x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Africa unites behind Ghana

The Black Stars have the support of a continent as they bid to write their names in football history by becoming the first African side to reach the semi-finals.

Australia and Ghana fans during their Group D match last month. Ghana has become the adopted country of thousands of neutral fans in South Africa as they bid to become the first country from the continent to reach the last four of the World Cup.
Australia and Ghana fans during their Group D match last month. Ghana has become the adopted country of thousands of neutral fans in South Africa as they bid to become the first country from the continent to reach the last four of the World Cup.

An entire continent, and millions of romantic neutrals across the globe are crossing their fingers. Ghana are chasing a World Cup semi-final place - a feat never before achieved by an African nation. Hope, often, is blind. But in the case of the Black Stars, the last remaining contenders of Africa's six entrants, it is not misplaced. Lightly regarded at the start of the tournament, Milovan Rajevac's team have improved game-by-game and it is hard to predict a winner from today's encounter against Uruguay in Johannesburg.

"All of Africa is behind Ghana because we've never had an African team in the semi-finals," says Seymi Diop, a Senegalese stall owner in a Cape Town art market where the World Cup effect has seen portraits of international players, such as Wayne Rooney, Kaka, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, join Nelson Mandela and Bob Marley on the bestsellers list. "Ghana can win, 100 per cent, but I think they will be more defensive against Uruguay. Yes, they like the ball, but they will be wary of their opponent's forwards."

Ghana's shortcomings in attack remain a concern. Rajevac's side have scored just four goals, including two penalties, in four World Cup matches. But confidence is high that Asamoah Gyan, the striker who plays his club football in France for Stade Rennes and has scored three of Ghana's goals, can help etch the country's name in African football history. "I know, 100 per cent in my self, that Ghana will beat them 2-1," says Manta Gassama, a Senegalese national wearing a French shirt.

"Gyan will score one with his head and one with his left. Or maybe the new guy, No 23. I believe in that boy. I like him and the way he helps Ghana play." That newcomer is Kevin-Prince Boateng. After playing at every junior level for Germany, Boateng, who was one of the bright lights for Portsmouth last season as they were relegated from the English Premier League, chose Ghana, the birthplace of his father, as the best route to international success.

It appears to have been a wise decision. The creative midfielder's first international goal got Ghana up and running in their last 16 clash with the United States. In the absence of Michael Essien, the injured Chelsea player, Boateng has fitted seamlessly into Rajevac's powerful, risk-taking unit. "Physically, they are a step up from Uruguay and as the only African team left they will find even more strength," says Musa N'Diaye, sporting red, green and yellow Black Stars sunglasses.

"It is a lot of pressure, but the young players can handle it. They are bit short on strikers, but watch out for Gyan; he'll score two goals in a 3-1 win for Ghana and be man- of-the-match." The general optimism is well-placed. Ghana's youth development policy is the envy of Africa; the country's Under 20 team won their age group's World Cup in Egypt last year, beating Brazil on penalties after they played the majority of the final with 10 men. The production line has continued to flow during the World Cup, too.

After keeping Sulley Muntari, the Inter Milan player, out of the team, Andre Ayew, 20, has been another impressive figure at the base of Ghana's midfield. He will miss tonight's quarter-final through suspension, however. "These young boys are good," says Latif Bouraima, a South African citizen from Benin. "A small problem will be Ayew. He is out, but someone else, maybe Muntari, will come in. I know they will do it, they will make us proud."

With so many of the World Cup's traditional powers and household names already sent packing, the feeling in Africa is that the time is right for the Black Stars to take top billing. "They are young boys and they are looking to make their names," says Diop, the art market trader. "Their time will come if they reach the semi-finals. "Football is a young boy's game now; the big names are over. Ghana will be the new name. They are fresh, strong and will represent us. Ghanaian football is well."

There is another view, although it is obscured by the Ghana-inspired surge in Afro-optimism. Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez, the Uruguayan forwards, "are very nice players and will be the difference," says Thomas Kuczylaski, a Brazil supporter in Cape Town, before adding: "But I'll be happy, too, if Ghana win. They have to represent Africa." emegson@thenational.ae