A team known for their relaxed and musical atmosphere, Ghana were singing a sombre song after going out to Uruguay on penalties in the quarter-final of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Most of the players struggled to contain their sadness, but there was nevertheless a definite streak of optimism within the Black Stars' camp – one bursting with promise.
Ghana were the continent's only representatives in the knockout phase for the second FIFA World Cup running, and they joined Cameroon of 1990 and Senegal of 2002 as the only African sides to have reached the last eight.
“It's a very difficult moment,” Ghanaian legend Abedi Pele, whose son Andre Ayew was a revelation at this year's CAF Africa Cup of Nations as well as here in South Africa, told FIFA. “But we have to take the feeling and build for the future. We have very young players. So I have always been targeting 2014 in Brazil. We should have a very strong team there.”
It was a sentiment echoed by coach Milovan Rajevac, who took over the side in 2008 and led them to the final of Angola 2010, which they lost to Egypt. “The team definitely has an exciting and bright future, and that's the main thing for Ghanaian football,” said the Serbian, who included 16 players aged 25 or under in his 23-man squad.
“There are a lot of good young players, so they already have a core of a team for 2014. And although the way we lost was painful and shocking in the end, this will be great experience for the players and they have a lot of potential to achieve great things.”
Rajevac was rightfully proud of his team, who emerged from a difficult Group D ahead of Serbia and Australia before beating USA 2-1 in the Round of 16. Asamoah Gyan was the hero that night with the extra-time winner, but his 2010 is likely to be remembered for a penalty miss with the last kick of the game - one that would have sent the Black Stars into the semi-finals. The 24-year-old Rennes player did firmly establish himself as the fulcrum of the attack after three goals, however, and he insisted that he “would bounce back.”
But the true strength of the west Africans was their organisation, patience and coolness. They were comfortably the most composed African team with the ball, and while their ability to hold a lead wasn't as evident as it was in Angola, they gave as good as they got against the likes of Germany, USA and Uruguay.
The late addition of Germany-born Kevin-Prince Boateng was a masterstroke by Rajevac, who needed the strength in midfield with the loss of Michael Essien before the tournament. Bemoaning his team's misfortune after the loss to La Celeste, Rajevac admitted the presence of the Chelsea man may have made a difference.
“Maybe we were missing some small thing, maybe if Essien were here,” he said, before adding: “Missing a penalty like that can happen to anyone. Uruguay were luckier. I feel sorry for the people of Ghana, they supported us a lot. I am proud of our players but sad because we were unlucky in the final of the Cup of Nations as well.”
But youth and promise are the themes for Ghana, who won Africa's first FIFA U-20 World Cup at the end of last year. Even without Essien, the midfield looks likely to develop into one of the best in the world. Along with Ayew - suspended against Uruguay - and Boateng, Anthony Annan and Kwadwo Asamoah look set to combine into a skilful but rugged group. The dynamic Samuel Inkoom also proved he could be just as good on the right side of midfield as in his normal right-back position.
Veteran Stephen Appiah, who converted a penalty in the shoot-out against Uruguay, was full of praise for the younger generation in the team. “[They're] fantastic,” he said. “They won the youth championship, and you can see that there is something in these guys – they are not scared. They are hungry, they are starving, they want to prove a point. I think it’s a big [group] for Ghana because we have up and coming players who are really coming to take our positions.”