The first African nation to secure their ticket for the upcoming 2010 FIFA World Cup™, Ghana have set themselves the simple if ambitions goal of “creating history in South Africa, on our continent”. The declaration came from Eric Addo, one of the mainstays of the team, during an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
Beaten in the final of the CAF African Cup of Nations earlier this year by a clinical Egyptian side, the Black Stars are in the process of confirming their enormous potential and are ready to put Addo’s words into action. Indeed, the former PSV Eindhoven star, asked to drop back into a central defensive role by coach Milovan Rajevac, believes that the current crop of Ghana players are even better than those that qualified for Germany 2006.
The country’s recipe for success relies on two vital ingredients – youthful starlets from the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup-winning team and experienced campaigners sprinkled throughout the top European leagues. This complementary mix has resulted in the creation of a strong, skilful side, capable of combining flair with efficiency.
“One of the first things the coach wanted to do was bring a bit more balance to our game,” explains Addo. “He didn’t change our style of play but just emphasised a more defensive approach. We’re now a bit more involved all over the pitch – everyone’s aware of the importance of defending from the front, everyone shares in the work.”
The Serbian coach, successor to Frenchman Claude Le Roy, has spoken previously about this change in mentality, describing its origins to FIFA.com in March, in the context of Ghana’s African Cup of Nations campaign: “I believe in winning football. In tournaments you have to get results, that is what is important for me and the rest of the team. We had to decide on what we wanted to do; whether we wanted to be entertainers or win our matches.”
Solidarity and unity
And win their matches they did. With a defence that had suddenly turned itself into a locked fortress, they gained successful results in the first four matches of the concluding FIFA World Cup qualifying round, before eventually slipping up against Benin in a match that would not count against them in the final analysis.
Paradoxically, it was in the preceding round that the west Africans struggled the most, only progressing to the next stage on goal difference ahead of Gabon and Libya, in a group that also contained Lesotho. “There’s no doubt that Ghana has become the team to beat again on our continent. When you have big names in your team like we do, it provides increased motivation to your opponents. When you travel to places like Lesotho, it can be tricky – you have to keep a very clear head. These types of matches are really difficult, so that stage in the qualifying competition was quite useful for us as a group. We learned a lot and pulled together to get through,” says Addo, who started two matches for Ghana in Germany four years ago.
As far as the Roda JC defensive midfielder is concerned, mental strength is one of the major assets of a squad that has been found wanting in this department in the past. “There’s a great feeling of solidarity and unity among the players. For many of us, we’ve been together since 2006, we know each other better now and fight for each other. We’ve got more experience – this will be our second World Cup in a row. In my opinion, this team is better than the last one. Many of our players have really come on, and reaching the final of the African Cup of Nations reassured us about how good we really are.”
Experience is everything
“The 2008 Nations Cup on our home patch was a huge disappointment. Our fans’ expectations were sky-high and we were extremely confident in the run-up. Thankfully, we kept a positive outlook after we were eliminated and shifted our focus to the World Cup qualifiers. After all, we’ve all had letdowns in our club careers, so we were able to put it behind us and look forward," continues the six-time Dutch title-winner.
It was because of this very ability to rationalise and help young players through challenging periods that Rajevac began to place increased responsibility on the shoulders of his veterans. “He expects a lot from his experienced servants like me and others. We have a crucial role,” reveals Addo, again echoing the words of his coach, that “experience is valuable for us. The older players are key to our ambitions. The reality is that, at the World Cup, you need a lot of experience - guys who are going to be able to deal with the pressure.”
It goes without saying, therefore, that the entire Ghanaian nation is on the edge of its seat as regards Michael Essien’s injury and consequent uncertainty surrounding his participation at the South African festival of football. “Michael has always been there for the team, so for him not to make it would be a big loss for us. We’d have to try to offset it by making our group even more close-knit. I hope that we’ll all be at peak fitness and raring to go. If that’s the case, we have a chance to create some waves at the tournament, because we’re a great team, assured and aware of our strengths," says Addo, frustrated by his repeated presence on the Roda bench since his return from international duty in January.
But this slight disappointment has only added to his determination to do well this summer: “I’ll be as ready as ever for the World Cup – at least I feel fresh, both physically and mentally.”