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Sports Features of Sunday, 28 May 2006

Source: Steve Wilson (ESPNSoccernet)

First chance to shine for Black Stars

That Ghana have previously never competed at a World Cup finals is an anomaly that has been waiting to be corrected for nearly half a century since they became affiliated to FIFA in 1958.

Only Egypt, after their 2006 success on home soil, have won more African Nations titles than the Black Stars, four times the pride of Africa.

Yet despite being a major force in continental football in the 60s through to the 80s - their four titles came in 1963, 1965, 1978 and 1982 - the natural progression to the world stage faltered due to internal mismanagement and a failure of the football authorities in the country to capitalise on the platform created by impressive showings at youth levels. One of Africa's true football hotbeds have deserved better.

Twice Ghana have been crowned world under-17 champions - though accusations of the doctoring of birth certificates has rather tainted those achievements - and a series of big name players have emanated from the West African state, including Osei Koffi, Ben Acheampong, George Hassan and, more recently in the 90s arguably the greatest African footballer of them all, Abedi Pele, three times African player of the year.

Of those promising crop of 'youngsters' only Roma defender Samuel Osei Kuffour has since gone on to greater things, though, injuries notwithstanding, Ghana will go to Germany with one of the fiercest and most gifted midfields ever to come out of Africa.

Kuffour is only recently returned to the national squad after a bust-up with coach Ratomir Dujkovic led to his expulsion and problems in the areas of discipline and team management are an Achilles heal to a talented side.

During the qualifying process four different people held the reins and a poor African Cup of Nations showing, culminating in an embarrassing 2-1 defeat at the hands of unheralded Zimbabwe, even threatens Dujkovic's tenure, despite having the honour being the first to lead the Black Stars to the stage they feel they belong.

Ghana embarked upon their 2006 qualifying process under German coach Ralf Zumdick who left in 2003 to become assistant boss at Hamburg.

His replacement, Mariano Barretto, too, succumbed to a case of home sickness when he left after nine months in charge to take the reins at Maritimo in his native Portugal. Sam Arday was little more than a one-game stopgap before Dujkovic's experience of African football earned him the job.

An unbeaten five-match run-in saw the Serb steer the side safely home to a qualification that had looked unlikely after an embarrassing away defeat to Burkina Faso in their opening group game.

Dujkovic's pedigree in African football is impressive and, ironically, he made his name there by the unlikely achievement of guiding Rwanda to the African Nations finals in Tunisia in 2004 at the expense of Ghana.

A member of the coaching staff when Red Star Belgrade won the European Cup in 1991, the well-travelled manager has also had spells in charge of Venezuela, Myanmar and coached in the United Arab Emirates.

Ghana's true strength lies in midfield. Chelsea's Michael Essien, who became the most expensive African footballer on the planet when he moved from Lyon to Chelsea in 2005 for ?24.4 million, needs little introduction and his no nonsense industry, combativeness and measured distribution will be essential to the side in Germany.

Allied to this, the box-to-box play of captain Stephen Appiah and guile of the youthful Udinese player Sulley Muntari provide a genuine platform for success in Germany.

All three have valuable experience playing at top European clubs, none more so than Appiah. Nicknamed the Tornado due to his seemingly endless reserves of energy, the Fenerbahce man played for eight seasons in Serie A, most notably for Turin giants Juventus, where he married ball-winning prowess with a sharp eye for a pass.

It came as little surprise that Ghana's failure to fulfil genuine title aspirations in Egypt earlier this year coincided with absence from the squad through injury of both Essien and Muntari.

Kuffour's return will add steel and knowhow to a defence that conceded just four goals in ten qualifying matches but it is at the other end where Ghana may struggle.

Any injury or suspension suffered by the Black Star's only real striker of note, Matthew Amoah, would expose the limitations of the squad in this department.

Modena marksman Asamoah Gyan has potential but that may not be enough to breach such experienced defences as Italy, Czech Republic and USA, Ghana's daunting group E opponents this summer.

Amoah recently ended a two-year exile from international football and, after a relatively successful stint at Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem, has joined Bundesliga heavyweights Dorussia Dortmund and so will be eager to prove to his adopted public that the decision to sign him was the right one.

A solid and hardworking side, a lack of genuine width in the team and a penchant for waste in front of goal may prove this talented side's undoing.

The draw for the group stage was far from generous and it would prove an almighty achievement from them to progress from a group with such experienced and established World Cup campaigners.

Dujkovic will be hoping for some helpful results elsewhere, as each side is capable of beating any other in a one off encounter, and it prove to be the case that a win and a draw could end up being enough to reach the knock-out stages.

Those expectant and recently success starved supporters who have waited so long to reach their first finals will be praying that the Black Stars continue to shine for just a few weeks longer.