Everything Africa, from Algeria to Zimbabwe
“It’s going to be a massive moment in my career,” said Gareth Barry after it was announced that he will captain England against Ghana tonight.
The statement applies not only to Barry. It is also a massive moment for the entire West African nation, as Ghana prepare to face England for the first time ever at senior level.
On an historic occasion, Ghana will play their first match under the bright lights of Wembley. With it, the Black Stars will aim to become the first African nation to beat England, who remain unbeaten in sixteen games against African opposition ahead of their clash with the team ranked 16th in the world.
In terms of whetting the public’s appetite for what should be an intriguing game, Fabio Capello’s decision to release five players who would otherwise be considered important team members is not ideal. Conveniently, only after all tickets were sold was it announced that John Terry, Wayne Rooney, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Michael Dawson would be omitted from the fixture.
But if anyone in the FA’s marketing department was concerned that would dampen enthusiasm for the game they needn’t have worried. 20,000 plus fans will cheer Ghana on regardless – the largest away following of any nation since the new Wembley opened.
"A lot of Ghanaians have travelled from America, Canada, from around the world,” said Ghana football great Stephen Appiah. “It's a dream come true. It's huge.”
The decision to rest Terry, Rooney and co. has if anything only heightened Ghana’s desire to triumph. "It's like they are underrating the game," stated Appiah. While it would be overstating it to suggest that the England game is considered more important than Ghana’s 3-0 African Cup of Nations qualifying win in Congo last weekend, when you consider for example that over 100 Ghanaian journalists applied for accreditation at Wembley, as opposed to less than 10 for the game in Brazzaville, one begins to get an idea as to where the perceived glamour lies.
This is partly down to old colonial associations that would require an entirely new column to discuss. But to put it simply, Ghana loves English football. The Premier League is the most watched league. Two Ghanaian Premier League clubs take their names from English teams – Berekum Arsenal and Berekum Chelsea, who currently top the table. From Accra to Sekondi, every week supporters tune in - and not just to see how the Ghanaian contingent is faring – five of whom are in the squad for Wembley.
There is therefore a huge desire amongst Ghanaians to see their Black Stars beat England.
Turning to matters on the pitch, it seems a curious quirk that England would rest so many stars against a team that, at face value, should be considered high profile. Lest we forget, these are World Cup quarter-finalists we’re talking about. One wonders if England v Argentina or England v Brazil would have elicited such an approach from Capello.
Ghana go into the game high on confidence. Despite the departure of Milovan Rajevac, the Serbian coach who pioneered them to within a whisker of a World Cup semi final, this is a youthful and vibrant Ghana side – a team very much on the up as their rise in the world rankings suggests.
Since defeat to Uruguay at Soccer City, Ghana have played six, won three, drawn two and lost one. The tactics are slightly different under new coach Goran Stevanovic – again a Serb. Greater emphasis is placed on attack than under Rajevac, whose tactical scrutiny and meticulous attention to detail produced a side that gave very little away defensively.
Stevanovic is fortunate however. The greatest strings in his bow have had little to do with his own coaching influence. Ghana are growing organically. Experiences both pleasurable and painful have created close bonds within the camp and a real sense of harmony reigns.
“The atmosphere in our camp is amazing,” said Sunderland’s John Mensah. “We all sing together, African music, songs from our childhood in Ghana. “We fought hard and worked hard as a team [at the World Cup], we played like brothers.”
Seven players in the squad to face England were also in Ghana’s Under-20 World Cup winning squad of 2009 (contrastingly, not one of the England U-20s from that tournament is involved here). The current Black Stars are enthusiastic and spirited, wide-eyed and optimistic. “Everybody is expecting something positive,” said Asamoah Gyan, a major personality himself.
Another aspect totally out of Stevanovic’s control but that benefits him directly is Ghana’s blossoming strike partnership of Prince Tagoe and Dominic Adiyiah. They currently play together at Partizan Belgrade and have contributed three goals in Ghana’s last two games.
Ghana have plenty to offer in midfield with the tenacity and craft of Anthony Annan, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu (keep an eye on this highly promising youngster), playmaker Kwadwo Asamoah, Sulley Muntari and Andre Ayew. Any combination of this quintet would cause England problems.
It is at the back however where the Black Stars may struggle – particularly in wide areas. For this reason Matt Jarvis’ England debut could come at just the right time, while Ashley Young – fresh from twisting the blood of a Welshman or two – will be a threat. In the meantime John Mensah won’t have too many fond memories of Andy Carroll while David Addy – if selected as he was against Congo – is still learning.
England have won 11 of 16 games against African opposition, but the game against Ghana is a real test for Capello’s side, especially if he experiments. A strong away support, huge incentive for victory and the feeling that England are ‘disrespecting’ their opponents, combined with what is an energetic, intelligent, skilful and charismatic side mean England must avoid getting complacent.
After all, the last time England played a Ghana side involving Adiyiah, Agyemang-Badu and Ayew was at the Under-20 World Cup in 2009. Ghana won 4-0.
The challenge has been set.
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