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Jun 14, 2014

Ghana laying low ahead of U.S. clash

The strongest connection between Ghana and the United States was formed in 1961. That's when Ghana became the first recipient of Peace Corps volunteers after unrest in the latter stages of the Kwame Nkrumah regime. Since then, the relationship between the countries has revolved around cocoa, which Ghana exports to the U.S., and to a much lesser degree, football. Among the sport's traditional rivalries, theirs is one of the most unusual, not least because the perceived underdog holds the upper hand. Ghana and the U.S. have only faced each other twice on the football field, both times in World Cup matches, both times in eliminators, and both times Ghana have won.

In 2006, they beat the U.S. in a group stage match that saw the Americans exit the tournament. In 2010, it was in the round of 16, when Ghana needed an extra time winner to progress to the quarterfinals. That they were drawn in the same group in 2014 has provided a delicious prematch dishing up of memories from the past two tournaments and a rare opportunity for an African side to take bragging rights into a big match.

- McIntyre: U.S. firmly focused on Ghana tie

But Ghana's inner circle will be wary not to get swept up in the hype. After all, new-look squads from what they were four years ago will line up to do duty this time, and the stakes are quite different.

Ghana and the U.S. meet in their group opener, which might seem to lessen the urgency for victory but does the opposite. Both will face Germany and Portugal in the remaining two games, and neither are expected to trump their European opposition, so if they harbour hopes of progressing to the knockouts, this match could be the most crucial of the campaign.

The United States' German-coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, has identified earning a win over Ghana as the most important part of the tournament for his team. He likened it to a "six-pointer game" and has focused his preparations on the African team. Klinsmann even remained in U.S. before traveling to Brazil to keep an eye on Ghana's warm-up match against South Korea. He might have been perturbed by what he saw. Ghana ran out 4-0 winners and were powered by a Jordan Ayew hat-trick.

By contrast, Ghana seem a lot less intense in their targeting of the U.S. They had no qualms about holding the final stage of their pre-tournament camp in Miami, where they could easily be watched by their World Cup opposition. Their coach Kwesi Appiah's public statements, while respectful of the "tough" clash he expects against the U.S., have focused more on his own pride at being the first local coach to take Ghana to a World Cup.

Kwesi Appiah hopes to guide Ghana to a third straight win over the United States.
Kwesi Appiah hopes to guide Ghana to a third straight win over the United States.

In fact, his downplaying of what is the most important game of the competition could lead some to think Ghana have been lax in their preparation, and that could be exactly what Appiah wants. Ghana's coach is a meticulous man who is known to map out careful plans, study teams meticulously and devise strategies accordingly. He hides that behind a reserved demeanor which prevents him from engaging in wars of words.

While not all of his players have the same reservations about what they will say -- captain Asamoah Gyan went as far as claiming many of his countrymen "hate" Uruguay's Luis Suarez after the 2010 tournament -- they have followed suit in sticking to the cliched when it comes to their World Cup opener. Gyan has not gone further than calling the U.S. a threat and saying Ghana will attempt to do their best. He doesn't have to say much more than that, given that he was the man who dumped the U.S. out of 2010 with an extra time strike.

Silently simmering ambition is often more dangerous than brash boasting, and Ghana seem to be taking that route as they prepare to meet the U.S. That does not mean they have not done their homework or that they will not be ready. Appiah will not let them get away with any of that, especially because most of it would have been up to him to do.

Only six of Ghana's squad played in the 2010 edition of the tournament, while only four U.S. players were part of the outfit that lost to them. Research would have been essential. It also means a lot of fresh faces and new ideas. And another generation of players to continue building a relationship that now goes beyond foreign policy and chocolate and has ventured onto the sports field.