The senior national team, the Black Stars Of Ghana get prepared for yet another important match, being an international friendly encounter against another 2006 Germany World Cup participant, Saudi Arabia in far away Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on Monday by 4.30 p.m. Ghana time.
The match, which is the first friendly and a trial match for the Stars after their qualification for the World Cup a couple of weeks ago, is aimed at arming the Black Stars coach, Ratomir Dujkovic with the right materials for the African Cup Of Nations, and to use that as a platform and a yardstick to assessing the strength of his boys before the ultimate mundial in Germany.
As at 12 noon local time in Saudi Arabia, 9.00 a.m. Ghana time on Saturday, almost all the invited players for the friendly had arrived safely from their Europe base and elsewhere, with the exception of the skipper for the side, Stephen 'Tonado' Appiah and John Mensah, with the former's problem being just a change in flight connection. However, with the intervention and assistance of the GFA Protocol Officer, Mr Alex Asante, the two players are expected to arrive at the Saudia Int Airport in Jeddah by 6.30 p.m. Ghana time.
The first batch of players arrived at their hotel in Saudi on Thursday night, when the local players, made up of Issah Ahmed, George Owu, Philemon MacCarthy and Dan Quaye left Ghana on Wednesday night and joined three others from Europe, Matthew Amoah, Anthony Obodai and new chap, Francis Dickoh at the Heathrow Airport in London before emplaning finally to the Saudi province, Jeddah.
The rest of the players jetted in just this morning in camp, allaying the fears of the coach for not having the full compliment of his team before the match. All eight players, Sule Ali Muntari, Laryea Kingston, Aminu Dramani, Asamoah Gyan, Samuel Osei Kuffuor, Daniel Edusei, Yakubu Abubakar and Alex Techie Menson arrived in succession in the early hours of Saturday within a spate of about three hours. One other, Godwin Attram, who plies his trade in the Saudi Arabia league here has had to honour a league match yesterday, before joining the team in camp this morning. So in all, 16 players have reported in camp, with the two others, arriving later tonite. However, news in camp indicates that Michael Essien might not come for the match because of an injury he is nursing, but he has expressed his interest to have been with the team in camp as a morale booster.
Already, the Saudis had sent warning signals to the Ghanaian technical team that, they better bring their World Cup squad, other than that they would suffer their heaviest defeat ever in the history of Ghana football, not to talk of the 6-1 humiliation by Germany, followed by the 8-2 wallop by Brazil.
When news broke out in camp that the management of the Black Stars have lined up a series of friendlies for the team ahead of their two important tournaments in 2006, many connoisseurs of the game opined that it would have been better if the team had played against the likes of Germany, the host nation, England, Argentina, France, Brazil and the rest. You can name them!. But against the Saudis, nobody gave them a dog's chance that they can equally give the Stars a good run for their money, even ahead of the Nations Cup, for which they are preparing now. As you read on, it might interest you to note that most of the teams in the 16-team Nations Cup almost adopt the same style associated with North African football in recent times. Swift style of play, holding on to the ball with conventional counter- attacks and above all, their unequalled stamina.
The weather here in Saudi Arabia, as I write from my base in the Saudi province, Jeddah, precisely from the Radisson SAS Hotel in the centre of the city, can be compared to the one under which the Black Stars will be playing in the continental fiesta. Remember, Egypt, the hosts, Morocco and Tunisia have always been a perennial threat to the West African style of play at every single Nations Cup, and a clear case in sight is the last African Cup Of Nations where Tunisia triumphed over hitherto tournament favourites, Nigeria, at the semi-final stage before annexing the trophy at the expense of their territorial opponents, Morocco in the finals. And as touted earlier prior to the tournament by some of the great pundits of the game, it was an-all North African affair in the grand finale!.
At least, Ghana's absence in Tunisia at the last Nations Cup two years ago, is an indication that we need to adjust to the playing standards of almost every team before the tournament proper, early January in Egypt. Thus, the afore-mentioned factors were the main reasons why the organizers of the friendly against Saudi Arabia, KAM Sports International in England, decided to rely on the Saudis to give the Black Stars of Ghana, the test of a match required for meeting giants in African football like the Morocco's, the Tunisia's and the Egypt's whose performance on the continent have catapulted them to the World Cup, at one point or the other.
