Top-flight success is a taste not easily forgotten, something the young ladies of Ghana’s U-20 women’s national team can testify to.
Two years ago in Germany, the Black Princesses surpassed all expectations by making their debut appearance at the finals of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup 2010. Despite a group-stage exit, they performed creditably and left with their heads held high, determined to secure another tilt at international glory.
Now, with a tough qualification process behind them, the girls from Ghana have achieved their goal and will soon be packing their bags to join Nigeria as one of two African representatives at Japan 2012.
Their record in the African qualifiers for both Germany 2010 and Japan 2012 is exemplary. Ghana have played ten matches in total (four for Germany and six for Japan) and won them all, proof, if any were needed, of the robust state of the women’s game in their homeland.
Considerable credit must go to their coach Robert Sackey who, as well as being a passionate advocate of the female game, is the founder of the Sabisoccer Academy, which has the long-term goal of raising standards in women’s football.
Speaking to FIFA.com, Sackey explained the significance of his young charges qualifying for the second FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in a row.
“It’s certainly given us a lot of confidence,” the California-based coach said. “It proves that there’s real determination and stability in the side, plus we now have the chance to turn in a better performance than our last outing, which is what everyone wants from us.”
After guiding his team seamlessly through the qualification phase, Sackey’s next challenge was to keep them at peak levels of fitness and performance.
In June, the Black Princesses were confined to a closed training camp with practice matches against fellow Ghanaian youth sides, including the U-17 women and the U-17 and U-15 men. Intensive training sessions continued through July, culminating in two international friendlies against fellow African qualifiers Nigeria in Accra, with the hosts winning the first 3-2 and going down 2-1 in the second.
Sackey was full of praise for their Nigerian opponents and pleased both with the outcome of the matches and his players’ preparations.
Desire and ambition
Ghana’s readiness and confidence will certainly be put to the test in Japan. Drawn in Group D alongside China PR, plus 2004 and 2010 world champions Germany, not to mention the world’s top ranked side and winner of the tournament in 2002 and 2008, USA, the Black Princesses will have to play out of their skins to make it through.
For all that, Sackey remains sanguine: “I believe that being drawn in this group will bring out the best in us. We’re well aware of how strong and well organised the opposition are, and we’ve got the greatest respect for them. They’ve all reached the final at least twice, but then again we’ve got a great team, are well prepared and can cause them problems because quite simply we’ve nothing to lose.”
When asked if Ghana might crumble under the pressure in such a tough group, the coach was adamant that it would play into his side’s hands.
“We know how strong a group this is,” he explained. “But when opponents see you as the weaker side that puts the pressure on them. We are going to be calm and if they run out onto the pitch thinking the game is already won, we’ll fight back fiercely. We won’t be easy pickings.”
Far from worrying about the young Ghana side, Sackey shows huge faith in their ability to deliver exceptional performances.
“I have great hopes for this side,” he enthused. “I don’t rely on a single player to get us through, but on the team as a whole. They’re all extremely talented and I expect every one of them to give 100 per cent.”
“I’m a believer in teamwork,” the coach continued, “and I’ve ensured that all the girls have that team spirit. We all work for the team as a whole.”
But how can Ghana overcome the superior experience of their Group D opponents? For Sackey it comes down to ambition and desire. When asked for his predictions for Ghana at Japan 2012 he had this to say: “Realistically speaking our first ambition is to get to the quarter-finals. If we manage that then of course we’ll be aiming for the trophy.”
“No women’s team from Ghana has ever got beyond the group stages of a FIFA World Cup,” said Sackey. “That’s got to be our priority.”
The coach finished on an optimistic note, saying: “All they need is the incentive to fly the Ghanaian flag high in Japan. I have complete faith that they’re up to that task.”