Ghana came awfully close to being the first African squad to reach the World Cup semi-finals in 2010, their progress halted by a handball from Uruguay striker Luis Suarez and Al Ain striker Asamoah Gyan’s miss from the resulting penalty.
Gyan is captain this time and Ghana still have the core of the side that eventually lost in a shootout at the 2010 tournament. They’ve set their sights on going a step further in Brazil.
Midfielders Michael Essien and Kevin-Prince Boateng, who both took extended breaks from international duty after 2010, have returned to bring the squad back to full strength.
The Ghana team left South Africa as the toast of the continent four years ago, but have struggled to live up to that promise between the World Cups, losing to Zambia and Burkina Faso in the semi-finals of the 2012 and 2013 African Cup tournaments.
All that casts doubt on whether Ghana are Africa’s best contender in Brazil, particularly with top-ranked African squad Ivory Coast and continental champions Nigeria also in the mix.
And then there’s the opposition in the group stage: Germany, Portugal and the United States.
Kwesi Appiah, a former national team captain who is coaching at his first World Cup, faces a serious challenge just to get Ghana into the second round.
“It’s a tough group but if you’re going out there for a competition then you have to have the ultimate ambition, which is to win it and be prepared for any team you come up against,” Appiah said. “For me, once you’ve gone through the first games and qualified then the confidence levels increase and for that reason you have to have the mentality that you cannot be afraid of anyone.”
Essien and Boateng give Ghana vital big-game experience, with Essien’s form possibly the key. The AC Milan midfielder missed the 2010 tournament with injury and despite his success at club level, some critics aren’t convinced he has fully delivered on his potential for his country.
Arabian Gulf League star Gyan is the team’s leader from the front, and there’s also Juventus midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah, Marseille winger Andre Ayew and young Russia-based Wakaso Mubarak, who was outstanding as an attacking midfielder in the last African Cup of Nations.
Almost all Ghana’s best players play in foreign leagues, making World Cup preparations sometimes problematic. But Appiah sees the experience of the European leagues as an advantage.
“All of my players are at very good clubs so there’s no reason to be cautious,” Appiah said. “We’re going there full of confidence.”
Ghana’s government has pledged nearly $10 million (Dh36m) to help the players’ preparations in Brazil, a small fortune for an African team. The financial injection and the success of 2010 mean very big things are expected this time around.
Michael Essien and Kevin-Prince Boateng are both returning after extended breaks from international football to play for Ghana at the World Cup, and Andre Ayew is also likely to be one of the country’s pivotal players in Brazil.
Ghana narrowly missed becoming the first African team to reach the semi-finals at a World Cup when they lost to Uruguay in the quarter-finals in 2010. The Black Stars had a penalty in extra time, but missed from the spot. Uruguay won in a shootout.
The core of that to team is back for another try.
Here are five players to watch:
Michael Essien – Some Ghanaians have the feeling that Michael Essien owes them.
Often outstanding for European clubs Chelsea, Real Madrid and now AC Milan, the hard-working central midfielder has missed many of Ghana’s big moments recently, including the last World Cup, because of injuries and then his sabbatical.
The 31-year-old Essien returned to the squad last year and his ability to power Ghana’s World Cup challenge from the middle of the field may be crucial to the Black Stars’ hopes of reaching the latter stages.
Kevin-Prince Boateng – Having Kevin-Prince Boateng in the starting line-up has been a rare luxury for Ghana in the four years since the last World Cup.
Boateng made himself unavailable for selection in 2011 and only returned late last year for the end of the qualifying campaign for Brazil, when he was eased back into the team by Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah.
He scored in the last play-off match against Egypt and offers big-game experience from Europe’s top leagues.
A German youth international from Under-15 level, Boateng chose Ghana, his father’s country, at senior level. His brother Jerome plays for Germany, which Ghana will face in the group stage at the World Cup.
Asamoah Gyan – Ghana’s leader from the front, Asamoah Gyan hasn’t always had the happiest time playing for his country.
Gyan missed a crucial penalty in extra time against Uruguay that could have put the Black Stars into the 2010 World Cup semi-finals. He also missed from the spot in the semi-finals of the African Cup in 2012 as Ghana were eliminated.
The 28-year-old forward has taken on the captaincy and often fights a lone battle as Ghana’s solitary striker.
Kwadwo Asamoah – A defender or midfielder, Kwadwo Asamoah is versatile and valuable.
Asamoah plays on the left side of defence or midfield and can also operate as a central midfielder with the ability to push forward and create and score goals.
At 25, the Juventus player already has six years of experience with Ghana and six years in Serie A.
Andre Ayew – The son of Abedi Pele, who is still recognised as Ghana’s best player ever, Andre Ayew comes from the closest thing to Ghanaian football royalty.
The 24-year-old winger has pace and skill and can also play as a second striker, but has sometimes been a troublesome figure in the Ghana setup.
Ayew was excluded from the squad for the last African Cup after failing to report for duty at a pre-tournament training camp.
He has since made up with coach Kewsi Appiah and is one of Ghana’s most creative players.