Wednesday, May 10, 2006

#29: Black Stars


Where? Western Africa, facing south, directly between fellow qualifiers Togo and Cote d'Ivoire.

How Big? Decent size. About the size of Oregon in space (or Great Britain, if you'd prefer). Population is a little bit bigger than Texas.

Something interesting about Ghana I didn't know before reading the CIA Factbook? A meta-answer here... The entry for Ghana says that Lake Volta, formed by damming the Volta River in Ghana, is the world's largest artificial lake. It looks pretty big, but I had a feeling something didn't seem right about that. Turns out, there are several artificial lakes that people online claim to be the world's largest. Lake Volta covers 8,500 square kilometers. Another one claiming to be the largest is Lake Nasser in Egypt, created by the Aswan Dam, but it comes in only at 5,250 square kilometers. Another site says that the Owen Falls Dam, which monitors the flow of Lake Victoria into the Nile, creates the world's largest lake, but I think that's not right - Lake Victoria is a natural lake, with the flow harnessed. Then there's the Three Gorges Dam's reservoir in China, the size of which has yet to be determined, but could end up surpassing all of them, either in size or volume. In any event, there appears to be debate on this topic, but the CIA Factbook offers no qualifications. Is the intelligence provided here a "slam dunk"?

Anything important geopolitically? Ghana is a little bit better off than some of its neighbors, thanks to more plentiful natural resources, specifically gold. Those resources and a relatively stable (for the region at least) government for the last 25 years (by that I mean no coups d'etat -and a reasonably fair and free election in 2000) have made Ghana a bright spot in Western Africa. It has had problems with refugees from neighboring Cote d'Ivoire however.

Any other interesting things? Child movie star Shirley Temple Black grew up and became the United States Ambassador to Ghana in the early 1970s.


Alright, before I lose all credibility about this preview, let me start with a gigantic disclaimer: I do not think Ghana is the 29th best team in this tournament. In fact, I probably think that if I were rating based solely on how good I think the team is, I'd probably put them in the top 15 - and I'd predict them to advance in probably 5 of the 8 groups. Unfortunately, Ghana was drawn with three other teams I consider in the top 15 - but each of which has much more experience. So don't discount this team. The ranking above is solely based on how I think they'll actually perform in the tournament.

So their history... Well, like everyone else before them, Ghana is a rookie in the World Cup. However, unlike the previous teams, Ghana has a pretty good reputation. Only Egypt has won the African Nations Cup more than Ghana.

Ghana were considered second-favorites in their qualifying group, only behind South Africa. But it turned out that Ghana lapped the field. They lost their first match at Burkina Faso, but then returned home and whipped South Africa 3-0. Ghana didn't lose again, drawing only at Uganda and home and away to DR Congo. Probably the single most impressive win for an African team during qualification was Ghana's 2-0 win at Jo'burg, which pushed Ghana to the top of the table and into a nearly unassailable position.

Unlike any of the teams we've covered before, Ghana is loaded with top-flight European professionals. Even role players on this side play competitively in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, France, Russia, Greece, Turkey and England. There are three bonafide superstars in the lineup too. Samuel Kuffour is the veteran defender, now playing for AS Roma but best known for his days at Bayern Munich. The captain is Stephen Appiah, most recently playing defending midfielder for Fenerbahce in Istanbul, but previously making the XII for Juventus and recently linked to a move to Arsenal.

But above all others, and perhaps above anyone else in Group E, the one to watch is Michael Essien, a consistent midfielder for Chelsea. He's pretty big, very strong, and not afraid to mix it up in the midfield to take back possession. Kind of an enforcer. Put it this way: if Bobby Convey or DaMarcus Beasley were to cross it up with him, bones could be broken.

It's a dangerous team with plenty of experience playing Continental football. I think it could be one of the more interesting teams to watch, even though my prediction for them isn't great.

They open with Italy, a huge trap game for the Azzurri. I see Ghana going up early, forcing the Italians to actually play some offense. A late penalty goes against Ghana, and a garbage time goal on counterattack make the final score an undeserved 2-1 loss. It's a result that on its own is bad, but also causes the other opponents to pay close attention and not treat Ghana lightly.

And the Czech Republic does just that in Cologne. It's a massively partisan crowd against Ghana, and (for reasons to be suggested later) the Czechs are desperate. Milan Baros scores twice in the opening half, scooting behind the defense when the strong defenders focus on Koller. However, Appiah stuns Cech (who isn't having the tournament we all thought he would) with a shot from just outside the box. The Czech's bear down and the game grinds to a halt, until in extra time a long played ball in the corner gets crossed perfectly to Koller (who shouldn't have been in the game at the time). 3-1 Czech Republic.

In Ghana's final game, the US needs a big victory. But Ghana's midfield toughly slows down anything the US tries to do. At halftime, neither team has scored. The US grows desperate, and the game opens up some as it moves on. Donovan scores from a free kick just outside the box after a rough (and carded). The US keeps pushing forward, finally connecting a cross with Eddie Johnson in the 88th minute. In extra time, however, Ghana counters and Matthew Amoah slips past Cherundolo and scores. Will it matter? 2-1 USA.

So Ghana won't win or draw a game, but I think they make life difficult for all three opponents, and may end up playing kingmaker in terms of who advances. This is not a team to sleep on, and they will play tough. The USA may have actually gotten an advantage by not playing them earlier. Recuperating from a Ghana match could hurt Italy or the Czech Republic. 0-0-3, -4 goal differential, 3 goals scored.

If Ghana were a college basketball team and the World Cup were March Madness: I'd say they'd be like George Mason this year, but without the upsets. Big, tough, physical. They get this close to knocking someone off, but a buzzer beater swings things the other way (like Winthrop-Tennessee).

Perhaps the national team would have gotten better results had they not been ordered by President Kuffour to wear togas on the pitch.