The youngest team at the tournament, Ghana could hardly afford to lose their midfield talisman Michael Essien to injury. But buoyed by last year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup victory and a CAF Africa Cup of Nations silver medal in January, the Black Stars are hoping their remaining core of veteran players can rally the side to glory here in South Africa.
While all of the players admit that losing the Chelsea superstar leaves a huge hole, they are nonetheless determined to prove that the side have the manpower to replace him in what should be a very trying Group D, alongside Serbia - their first opponents on Sunday in Pretoria - Germany and Australia.
The captain of that Black Stars side, 29-year-old Stephen Appiah, is the usual partner with Essien in the centre of the midfield. He told FIFA that for him and some of the other older members of the squad, the loss of a 'world-class player' was all the worse because of their close friendship. He also said that the team has been in regular contact with the player by phone, but he was careful to balance regret with optimism.
"When you are talking about the Ivory Coast, you talk about [Didier] Drogba. When you talk about Cameroon, you talk about [Samuel] Eto’o, and when you talk about Ghana, you talk about Michael Essien," said Appiah from Ghana‘s camp in Rustenburg, adding: "But in this Black Stars team, even if Michael is not there, someone is there to take his position."
Derek Boateng, a versatile midfielder that could be called in to deputise in the centre as cover, is, like Appiah, one of the few Black Stars that has World Cup experience, gained at their finals debut in 2006 - where Ghana were the only African side to reach the second round. He confirmed to FIFA there was definitely an emotional element to the loss of such a key figure.
"When we heard that he was not playing, we all felt so bad, we were all down. And for us, it’s a very big blow because you cannot replace Michael Essien - as a footballer on the pitch, but he’s also such a strong leader off the field," said the 27-year-old. "When Michael is here, we have more confidence, but all the same, we are looking forward, and he’s supporting the team, his spirit is supporting the team. For me we always have good players, and we are working really, really hard for this tournament."
Lessons from Germany
Two key defensive players, John Pantsil, who turns 29 this week, and 27-year-old John Mensah, said they and the others have been focusing on life without Essien and would be lifted by the desire to play well for their fallen comrade. Both veterans of Germany 2006, they believe that the lessons learned four years ago have seeped down through this edition of the team.
"The experience [of Germany 2006] helped us reach this place," said Mensah, who plays for Lyon in France. "And I think our experience is going to help us to move higher than where we reached in 2006 … I believe this time we are determined, and we believe that we are going to achieve important things in this World Cup."
Pantsil said they have even been playing films of the team’s games from Germany on the Ghana bus in order to get a feel for the level of play. "It’s for everyone to watch how good we were, how fast we were and how determined we were," said the England-based player. "We then all know what task is ahead of us because our group is very tricky."
Appiah, who currently plays with Bologna in Italy, admitted that reaching the second round in 2006 has lifted expectations in Ghana. "Now they want us to get the Cup," he said with a smile before turning serious about the value of having a World Cup under their belt. "Some of the players who were there took a lot of things from that tournament, and we made sure that we are going to repeat it here."
One thing he said they have learned is to take the matches one at a time and be wary about preparations for teams beyond that. "It is going to be a long way, we will take it match after match," he said. "For now we are not even thinking about Australia. We are focusing on Serbia … Everyone is talking about Germany and Australia, but let me tell you I am scared of Serbia because they are aggressive and technically they are good."