All Set For Big Kick-Off
With barely three days to the start of the 18th edition of the World Cup in Germany, all 32 countries have rounded off preparations with series of matches.
Seven countries will be making their debut at fooball's showpiece event including four from Africa. Ghana, Angola, Cote d'Ivoire and Togo plus, Serbia and Montenegro, Trinidad and Tobago and Ukraine are all first timers.
The Czech Republic are at their first World Cup since Czechoslovakia broke up in 1993 and Serbia and Montenegro are at their first tournament since the former Yugoslavia ceased to exist.
But Ghana, Togo, Angola, Cote d'Ivoire and Ukraine are all making their maiden appearance at the mundial.
Ghana's Black Stars', until their final two warm-up games to the World Cup, had not been that impressive. But they seem to have peaked at the right time before their opening group match against Italy on June 12.
Playing with their full strength in the last three games, the Stars drew 1-1 with Turkey, walloped Jamaica 4-1 and humbled South Korea 3-1in morale-boosting pre-tournament friendlies.
Mathew Amoah pulled a second half equaliser in the match against Turkey while Appiah (scored twice), Suley Muntari and Mathew Amoah were on target in the match against the Reggae Boyz.
And just last Sunday, the Black Stars exhibited their best performance yet, silencing a highly-fancied South Korean side with a 3-1 bashing at Edinburgh, Scotland, before a capacity crowd.
The last two games were Ratomir Dujkovic's best since the build-up to Germany. The team had earlier drawn 1-1 with German club side Stuttgart and were whacked 3-0 by French first division club Nice.
But in spite of the ealier setbacks, the Black Stars cannot afford to disappoint the nation, having received one of the biggest financial motivations yet from corporate Ghana and the state.
Just a couple of weeks ago, government promised a whopping $20,000 to each player as winning bonus in a single match. There were presentations from headline sponsors, Goldfields Ghana Limited, Areeba, Guinness, Stanbic, just to mention a few.
While Ghana was reeling from Dujkovic's outrageous interview and its possible ramifications, the departure of neighbouring countries, Togo and Cote d'Ivoire, was marked by a great deal of funfair.
The Ivorians, in particular, kept vigil ahead of the team's departure while a state dinner was organised for the boys.
Drum-beating and foot-stamping fans thronged the airport in their numbers just to bid their beloved team farewell. The scene was as though Cote d'Ivoire had won the World Cup.
Aside Ghana, the Ivorians remain the brightest spot in the African challenge, although they lost narrowly to Spain 2-3 in their first warm-up match and drawing 1-1 with Switzerland. They were, however, in their right elements last Sunday, whacking Slovenia 3-0 in their last friendly.
Togo, the first team to arrive in Germany, have been on the quiet and appear content with the challenges of local club sides at their base, while Angola lost 2-0 to South American heavyweight Argentina and lost 2-3 to Turkey.
Northern African giant Morocco shocked the US with a lone goal two weeks ago, while former champions France scaled over Mexico with a solitary goal by F. Malouda.
Before losing to Ghana, South Korea beat Bosnia 2-0 and drew 1-1 with Senegal.
Croatia who thrashed Austria 4-1 a couple of weeks ago surprisingly lost 0-1 to Poland after dominating the game.
Paraguay drew 2-2 with Norway, Ecuador tied 1-1 with Columbia, Australia pipped Greece 1-0 and Sweden drew 0-0 with Finland.
An excellent strike by Milan Baros on 15 minutes and a penalty converted by Marek Jankulovski on the stroke of full time gave the Czech Republic a 2-0 victory over group H contenders Saudi Arabia.
A star-studded Spanish side led by Raul Gonzales failed to sparkle against Russia as the two drew blank. The same barren outcome result was the case in the Romania-Colombia encounter.
Manchester United goal poacher Ruud van Nistelrooy capped a fluid performance by scoring the only goal for Holland in their match against African giant Cameroon.
Scandinavian country Denmark managed a 1-1 draw with Paraguay, while one of the biggest casualties was tiny country Luxembourg. They were massacred by hosts Germany 7-0 without player maker Ballack who is nursing an injury sustained during a friendly with an under-18 side.
Favourites Brazil, after mauling a locally-assembled side 8-0, went on to beat Rusia 1-0 in their first serious friendly and completed their preparation with a 4-0 trouncing of Newzealand last Sunday.