Black Stars shine on debut
With the rest of their continental colleagues bowing out early on, Ghana gave the whole of Africa reason to cheer at Germany 2006.
The four-time African champions (1963, 1965, 1978 and 1982) and two-time U-17 world champions won many admirers with a sparkling first appearance at the FIFA World Cup. Ghana enjoyed a thoroughly successful debut, beating both the Czech Republic and the USA - two sides who had entered the finals ranked in the world's top ten - and losing only to future winners Italy in the group stage (0-2) and title-holders Brazil in the Round of 16 (0-3).
Few would have predicted such an outcome after Ratomir Dujkovic's men were drawn in one of the competition's toughest groups, so they can feel satisfied at their display, not to mention optimistic about the challenges that lie ahead. Heading that list is the CAF African Cup of Nations they are due to host in 2008.
Go to the Ghana team page
"I'm really proud of my players," reflected Dujkovic afterwards. "They fought hard and got further than they were ever expecting. I think the whole world will learn to respect Ghanaian football, and that's exactly what it deserves. There are so many good players in this country it would have been unfair and unthinkable not to see them at a senior World Cup after so many appearances at youth level.
"The 2008 Cup of Nations will be yet another test and it will confirm all the work that's been happening in what nobody should forget is a big football nation. I believe that with a bit more rigour, and the support of officials who know what they want, Ghana will take their place among the best teams in Africa and break into the world elite."
It is an ambitious vision, but the Black Stars will have to fulfil that promise without the man who masterminded their FIFA World Cup campaign. Dujkovic handed in his resignation after the finals, bringing his two-year tenure to a close. "It was a marvellous tournament that I'll remember all my life," said the 60-year-old. "Ghana wanted me to carry on but other challenges await."
The Black Stars face a voyage into the unknown but they ought to cope admirably if their Germany 2006 experience is anything to go by. Facing Italy in their opening match, Ghana put in a lively performance despite the fact so many of their players were taking their first steps at the highest level.
"For a lot of them, it was maybe the most important game they'd ever played," said midfielder Otto Addo. "And yet we played very well and showed we have what it takes." Given that the Africans came close to equalising on a number of occasions, perhaps the only criticism that could be levelled is at what star man Michael Essien called the team's "recurrent problems in attack".
The forward line had more success in their next outing, however, as Ghana saw off the Czech Republic in utterly convincing fashion. Disciplined and organised at the back, the newcomers struck twice at the other end thanks to strikes from Asamoah Gyan and Sulley Muntari, two of the revelations of the tournament.
Ghana saved their most accomplished display of all for the decisive final Group E match against the United States. Handed the best of starts by Haminu Draman's beautifully-curled effort, the Black Stars dug deep to retake the lead through Appiah's stoppage-time penalty at the end of the first half, a mere two minutes after the Americans had equalised.
They held on comfortably after the break, securing themselves second place in the group ahead of their two victims and generating the first real upset at Germany 2006. Just as significantly, their exploits also ensured at least one African presence in the knockout stage.
Nonetheless, that victory over the USA came at a heavy cost, exposing as it did the Ghanaians' inexperience when threatened with suspension. Booked soon after kick-off, highly-influential midfielder Essien was unavailable for the Round of 16 clash with Brazil, and his colleagues struggled to cope. "I think Michael Essien's absence was a loss for the team, but I couldn't do anything about it," noted Dujkovic afterwards.
"We also had real worries up front, where we needed someone capable of keeping a defence busy and, more importantly, scoring goals. We made do with the resources at our disposal and I think we did what we had to do at this World Cup." Many would say the Black Stars did more than that of course, and fans of the global game are certain to be following the progress of this exciting young side in the years to come.