THE BLACK STARS WERE PERCEIVED TO BE A WIDE-EYED GROUP AT THEIR FIRST WORLD CUP, IN GERMANY IN 2006. THOUGH THEY ADVANCED TO THE SECOND ROUND, THE 3-0 DRUBBING THEY took at the feet of Brazil left the impression that Ghana had a long way to go to before it could compete with the traditional powers.
Here's another way to view the events of 2006: The Black Stars were so talented that, despite their inexperience, they advanced from a group that included Italy, the Czech Republic and the U.S., all considered surer bets to reach the second round.
Four years later Ghana might be even more talented, with an added dose of savvy that comes only from having experienced the World Cup firsthand. That, and an influx of skilled youngsters from the Ghanaian squad that won the 2009 Under-20 World Cup (defeating none other than Brazil in the final), makes the Black Stars a dark-horse pick to reach the quarterfinals.
Given all the talent on the roster, it's surprising that the Black Stars have not been able to find a striker pairing to complement their superb midfield. No matter how much Michael Essien and Co. control the flow of the game from the middle of the pitch, if 29-year-old Matthew Amoah, who was the team's leading scorer in qualifying, or 24-year-old Asamoah Gyan of Rennes in France—or another starter yet to be named—doesn't convert on his chances, Ghana will fall short of expectations. The wild card in this unit is Dominic Adiyiah, the 20-year-old who starred at the U-20 World Cup, winning the Golden Shoe and being voted most valuable player after scoring eight goals in seven games. He transferred to AC Milan in January, and though he has yet to break out at the San Siro, his skills are undeniable.
The greatest source of Ghanaian optimism derives from the trio of Essien, Sulley Muntari and captain Stephen Appiah. Spain's midfield might be better, and so might Brazil's, but few other countries can claim to have as much talent roaming the center. Essien, the Chelsea star, is the engine that drives the team; his vision and tactical awareness are matched by few other players. Muntari, an Inter Milan stalwart, is a dangerous flanker, and Appiah, currently with Bologna, is a true box-to-box midfielder. The fourth man in the unit is likely to be 23-year-old Anthony Annan, who plays in Norway. He is considered a younger version of Essien and will be scouted in South Africa by the biggest European clubs. The midfield backups are even younger than Annan—20-year-old André Ayew and 19-year-old Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu—but both showed well at the Africa Cup of Nations in January, filling in for Essien and Appiah and displaying skill and verve that presage bright futures.
John Pantsil (Fulham) and John Mensah (Sunderland) are Premiership veterans and the anchors of the defense. But Mensah has battled a back injury that left him unable to train for Sunderland between games. He is expected to play in the World Cup, but if the grind of group play aggravates the injury, the Black Stars will sorely miss him.
Among the players who could see their reputations rise in South Africa is Samuel Inkoom. The right back is dangerous going forward and seems ready to make the jump from FC Basel in Switzerland to a bigger club in England or France. Goalkeeper Richard Kingson, 31, plays for Wigan Athletic in England and, while not a star, is a veteran of the 2006 World Cup and good enough to win with, given the talent in front of him.