The First CHAN Tourney - Bouake Awaits Stars' Magic
With the battle lines drawn for the novelty African Nations Championship (CHAN), Ghanaians have one big opportunity to assess the impact Milovan Rajevac is likely to make on the Black Stars ahead of the second round of the World Cup qualifiers which get underway just days after the CHAN in Cote d'Ivoire.
Ghana's qualification for CHAN at the expense of Nigeria was perhaps the clearest signal of the positive impact the Serbian was likely to make at the helm of the Stars next February when he leads the local-based side against Zimbabwe, Libya and DR Congo in the group stage of Africa's newest tourney ahead of the all-important 2010 World Cup qualifiers.
The shock appointment of Rajevac for one of the most difficult jobs in Ghana was one of the biggest headline grabbers in 2008, a year of mixed fortunes, drama and all for the Stars who began the year on a high note, amid huge expectations and pressure from Ghanaians to deliver a fifth African Nations Cup success.
With home advantage, coupled with a 'host and win' agenda set by the country's football regulatory body (GFA), expectations were naturally high, but when it mattered most the Stars flattered to deceive.
From a high point of a bronze medal-winning feat at the Nations Cup to the termination of the appointment of French Coach Claude Le Roy, a long search for his successor, the return of 'captain courageous' Stephen Appiah, the qualification by the local Stars to the CHAN, the Stars were headline grabbers for good and not-so-good reasons, sometimes bizarre.
A narrow escape in a 2-1 win over Guinea in the opening game of the 2008 Nations Cup was the reality check the Stars needed for a good tournament.
And led by cheer leader President J.A. Kufuor, who twice visited and prayed with the team in camp including one via video conference from Italy, Ghanaians rallied behind the team and got the atmosphere charged whenever Ghana played until the bubble burst against Cameroun who stopped Ghana from reaching the final.
Eventually a resounding victory over star-studded Cote d'Ivoire gave the John Mensah-led Stars a deserved bronze medal, a fitting reward for Ghana's successful hosting of Africa's premier football competition.
Perhaps it was the euphoria by Ghanaians, the sense of nationalism and football's newfound female converts served as the most abiding memories of the tournament in spite of a few organisational hiccups.
While injured Appiah agonisingly watched the team from the sidelines, Ghana 2008 also elevated striker Junior Agogo and teenage sensation Andre Dede Ayew to cult figures especially among the national team's female fans, could rival those of Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari in a popularity contest.
Agogo scored three important goals that propelled the Stars to claim bronze, the younger Ayew could not find the net but his deft touches and sheer youthful exuberance not only bore semblance of his illustrious dad, but also earned him the needed exposure at the big stage for a bright international career ahead.
However, the biggest star of the Ghanaian team was Muntari who scored three important goals against Guinea, Morocco and Cote d'Ivoire.
The Inter Milan midfielder went on to enjoy a successful year with the Stars during their joint 2010 Nations Cup/FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
Injury to Essien in Ghana's 0-1 defeat to Libya in a World Cup qualifier last June was a dampener on what would have been an outstanding year for the Chelsea powerhouse who showed his class as stand-in captain for the Stars after John Mensah's expulsion in the Nation's Cup quarter-final clash with Nigeria.
Le Roy's delay in accepting a fresh offer from his employers served as the knockout punch that ended his two-year romance with the Black Stars one month before his contract officially ended.
While opinion was split over his departure, it was the twists and turns by the GFA in search of his successor, and the appointment last August of Rajevac that stunned Ghanaians.
Names bandied around by the media included Ghanaian-born French international Marcel Desailly, Germans Guido Buchwald and Klaus Toppmoeller, Austrian Josef Hickersberger, among other big name coaches.
Out of the blue, however, the GFA's search team travelled to Europe and after an interview process, they unveiled the Serbian coach who made headlines for his inability to communicate effectively in English than his coaching credentials.
Just as Rajevac's appointment stirred mixed reactions from the public, so too were criticisms over the 'demotion' of stand-in coach and long-time assistant Stars coach, Sellas Tetteh, to handle Black Satellites and his place taken by onetime national captain Kwasi Appiah who had no previous coaching experience.
Rajevac was subjected to a good measure of criticisms following mixed results and some lacklustre performances by the Stars, but the qualification this month by the home-based team for CHAN may just have restored the confidence of Ghanaians in the Serbian who is yet to prove himself.
On the bright side, the Stars reached a record 14th in the world in the FIFA monthly rankings, but perhaps the most refreshing news was the return to action of Skipper Appiah who had been sidelined for nearly a year.
Appiah captained the Stars to beat Lesotho 3-0 at the Sekondi Stadium to qualify for the group qualifiers of the 2010 World Cup.
By Maurice Quansah