The Black Stars are in the zone
JOHANNESBURG -- From the hotel lobby, I could hear the singing from above. I could not understand the words, but I could feel the joy and passion.
And, a few moments later, when the Ghanaian soccer team appeared in the lobby, I was able to ask a few players about the song. "We love to sing together, dance together, pray together," said striker Asamoah Gyan. "It brings joy to our hearts. This is our team."
This was January, in Luanda, Angola, before Ghana would play Nigeria in the semifinal of the Africa Cup of Nations. On assignment for ESPN The Magazine, I was in Angola for the quarterfinal, semifinal and final of this prestigious tournament. I got to see Ghana play three times. I attended its training sessions and press events. I got to know Ghana's media contingent, its players and its Serbian coach, Milovan Rajevac.
Here in South Africa, I've seen Ghana play twice. What I've noticed, more than anything, about the Black Stars, is they are a team in every sense of the word. From their pregame (and postgame, and halftime, and pre-training and post-training) songs and prayers, to their disciplined adherence to Rajevac's rigid system that features a single striker, they are true believers that the whole can be greater than the sum of its individual pieces. Members of the Ghanaian media will even tell you -- today, anyway -- that the Black Stars have become a better team without superstar midfielder Michael Essien, who is injured. Why? Because no one player is the focus of this group. It's 11 together with one goal.
One goal, actually, says it all about Ghana. Since November, the Black Stars have not scored more than one goal in a match. In five games at the Cup of Nations, Ghana scored a total of four goals, ultimately falling 1-0 in the final to Egypt. In this World Cup, Ghana has scored two goals in three games, both on penalties the result of handballs in the box. The coach makes no apologies for the lack of goals. And why should he? Barring a nine-goal swing for Ivory Coast (the Elephants would need to beat North Korea, need Brazil to beat Portugal and need the goal difference in those two games to add up to nine), Ghana is the only African team to advance to the knockout stages. That's not lost on the coach.
"In tournaments, it is about results only," Rajevac told me through his translator in Angola. "If we play 0-0 and win on penalties, it is still a win. That's all that matters." The disheveled-looking coach's expression rarely changes (though we did share some laughs when I asked him about his one year in the Major Indoor Soccer League, where he was a defender for the New York Arrows -- "The champions!" he said, laughing, when I brought it up), which seems at odds with many of his players, who wear their hearts on their sleeves.
But it's worked. Since his appointment in 2008 -- which was met with skepticism in most quarters due to his lack of experience with big clubs or international sides -- Rajevac won four out of four without conceding a goal to seal Ghana's qualification, took a largely experimental squad to the final of the Cup of Nations and now has gotten his team through to the second round here in South Africa.
He's now a win away from equaling what Cameroon did in 1990 and Senegal did in 2002, that is, to take an African team to the quarterfinals. All that stands in his way is the team Ghana sent packing in 2006, the U.S. Count on it to come down to one goal.
In all likelihood, should Ghana put a ball in the net, it will come off the foot or head of Asamoah Gyan, who is very hard to track for 90 minutes. He pressures defenders, has the speed to make plays on his own and does a nice job of bringing the five midfielders behind him (the most attack-minded being Kevin-Prince Boateng and Kwadwo Asamoah) into the play. In their 1-0 loss to Germany, the Black Stars created a handful of good scoring chances, with passing and movement they did not display in either of their first two matches. Even Rajevac admitted, "We can't blow away these chances if we expect to continue in the next round." But don't expect Ghana to open up.
The system, which could be described as a 4-5-1 or a 4-3-2-1, is designed to congest the midfield. "It works when we stay compact," said captain John Mensah, who pairs in central defense with Jonathan Mensah (the former goes by "Mensah" and the latter by "Jonathan"). "We have a very good coach, and we understand that's what he wants."
If Rajevac has done anything that's left him open to criticism it is his benching of Inter Milan midfielder Sulley Muntari in favor of Boateng. Muntari himself blasted the coach and was allowed to remain on the squad only after an apology. So long as the Black Stars continue to get results, no one in Ghana will care who comprises the first 11. And should the Black Stars continue to advance, expect the groundswell of support in South Africa to gain momentum. The Black Stars' songs will be heard.
It's all about one goal.
Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.