For the second consecutive major tournament, after the CAF Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year, Ghana have exceeded expectations, and they now stand on the brink of making African football history. The Black Stars, playing in just their second FIFA World Cup™ after Germany 2006, are a win over Uruguay away from becoming the first African team to reach the semi-finals of the tournament.
In January they went to the final of the continental championship despite using a team largely built around players from last year's FIFA U-20 World Cup winning squad after a devastating run of injuries cost them half of the regular team. Again in the run-up to South Africa, many wrote off the side after the loss of midfield talisman Michael Essien to injury, but coach Milovan Rajevac has still managed to build a unit that is solid, difficult to beat and good on the ball without being overly fussy. Along the way he has won plaudits for his tactics and team-building, and Ghana have proven themselves the most strategic and promising side on the continent.
Right coach for the right team
Ghana captain Stephen Appiah told FIFA that Rajevac, who took over the team in 2008, had won over the team with his preparation and mentality. "Tactically our coach is very smart," he said about the Serb. "He's always watching videos of the opposing team. I've seen some games that with the smallest mistake you concede a goal and you can be out of the tournament. So, he keeps on telling us that we have to be careful about how we defend, and if we get the chance to attack, then we should attack. And it shows in the games. You can see that we always score one goal – and that’s it!"
Ghana's run to the final of the AFCON was marked by three consecutive 1-0 victories with the two winners in the knockout rounds scored by Asamoah Gyan, who has found the net three times in South Africa as well – including decisive strikes against Serbia and the US. Gyan explained that the team had learned to trust the 56-year-old's choices, and he also credited him with helping the team to build positive energy.
"I think sometimes he does something strange that you, as a player, don't understand. But when you go to the game, it happens [how he said]," said Gyan about a coach without big-name club or international experience. "He's very calm, and he's not so strict. We Africans, we don't like strict coaches. Football is not about fighting, it's about enjoying yourself and making sure you do your best. So I think we are coping well with the coach. Because tactically he's good and everything that he does works on the field."
Captain of the U-20 World Cup-winning side, Andre Ayew, also praised the way the team has been put together. "I think this is one of the best decisions the coach took: to mix such players, the older ones and the very young ones," said the son of Ghana legend Abedi Pele. "You have the energy of the younger ones and you have the experience from the older ones."
Another surprise for Uruguay?
Against the US, Rajevac surprised many by starting one of those U-20 players, Samuel Inkoom, on the right side of midfield. The Switzerland-based player was a revelation in Angola earlier this year, but he had not played a single minute in the tournament before the crunch clash with the Americans. However, his pace and energy were constant thorns in the vulnerable US left flank and helped open space for the other midfielders in the 2-1 extra-time victory. With Ayew suspended and some injury concerns over starting players, there is speculation that Rajevac could spring yet another selection shock.
"We'll see how we'll manage it," said the cagey but down-to-earth coach, "We have 23 players and they can all play. They're here because they deserve to be here. They're all excellent players... we'll see who we can put in the game [on the day]. The injured players will be replaced by healthy ones. One thing is for sure, it'll be our 11 against their 11."
Although, like his team, he appears the picture of calm, Rajevac admitted to being somewhat caught up in the emotion of the moment. "We're part of history now, all of us in Ghana, because this is the first time that Ghana has reached this level. And if we make it into the last four teams in the World Cup, it would be the first time for an African nation. Can it be more motivating than that?"