Go, Ghana - 26th MTN Nations Cup Kicks Off Tomorrow
A Defining moment of Ghana's quest for a record-equalling fifth continental triumph begins with an intriguing game against Guinea at the Ohene Djan Stadium in Accra tomorrow before a sell-out crowd, including Ghana's President John Agyekum Kufuor and FIFA boss Joseph Sepp Blatter.
The high expectation of Ghanaians clashes with the modest ambitions of their opponents who lurk dangerously in the shadows and are ready to play the role of a party-pooper.
Opening matches are as nerve-wracking as they are exciting. The hype that heralds such matches and opening ceremonies condense into an intoxicating atmosphere which hits the roof when the home team wins.
The high expectation of Ghanaians finds expression in the 'host and win' target handed to the Black Stars and is expected to spur them to conquer Africa for a record-equalling fifth time.
That date with destiny begins with a tricky but must-win clash with one of the most talented teams in the tournament and traditional difficult customers for Ghana, dating back nearly four decades.
Tomorrow's game is no ordinary clash. It is a match whose outcome could, to a large measure, determine the shape of the tournament and the success of the host team.
The success of host teams is invariably linked with the results of the opening match. Many host nations have had their title ambitions wrecked as a result of opening match upsets and examples abound in the 51-year history of the Nations Cup, particularly in the last two decades when the tournament became truly African in size and regional in representation.
In the modern era, particularly at the 1990, 1996, 2004 and 2006 tournaments, Algeria, South Africa, Tunisia and Egypt all won their opening matches and went on to win the tournament.
Upsets in the opening matches ruined the hopes of Morocco (1988), Burkina Faso (1998), Senegal (1992) and Mali (2002) all of whom were not real title contenders.
Ghana won the Africa Cup for keeps in 1978 after calling the bluff of Zambia with a 2-1 win in Accra. The country's maiden victory in 1963 got off to a shaky start after a 1-1 draw with Tunisia, but the Stars picked themselves up and conquered the continent on home soil.
The importance of a Ghana victory, therefore, is crucial to the “health” of the tourney; an upset could hurt Ghana's chances and potentially kill off the interest of Ghanaians in subsequent matches.
Tomorrow's game is the 16th international clash between the two countries and is expected to be as tight as previous encounters, the last of which dates back to the 1994 Nations Cup in Tunisia where the Syli Nationale gave the Abedi Pele-led Stars a hard time before crumbling under C.K. Akonnor's 87th minute strike.
Even though Ghana enters the match from a position of strength, having won seven of the previous 16 games as against four wins by the Guineans, most of the matches have ended in slim margins (0-0, 1-0, 1-1, 2-1); it was only during a Nations Cup qualifier in Guinea in April 1985 that Ghana won 4-1 in Conakry.
History, though, serves as a valuable guide to the Stars on what to expect in tomorrow's game, as the Guineans have been Ghana's most difficult opponents since their first clash at the 1970 Nations Cup in Sudan, a game that ended 1-1.
While Ghana may have big-name performers like Michael Essien added to their home advantage, the Guineans have as many skilful players with European experience.
Many of the players, including skipper Pascal Feindouno, Glasgow Celtic's Dianbobo 'Bobo' Balde, Ismael Bangoura and Fode Mansare have previous Nations Cup experience and were part of the teams that reached the quarter-finals at the last two competitions.
Veteran French coach Robert Nouzaret's team are a side not to be taken lightly. The Frenchman, who led Cote d'Ivoire to the quarter-finals of the 1998 Nations Cup, has moulded his talented players into a fine team which qualified as group winners and are unbeaten in their last 10 matches, including a 6-0 hammering of Sudan in a warm-up game last week and a 3-0 away humiliation of Angola two months ago.
The Ghanaian team is still riding on the crest of the Germany 2006 World Cup and under Coach Le Roy, an astute French coach with deep knowledge in African football, the Stars have played 11 full international friendly matches and lost only twice against Brazil and Saudi Arabia.
Le Roy's balance sheet looks positive but home pressure could be a potential hurdle that skipper John Mensah and his team-mates must deal with when the going gets tough.
That pressure showed up against Benin in the final of the Zenith four-nation tournament in Accra, but the Stars showed big-match temperament and cut the Squirrels to size with a gutsy second-half performance.
Home support is key to the team's success tomorrow, and the ability of home supporters to create an intimidating atmosphere for the opponents and a relaxing feeling for the home team is a vital ingredient for victory.
In Appiah's absence, a lot would be expected of Michael Essien, Ghana's top-draw performer, to lift the team to victory. One man does not make a team but one man makes a difference. Essien has what it takes to make that difference in midfield where Ghana draws strength.
Lead striker Asamoah Gyan has taken personal responsibility to lead the charge in attack and score the needed goals, but the real strength of the Stars is the varying scoring options available, with midfielders Sulley Muntari, Laryea Kingson, Nottingham Forest striker Junior Agogo all scoring on various occasions.
Perhaps the best news out of the team's training camp in Abu Dhabi was that new kids on the block Quincy Owusu-Abeyie and Andre Ayew were on target in their last trial match, which lifts pressure on front-line men like Asamoah and Agogo.
A combination of factors, ranging from home advantage, big match temperament, highly-motivated team and form tilts the pendulum in favour of the Stars who have not lost a competitive game at home since losing 1-3 to Liberia in a World Cup qualifier in Accra seven years ago.
Preview by Maurice Quansah