If there is an inspirational story to come out of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations, it has to be the emergence of a youthful and tenacious Ghana side, whose performances in Angola have won hearts and sent warnings through the continent that the Black Satellites have become fully fledged Black Stars.
Riddled by injury in the run-up to the tournament, coach Milovan Rajevac and his team have since had to deal with losing inspirational midfielder Michael Essien after he made a brief appearance at the biennial event. As a solution, the Serb-born coach has turned to a nucleus of players from the Satellites that made history by winning the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt three months ago. Though they still have their highest mountain to climb on Sunday when they meet clinical and enterprising continental champions Egypt in the final, Ghana have already achieved more than anyone expected.
Holding their nerve
While nobody is too surprised that the Egyptians are playing for their third consecutive CAN, the young Ghanaians started the tournament as outsiders compared to the likes of Cameroon and Côte d'Ivoire. They had a shaky start - the Ivorians brushed them aside 3-1 in their opener - but the team showed remarkable confidence in winning their next three matches by the score of 1-0. And all were impressive.
Shrugging off the defeat to the Elephants, they beat Burkina Faso to advance from Group B when a draw would have seen them eliminated. And their two knockout wins, over Angola in front of a demanding home crowd and against their more experienced regional rivals Nigeria, proved them to be remarkably solid at the back and determined all around. Irrespective of the results at the 11 November Stadium in Luanda on Sunday, Ghana will have achieved much in reaching their eighth Cup of Nations final, though clearly the Black Stars have proven that they are capable of grinding out a result.
We have been enjoying ourselves and our football. I think we have done very well in this tournament. Most of the guys are hungry. They were presented with an opportunity and they grabbed it.
They're playing with a level of confidence that the players are clearly enjoying. It has been apparent in the play of both veterans like Asamoah Gyan, scorer of three of Ghana’s four goals, and goalkeeping stalwart Richard Kingson, as well as the younger players like Andre Ayew, Samuel Inkoom, Lee Addy, Emmanuel Agyemang Badu and Agyemang Opoku.
Ayew, the son of Ghanaian legend Abedi Pele (who was part of Ghana's last Nations Cup-winning squad in 1982), was one of the success stories at the U-20 World Cup, and he scored the winning goal against Burkina Faso. He says the team spirit couldn’t be higher. “We have been enjoying ourselves and our football. I think we have done very well in this tournament. Most of the guys are hungry. They were presented with an opportunity and they grabbed it,” he explained to FIFA.com.
Making Ghana proud
After losing players like Essien, John Mensah, Laryea Kingston, Stephen Appiah and others, Rajevac plugged the holes in his backline with Inkoom, Addy and 21-year-old Issac Vorsah, and they have been mostly cool under pressure. The rapid maturation of the youngsters has repaid the faith of the coach, and in return the boss will have a more mature squad when they are called to duty at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa this summer.
“One must give credit to these boys, they have done well,” said the coach after the 1-0 semi-final win over Nigeria. “They have exceeded all expectations. This is a young team. They were at this tournament to learn, and I think most of them have emerged better players. This has given them priceless exposure to international football and the demands of competing in big tournaments.”
Black Stars keeper, 31-year-old Richard Kingson, is one of the senior members of the team, and he also heaped praise on his young team-mates. “When the tournament started, most of the guys were a bit nervous, and that is expected when you have a young team. But they have adjusted and adapted well. From time to time, I have to shout some instructions because they are young and nerves might have the better of them. But they have made Ghana proud.”
They will try make Ghana even happier against an equally confident Egyptian team fresh off a 4-0 beating of Algeria in the semi-finals. The North Africans are trying to extend their 18-match unbeaten streak in the Cup of Nations and also win their seventh continental trophy.