32 Teams in 32 Days: Ghana
Group G | Germany | Portugal | United States
Prior to 2006, it was something of a national embarrassment that Ghana, four-time winners of the African Nations Cup, had never reached the World Cup.
When that imbalance was finally addressed, the rest of the world could finally see what it was missing. Ghana's fluid but uncompromising style was something that thrilled and entertained.
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Ghana's game has always been about possession, midfield dominance and winning with eye-pleasing football. The "Brazil of Africa" is what they have tagged themselves, a tag that places a heavy burden on the Black Stars, but one that manager James Kwesi Appiah does not shy away from.
His squad boasts some of the brightest young midfielders in the world -- Kwadwo Asamoah, Christian Atsu, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, Mohammed Rabiu and Andre Ayew (the son of Abedi Pele, arguably Ghana's greatest player ever).
Kwesi Appiah's team can be at once slick in passing and brutish in the tackle, in equal measure. They usually look to dominate games and find lone forward Asamoah Gyan. Kevin-Prince Boateng provides link-up support for Gyan, plus an extra midfield body. But it is a role he will share with Kwadwo Asamoah.
One key decision will be which player to start alongside Rabiu: Michael Essien or Sulley Muntari. Depending on the opposition, Kwesi Appiah will deploy a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 lineup.
This will be Ghana's third World Cup appearance after their tournament debut in 2006. That year in Germany, they reached the Round of 16. In 2010, they made it to the quarterfinals and came oh-so-close to edging Uruguay to reach the final four.
How they reached Brazil
Ghana were never really in qualifying trouble, although there was a stage early on when it looked like they were.
In Round 2 of qualifying, Zambia were awarded a walkover victory against Sudan before defeating the Black Stars in their next game to take charge of the group. It was neck-and-neck until Zambia came visiting in their next meeting with Ghana, who won 2-1.
But the Black Stars saved their best for last in Round 3. With Ghana drawn against Egypt, whose qualifying run of 18 points from 18 matches was unmatched by any other side, it looked like the West African powerhouses may have come to the end of the road. It was the Pharaohs, however, who struggled. Gyan scored twice at the Baba Yara Stadium to lead Ghana to a 6-1 first-leg winner. Egypt's 2-1 second-leg victory barely did enough, and the Black Stars were on their way to their third consecutive World Cup.
The numbers never lie
Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:
If the Black Stars are to match their past performances, they'll have to beat the United States and either Germany or Portugal.
Germany may lose or draw in friendlies, but they are a different beast at the World Cup. And manager Joachim Loew has built a fresh, young side with plenty of quality and speed. Ghana will do well to look elsewhere for their points.
Which brings us to Portugal, the one side Ghana will target for those next three points. The Portuguese don't look quite as formidable without Cristiano Ronaldo (thigh injury); even with him, they have shown fragility in places.
Assuming Ghana can take advantage and make it out of the group, one team they will be looking to face are Uruguay. That Luis Suarez handball from the 2010 World Cup is not quickly forgotten. Although Gyan should have scored from the resultant penalty kick, many Ghana fans still hold out for a chance for their team to avenge that result.
Most important player
For all of their midfield power and skill, Ghana's game is structured around getting the ball to Gyan as quickly as possible. His finishing has improved since moving to Al-Ain in the Middle East, but, more importantly, his quiet and jovial leadership has been a key factor in uniting what was threatening to be a fractured dressing room.
Equally important on the field will be Ayew. Blessed with his father's vision and technique, plus quick feet and an eye for the goal, Ayew starts out wide but drifts infield with dangerous consequences for the opposition.
Rabiu, meanwhile, has displaced Anthony Annan in holding midfield, and his stabilizing influence allows the more creative forces to go about their business with the freedom that they do.
Definition of success
At the last World Cup in 2010, the Black Stars were one Gyan penalty away from advancing to the semifinals. They would have been the first African side to do so.
This time, they will want to match that achievement, at the very least. But there's a snag: This year's draw has been less than kind. Germany are one of the tournament favourites, Portugal and Ronaldo are also contenders, and the United States are itching to beat the Black Stars after previous reverses.
Surviving the Group of Death would not only be considered a success, but it would also provide the confidence needed for a run at a semifinal appearance.
How far will Ghana go?
They will reach the quarterfinals.
ESPN FC Analysts' take: Shaka Hislop
This is a team that's not afraid to take their chances -- they took the third-most shots of all 32 squads in the group stage in 2010. The midfield controls the pace and direction of the game. Ayew will pull the strings and is backed up by experienced players in Essien and Boateng.
Ghana surrendered six goals in eight games to qualify for the Cup, but I still wonder how good they'll be defensively in Brazil. They gave up three in two games against their stiffest qualifying opponent, Egypt. Just as Ghana did four years ago, they'll sit back and try to hit teams on the counter, but it will be tough to get a result.