Ghana finally rid themselves of under-achiever tag
JOHANNESBURG, May 25 (Reuters) - Ghana go to the World Cup in Germany finally shorn of the anomaly of being one of Africa's top footballing superpowers but never having qualified for the sport's top tournament.
Four-time winners of the African Nations Cup, and the producer of top individuals such as Abedi Pele and Tony Yeboah, they had consistently failed in their bid to win a place at the World Cup finals until engineering a stunning come-from-behind success in their qualifying group last year.
Ghana's Black Stars now go to the World Cup seeking to match the success they have achieved at past junior world championships.
There is still one major survivor in the senior side of the team that won the under-17 world championship title in 1991, the central defender Samuel Osei Kuffour who has gone on to a successful career with Bayern Munich in Germany and is now at Italy's AS Roma.
Ghana's hopes at the World Cup, however, lie with the midfield acumen of Stephan Appiah and Michael Essien and the precocious talent of Udinese midfielder Sulley Muntari.
It was this trio who proved the catalyst as Ghana came back from a near hopeless position to win their qualifying group ahead of favourites South Africa, having catapulted themselves into top place with a key 2-0 win in Johannesburg last June.
The turnaround in their fortunes came after the appointment of Serbian coach Ratomir Dujkovic in December 2004.
He was the last of four coaches Ghana employed in their qualifying campaign and took the team through an unbeaten run last year as they clinched their first World Cup finals place.
Dujkovic teetered on the brink of dismissal in January as Ghana crashed out early at the Nations Cup finals, but had the mitigating circumstance of playing at the tournament in Egypt without the injured Essien and Muntari and a half-fit Appiah.
Essien, who became Africa's most expensive player when he moved from French champions Olympique Lyon to their English counterparts Chelsea last August for 24.5 million pounds, scored several vital goals in the World Cup qualifiers.
Appiah, who plays his club football in Turkey for Fenerbahce, proved an inspirational leader and a talisman performance from diminutive Matthew Amoah up front was also a key ingredient in the qualifying success.
Amoah, who recently joined Borussia Dortmund in Germany, was restored to the side after five years in the international wilderness and was also the author of key goals.
Dujkovic remains short of established strikers though and that could prove to be a real problem in their group matches against Italy, the Czech Republic and the United States in Group E.