When Abedi Pelé and Co. were in their pomp in the early Nineties, Ghana were one of the top three or four teams in Africa. But the retirement of that golden generation heralded a decline that is only just being halted. Now, at last, the Black Stars appear to be regaining some of their lost lustre, as testified by an 18-place jump (to 71st) up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking for July 2004. Ghana are one of Africa's most highly decorated countries, having won the African Cup of Nations four times (1963, 1965, 1978 and 1982) and finished runners-up on three other occasions (1968, 1970 and 1992). The team's failure to qualify for the last CAN, in Tunisia earlier this year, was a major blow to Ghanaian pride, particularly as they were eliminated by little Rwanda.
Ghanaian fans undoubtedly felt they had reached rock bottom at that point. Now though, the Black Stars are putting that disappointment behind them and clambering back to respectability. The full international team seem intent on following the example of their U-23 squad, who this year qualified for the Olympic Games for the first time since 1992.
Not that everything has gone smoothly so far this year. The senior team kicked off their 2006 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaign shortly after the youth team's success, and went down 1-0 to Burkina Faso. Just a few weeks later though, they picked themselves up and did their country's confidence a power of good by beating another of the continent's erstwhile big guns.
South Africa came to Kumasi as strong favourites to top Group 2 but went home on the wrong end of a 3-0 hammering. Thanks to a goal from Sulley Muntari and two from Stephen Appiah, Ghana's Portuguese manager Mariano Barreto, who had been severely criticised when he first took charge last February, was able to pay tribute to his team's effort: "We promised to fight for this win, and with the support of everyone here the lads did exactly that."
The curse lifted The points for that win were crucial of course, but so too was the psychological boost, since the victory marked the end of a ten-year losing streak against the Bafana Bafana (three South African wins and two draws). "We have lifted the South African curse," proclaimed a thrilled Dr Nyaho Nyaho-Tamakloe, President of the Ghana FA. "I must warn Africa: Ghana are back!"
Five days later, Barreto took his men to Maputo for a tricky friendly with Mozambique. A goal from Asamoah Gyan gave the Ghanaians another good win. Together, the two victories - one over a team ranked much higher than them (South Africa were 39th in June) and another over one lower (Mozambique were 126th in June) - meant the Black Stars soared 18 places in the July world ranking.
The end of the South African curse is not the only reason behind Ghana's revival. The "modest" Barreto must take some of the credit too, as his players are quick to point out. "If there is one person who deserves special mention," said Stephen Appiah after the triumph over South Africa, "it is our manager."
Barreto has managed to blend inexperienced young players such as Dan Coleman, Mireku Amankwah and Dan Quaye with established internationals like Sammuel Kuffour, Michael Essien, John Mensa and Stephen Appiah, but his biggest achievement has been to restore the team spirit that appeared to have drained out of Ghana over the last decade.
"Every player was prepared to die for the country against the Bafana" said a clearly very motivated Appiah. "Every player has to always give his all for his team-mates, just as we did in this match," said Kuffour afterwards.
Barreto, unsurprisingly, echoes the views of his players. Aware of the technical and physical prowess of his charges, he has concentrated most of all on the psychological side of things.
"I know my players believe in this team and that's the most important thing," he said recently to Fifaworldcup.com. "Together, we have succeeded in creating a good team spirit and simply by talking clearly to each other we have developed a positive relationship between everyone in the squad"
If spirits remain high in Ghana, it seems entirely possible that they will continue their ascent. They have a long way to go from 71st to reach their highest-ever perch of 15th, which they attained in 1996, but the progress is there for all to see. Their current placing is their highest since June 2003. The 1-1 draw with Uganda in July will not hamper this rise unduly, and Ghana can confirm that they are indeed on the road to recovery by beating the Cape Verde Islands in September.