In the build-up to every FIFA tournament, regardless of the age level or competition, footballing heavyweights such as Brazil and Germany are invariably classed among the favourites. And though not quite boasting the pedigree of these seasoned campaigners, Ghana are now firmly established in an intriguing sub-group: the dark horses.
The very first edition of the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup is no different, with the Black Maidens harbouring serious hopes of going the distance in New Zealand. And by way of preparation for the challenges ahead, the African side visited the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch, a museum dedicated to the South Pole and the extreme climactic conditions there.
Among the host of attractions the Centre has to offer, Abraham Allotey's young charges particularly enjoyed the Antarctic Storm simulator. Clad in thick jackets to keep out the cold, the gifted Ghanaians trudged through artificial snow while subjected to icy winds and temperatures of 18C below zero.
Given that average temperatures back in their homeland are between 26 and 29C, it proved quite a shock to the system, albeit a thrilling one. "It was a marvellous experience for them," Allotey told FIFA.com. "Most of the girls had never seen snow or penguins before, or experienced a storm like that. It was fun and enriching at the same time."
The eye of that particular storm having passed, Ghana are set to step right into another whirlwind on Wednesday as they open their campaign against Korea DPR at Queen Elisabeth II Park. The first nation to book their place at New Zealand 2008, having triumphed at the AFC U-16 Women's Championship in March 2007, the Koreans have had well over a year to prepare for the showpiece event.
Moreover, the Asian side will be buoyed by their older compatriots' victory at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Russia 2006. Not that Allotey is unduly concerned: " I'm only concerned about how my own team play and they're well-prepared for this great event."
Having booked their place in New Zealand in July 2008 after finishing second behind Nigeria in African qualifying, Ghana have undergone several stages of pre-tournament preparations to ensure they hit the ground running. The first stage was a tour of Germany in September, during which captain Mercy Miles had this to say: "We have to go to New Zealand with the desire to achieve something over there. You always need to set your sights high and we'll then try to hit those heights."
The two-week sojourn on European soil proved a welcome boost for everyone involved with Ghana, as Miles and Co appeared to improve with every game. Since sealing qualification only five minutes from time in their all-important final qualifier against Cameroon, the young Africans have gone from strength to strength. "Qualifying was in itself an incredible feat for our team," says Allotey. "We're here now aiming to gain experience but also to leave our mark on the tournament and give a good impression of Ghanaian football."
With that in mind, the Black Maidens also made a pre-competition stop-off in Australia. "We wanted to prepare in advance for the conditions we were going to find here," says the coach as the interview drew to a close. "We needed to get used to the time difference and the climate. Since then we've felt right at home and we're just waiting for one thing: to get the tournament started!"