Going into the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the Black Stars had an identity. Their play revolved around six core players who were at the top of their game. You asked a fan on the street to name a starting XI and more than likely Stephen Appiah, Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, John Mensah, Richard Kingson and John Pantsil would roll off their tongues. We had a style of play and a formation (4-4-2) that worked. Our strength was our midfield and in defense we knew our limitations. Goal scoring was a problem but our midfielders made up for what our strikers lacked. In a tight game, you could count on magic from Appiah and the drive of Essien. We surprised many by coming out of a tough group losing only to eventual winners, Italy. Our success has raised expectations in Ghana. Being the first African World Cup, there is a deep yearning across the continent to see its representatives go far. Our unexpected appearance in the final of the African Cup of Nations earlier this year has further increased expectations.
Their maiden appearance was marked by stability, this year’s Black Stars is marked by change. It helps when a team has obvious traits or players you can point to as being at its core. Less than eight weeks to the tournament and we have no clue who are going to be at the heart of the team.
Michael Essien is injured and is struggling to be passed fit. His recent indications that he might miss the Cup don’t inspire confidence. If he does, Ghana’s chances of making an impact and carrying the aspirations of many Africans diminish. Mensah has battled with injuries throughout the season. Much like Tottenham’s Ledley King, he reportedly skips practices but plays in games. Is that sustainable and can he string together three games in a row in the space of a week and a half? Essien’s play in Germany was critical and his absence in the second-round game against Brazil was felt. At this level, you need at least one player of a certain class. Yet, the Stars’ inspiration and creativity undoubtedly came from Appiah. He is a born leader. But is the man who hasn’t played club football in two years going to be selected? In what role? Without him, who leads? The mantle falls on Essien but he has appeared a reluctant leader when thrust into that role. He retreats in the face of all the attention that comes with being the most recognizable face on the team.
This version of the team has many questions but few definitive answers. Perhaps the uncertainty will temper the expectations and the Black Stars will assume the underdog role they thrive in. The enthusiasm of the younger players may make up for the lack of experience and with the tactical discipline Serbian coach Milovan Rajevac demands, the Black Stars may once again shock the world and go one better. Or is this more a wish than a prediction?
NB: This is a longer piece I did for acceptance into the Guardian’s fan network during the World Cup.