Interestingly, the Saudis parade a team which is predominantly dominated by local players who have been consistent in the Saudi league and readily available for important for any match at the least opportunity, whether home or abroad. Undoubtedly, their status as three-time Asian champions has so much to offer in terms of soccer prowess and weight as against that of Ghana, who have had to struggle to live by their old-fashioned four- times African champions, a feat which has been adulterated by Egypt and Cameroon within a spate of a decade.
Statistically, their early exit in the last Asian Cup by Uzbekistan was atoned for by the Saudis when they disciplined them by an emphatic 3-0 win at home some months later in the World Cup qualifiers. Even though the Saudis were in something of a critical stage themselves, the presence of their then untested Argentine coach, Gabriel Calderon, as to whether he could hone the talented but aging Saudi side, became the foremost question.
However. against the run of events, the Kingdom Of Saudi Arabia managed to breeze through the preliminaries in Group 8, and eventually led Group 2 at the World Cup, ahead of Korea Republic, Uzbekistan and Kuwait, having won four of their total six matches and drawing the other two.So therefore, no one should despise Saudi Arabian football especially when they have qualified for the World Cup for three consecutive times in 1994, 1998 and 2002.
Quite paradoxically, after his team's disappointing display at Korea/Japan 2002, Sami Al Jaber, a veteran of three FIFA World Cups, and the present skipper for the side, decided that the time was right to call time on his international career. All that changed, however, when Argentine Gabriel Calderon took over coaching duties in December 2004 and asked the player to rethink.
At 32, his love for the national team coupled with their rejuvenated form in the qualifiers convinced Al Jaber to accept the challenge. In his first game back on 9 February this year, the player made an immediate impact by scoring in the 1-1 draw with Uzbekistan. However, his most telling contribution would come on 8 June when, playing on home soil against the same opposition, he scored Saudi Arabia's opening two goals in the 3-0 win that would book their place at Germany 2006. As an added bonus, Al Jaber is set to join an exclusive group of players who have graced the final stages of a FIFA World Cup on four occasions. Unquestionably one of the hotbeds of Asian football, Saudi Arabia have shown the world dramatically different faces at three successive FIFA World Cup finals appearances since 1994.
At USA 94, the Saudis impressed by advancing to the second round after beating Morocco and Belgium and playing the Netherlands very close in a 2-1 defeat. Saeed Owairan's match-winning goal against Belgium is firmly down as one of the all-time great goals in FIFA World Cup history, a slaloming fifth-minute strike which went a long way towards putting Saudi Arabia on the international football map. Four years later in France the team disappointed in comparison, losing to Denmark and France while drawing with South Africa. Even worse was to come in 2002, where they suffered a humiliating 8-0 opening defeat by eventual finalists Germany and went home empty-handed after three losses in the group stage.
The big question for the traditional Middle Eastern powerhouse remained how they would rebound in qualifying for the next finals. They did that well, becoming the first team to reach the last eight in the Asian qualifying competition for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™.
However, their young side – the majority of players came from their Olympic team - did not perform as consistently as hoped for and a disappointing showing at the 2004 Asian Cup brought an end to coach Gerard van der Lem's time in charge. He was the 13th coach to have been hired and fired by the Saudi Arabia Football Federation since 1994.
Former Argentine international Gabriel Calderon arrived in Saudi Arabia in November 2004 to replace him. His task was to take the team through the final stage of qualifying and following an opening 1-1 with Uzbekistan the 'Sons of Deserts' stunned Group A favourites Korea Republic in their second match with a 2-0 victory. Then after a goalless draw with Kuwait, Calderon's charges completed the job of qualifying with successive 3-0 victories over Kuwait and Uzbekistan in June 2005.
However, tomorrow at the King Abdul Aziz Sports Stadium, a different breed and class of soccer artistry will be sold to the soccer-mad nation of Saudi Arabia. A live commentary on the match will be brought to our readers by yours truly on Monday at 4.30 p.m. by courtesy of Ghana's number one sports station, Peace FM 104.3 and elsewhere on the internet at www.peacefmonline.com and www.ghanatoday.com.