led FK Borak Cacak to UEFA Cup qualification – the greatest achievement in the club’s history. A routine passage to South Africa and a runners-up spot in at the African Nations has gone a long way to silencing his early doubters. One of Rajevac’s greatest concerns will be the fitness of Ghana’s talismanic star player Michael Essien. The Black Stars lost Chelsea’s midfield general to injury after just one group game in Angola and a similar occurrence this summer is unthinkable. The robust Chelsea player, plagued by a hamstring injury all season, is at the axis of Ghana’s midfield. He excels in the ability to snuff out opponents’ attacks and begin his own in a matter of seconds.

At the 2006 World Cup Ghana were known for their gun-ho attitude – throwing men forward at every opportunity. Although this was riveting for neutrals it was ultimately this defensive naivety that undid them. Since then Ghana have become far more competent in defence, with Premier Leage duo of John Pantsil (Fulham) and John Mensah (Sunderland) adding a steardier backbone. Given the high standard of opposition in Group D, Ghana are expected to set out with a 4-4-2 formation and an attritional approach to defending offset by the lightning counter-attacks of their pace-filled front-line.

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