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Jun 21, 2006

Ghanaian pride

NUREMBURG, Germany -- Perhaps there was some sort of communication gap. Perhaps something was lost in the dialect. Or perhaps there is no such thing as a bulletin board in the West African nation of Ghana.

Whatever the case, the Ghana Black Stars soccer team paraded into this city's Franken Stadium on Wednesday, the eve of its Group E showdown with the United States, beaming with confidence.

In the news conference before the team's final workout, coach Ratomir Dujkovic and captain Stephen Appiah seemingly spent as much time talking about Brazil, a potential second-round opponent, as they did the United States. And when they finally did get around to discussing the Americans, it was in a way only New York headline writers could appreciate.

First, there was Dujkovic: "I'm not worried. I'm an optimist. I still believe Ghana Black Stars will reach the semifinal."

Then, Appiah: "This team is not afraid of any team in this tournament. We can face anyone at any time."

There is good reason for that confidence. Ghana thoroughly outplayed the Czech Republic in a 2-0 victory Saturday afternoon that could have been even more lopsided. The win created Carnival-like celebrations back home, where the Accra Daily Mail compared it to the day the nation gained its independence in 1957.

Thursday will be a half-holiday in the country, and everyone will be allowed to leave work at noon to watch the match. Randy Abbey, a spokesman for the team, estimated that "99 percent" of the country will watch. Several of them will gather in town squares wearing Lance Armstrong-type bracelets that say, "Black Stars 2006, Believe It -- Believe It!"

"The Czechs are a powerful team," Abbey said. "But once we got past the Czechs, everybody back home feels like the gate swung wide open."

In a poll on the Ghana FA Web site, 87 percent of respondents expect the Black Stars to defeat the U.S. That echoes the confidence the team has carried with itself all week. Monday's news conference, at the team's training headquarters in Wurzburg, was just as eye opening as Wednesday's.

First, there was Dujkovic: "The USA will suffer because we are strong and not afraid of anyone."

Then, midfielder Michael Essien: "We'll go for a win against the United States and our chances are good."

Back home, even Ghana president John Agyekum Kufuor got in the act, saying: "We've beaten the second-best team in the world, who else is left?"

So what to make of all this talk from a team that is playing in its first World Cup? What to make of the Terrell Owens-like confidence from a group that will play without two of its top players, forward Asamoah Gyan and midfielder Sulley Muntari, both of whom are suspended after receiving two yellow cards?

Maybe the Ghanaians don't worry about irritating the opposition. Maybe they look at their drubbing of the Czechs and remember that nearly the same Czech team dominated the United States 3-0. Or maybe they just don't care about giving the U.S. enough bulletin board material to fill a warehouse.

Even without Gyan and Muntari, the two who scored the goals against the Czechs, the Black Stars appear fearless.

"We're going to miss them -- they are good players -- but all the guys are ready to die for the nation," Appiah said. "They all want to play."

Thursday's matchup couldn't bring together two nations of more polar opposites. When the World Development Movement put out its rankings of the 32 World Cup countries -- factoring in not soccer ability but 10 other categories including poverty, military spending, debt corruption and human rights -- Ghana came out on top in cheerworthiness. The U.S. was ranked 30th.

In Ghana, the average yearly income is right around $2,000 a year. In the United States, it's around $39,000.

On the field, the West African nation that borders the Gulf of Guinea has an impressive past. Although it hadn't reached the World Cup before this year, Ghana was the first nation to win the African Nations Cup four times. It also won a pair of Under-17 world titles and defeated the Landon Donovan-led U.S. U-17 team 2-0 in the 1999 third-place match.

Midfielder Essien, who at $40 million is the highest-paid African soccer player in the world, was on the field that day and will lead the Black Stars on Thursday.

"He's a modern midfielder at the highest level," U.S. captain Claudio Reyna said. "Where with Chelsea he works with the team, with Ghana he's more of the main man."

Dujkovic is the team's fourth coach in the past three years, but he has brought much-needed discipline and a confident, if not cocky, attitude. He began this World Cup by saying his team could reach the semifinals.

And Wednesday, he took an interesting approach to a question about how he feels about potentially facing Brazil in the second round. U.S. manager Bruce Arena sidestepped the query, saying only that he hopes he gets the opportunity to face the Brazilians. However, Dujkovic took the opportunity to critique Brazil's play, talk about how the Black Stars would match up and take one more veiled shot at the Americans.

"Facing Brazil, well, you know the Ghana Black Stars have a nickname, the Brazil of Africa," he said. "So that will be a great match, two Brazilians."

Will it be a great match?

We'll see.

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.