There have been several opinions regarding the chances of the senior national soccer team, the Black Stars, at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Some have tagged Group G – Ghana’s group – as the ‘Group of Death’. That is not far a point to make as Germany – with three trophies already in their cabinet – Portugal and United States of America (USA) will not be easy nuts to crack for any team. In fact, the recent FIFA rankings put these three nations in the Top 15. But a world cup is a world cup and since it is a congregation of at least 31 best footballing nations in the world, no team can be taken for granted, irrespective of its position on any ranking. For this year’s edition, the hosts – Brazil – significantly adds up to the number – making it a gathering of 32 – as winning an automatic qualification may well be considered qualification by merit given Brazil’s pedigree in the tournament – the only nation to have participated in each edition since 1934 and with a record five trophies.
Ghana’s campaign in Brazil
Ghana’s campaign will kick-start on June 16 with a fixture with USA’s Stars and Stripes, a team that has fallen twice already to the Black Stars. Results in those two matches in the 2006 and 2010 world cups have given most Ghanaians an inexplicable confidence that the Stars will have an easy ride over the Yanks but struggle with Portugal – with world best footballer Cristiano Ronaldo – and Germany. But I think otherwise! I am of the strong opinion that Ghana cannot get all maximum points against the US but can squeeze some points off Germany and Portugal. In a recent chat with a friend, my suggestion that the Black Stars can “squeeze” four points from the two European nations was received with outright scorn. It is impossible, the response went. That response is just representative of the numerous Ghanaians who think Ghana can only survive the match against USA.
If anybody has followed the United States team for the past four years, that person will bear witness to the fact that after that 2-1 Round of 16 loss to the Black Stars in South Africa, the hackles of Uncle Sam was raised over the “disgrace” Ghana seemed to be inflicting on them in the world of football. They, as a result, quickly began plotting Ghana’s downfall. Even before the draw for the 2014 World Cup was made, USA had vowed to avenge the two painful defeats to Ghana. When former German captain Jurgen Klinsmann was hired to succeed Bob Bradley as Head Coach of the US men’s soccer team in 2011, he expressed the resolve to qualify the Yanks to the world cup with an aim of avenging those defeats. As if by providence, Ghana and USA were put in the same group and will play each other in their opener at the 2014 World Cup. Klinsmann, commentating immediately after the draw, said the US has one aim going to Brazil: Not to let the Black Stars beat USA thrice. Indeed, over and over again, he has emphasized that Ghana remains the Yanks’ crucial opponents, stressing that they are approaching that match like a knock-out match.
In my opinion, I think the Black Stars will not be third time lucky over the Americans though I am optimistic we will make it to the Round of 16.
USA a force to reckon with
First of all, though the US was a force to reckon with in the world of football prior to 2006, they had not considered Ghana a tough opponent and so though the two were in the same group – Group E with eventual champions Italy and the Czech Republic – the Americans concentrated rather on the Italians. No wonder, though they lost 0-3 in their opening match to the Czechs, they forced a 2-2 draw with the Azurris in one of the highly tensed group matches of the Germany 2006 World Cup. Quite bruised from that encounter, they lost 1-2 to the African debutants. Let me quickly state that any team the US targets in a world cup gets a good run for its money. For example, in 1950 when put in the same group with England, the US concentrated preparations on the English and though they lost 1-3 to Spain in their first game, they rallied back to beat the English 1-0 in so shocking a result that the English press reported the result as USA 1 – 10 England. Sixty years later when the two met in South Africa, nothing separated them as the match ended 1-1. It is that same spirit that the Americans are preparing for the Black Stars this time. In 2006, Ghana was relatively unknown and in 2010, the Yanks least expected to meet the Black Stars and even that, contrary to perceptions, Ghana found it difficult beating them. Asamoah Gyan could only secure the winner after 90 minutes of play, draining out the Stars before their quarter-final game against Uruguay. Ask any American and they will tell you that a win over Ghana in Brazil will be a world cup fulfilled. Though the US defeated Nigeria 2-1 in their last warm-up game, spectators at the stadium chanted “We want Ghana”, seemingly not satisfied with their team’s win over the African champions. Ghanaians, on the contrary, think the game against the Americans is a done-deal. That is where Ghana may falter!
Worse still, Ghana has set up camp in the US, virtually exposing the team’s tactics to the Americans. Though the Ghana Football Association’s President, Kwesi Nyantakyi, has justified the team’s stay in Miami, citing even Portugal’s stay there, it does not augur well for our determination to go any further in the tournament when all know that any realistic chance Ghana has to secure a win in Brazil is against the US. I daresay per events and even the mentality of the two nations as regards that Group G opener, Ghana may be at the receiving end.
Ghana’s chances against Germany, Portugal
However, I strongly hold optimistic views about Ghana’s chances in matches against the two Europeans. The first meeting between Ghana and Germany in South Africa four years ago had little to show for in terms of difference and it was surprising a one-world cup experienced nation could pin a three-time winning and multi-world cup experienced side into a tight corner. That match had to be decided by a Mesut Ozil strike. That performance by Ghana means that on any day, the Black Stars can match Joachim Low’s side booth-for-booth. After all, it is this same Germans who have found it difficult stopping the Black Stars at junior levels though this is at the senior level.
For the Portuguese, it is all about 2014 Ballon d’Or winner, Cristiano Ronaldo. The fear Ghanaians harbor is because the Real Madrid and former Manchester United star is in the Portuguese fold. But come to think of it, Czech Republic in 2006 boasted European bests like Pavel Nedved, Peter Cech and even Tomas Rosicky but they still went down to the Black Stars. That final group much will not be a walkover for Ghana, I must admit. Neither, in the same vein, will it be for the Portuguese. It is the better side that will carry the day. As recent as 2013 in the FIFA U-20 World Cup, Ghana met a Portugal side that had won its group to qualify to the Round of 16 while Ghana had only qualified by the skin of the teeth. But when the going got tough, it was the Black Satellites who emerged triumphant. I remember how in 1995 Awudu Issaka and his mates beat Portugal with Nuno Gomes and co 2-0 on their road to winning Ecuador ’95. Come to think of it, while he was at Real Madrid as a youngster, Daniel Opare was in the same camp with Cristiano Ronaldo, training with him. So, who says some of the players will be star-gazing?
Ghana’s destiny is at the disposal of the players and for me, if their mentality is well-tuned, I don’t think they can’t make it out of the group. Though it will be difficult against the Americans, the Europeans will crumble if the psychologist does his job well.