Ghana, the youngest squad at the soccer World Cup, is carrying the hopes of a continent into today’s quarterfinal against Uruguay.
Of the unprecedented six African teams at the tournament, only Ghana made it past the opening round. The Black Stars, whose average age is 24.1, would become the region’s first-ever semifinalist by winning at Soccer City near Soweto.
“The story of the Black Stars redeemed the image of Africa,” African National Congress chairwoman Baleka Mbete said yesterday in Johannesburg. “On your shoulders rest the football dreams of mother Africa.”
Ghana’s red, yellow and green horizontally striped flag with a black star is being sold by street vendors across South Africa. The government of Gauteng, the country’s richest province, placed adverts in newspapers asking for locals to get behind the Ghanaians.
“Victory for Ghana is a victory for Africa and will confirm that it is indeed Africa’s time not only to host the World Cup but also to win it,” read an advert in The Star, a national broadsheet.
One of the biggest cheerleaders is Kalusha Bwalya, president of Zambia’s soccer federation.
“The whole of Africa will support Ghana,” Bwalya, a former African footballer of the year, told reporters last week.
With the World Cup being staged in Africa for the first time in its 80-year history, the continent’s six teams had been seeking to produce its best performance at the most-watched sports event.
Instead, it took Australia’s win over Serbia to send Ghana to the last 16 as a group runner-up, sparing Africa from its worst World Cup showing for 28 years. South Africa became the first host to go out in the opening stage and was followed by Nigeria, Algeria, Cameroon and Ivory Coast.
“It’s very bad, very, very bad,” Ivory Coast defender Kolo Toure said in an interview after his team finished third in its group. “We feel really disappointed. We hope that Ghana can do something.”
Ghana’s youth, lack of high-profile players and progression under 56-year-old Serb Milovan Rajevac as coach helped the team to prosper, said Bwalya and former South Africa coach Jomo Sono.
The tournament host fired coach Joel Santana in October after nine straight losses and rehired Brazilian Carlos Alberto Parreira. Frenchman Paul Le Guen joined Cameroon midway through its qualifying campaign, while Nigeria’s Lars Lagerback and Ivory Coast’s Sven-Goran Eriksson had less than four months to prepare their teams. Rajevac has been with Ghana for two years.
“It’s not ideal,” Eriksson’s assistant, Tord Grip, said in an interview after Ivory Coast’s 3-1 loss to Brazil on June 20. “We’ve been with our team for five weeks.”
Le Guen and Eriksson left their posts following their teams’ elimination, while Lagerback was offered a contract extension before Nigeria’s government withdrew the country from international soccer for two years.
Sono said the appointment of foreign coaches may have contributed to Africa’s failings. Algeria’s Rabah Saadane was the only man to lead his home nation during the World Cup.
Le Guen commuted to Cameroon from his Paris base before returning to France after matches.
“It’s vital that once a coach is appointed he lives in the country,” Sono said. “He needs to learn the values and cultures of the country. By just coming to the tournament, he’s not adding any value.”
The Ivory Coast squad was laden with talent from Europe’s top leagues, including Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, Arsenal defender Emmanuel Eboue and Barcelona midfielder Yaya Toure. It finished below Brazil and Portugal in Group G.
“There’s too many individuals who want to play for themselves instead of playing as a team,” Sono said. Ghana, whose leading scorer at the tournament Asamoah Gyan plays for French club Rennes, made the last eight by “working for each other,” he added.
The Ghanaians opened with a 1-0 win over Serbia, before tying 1-1 with Australia and finishing group play with a defeat to three-time champion Germany. Gyan’s extra-time goal lifted his team to a 2-1 win over the U.S. in the round of 16.
That victory set up a first World Cup meeting with two-time champion Uruguay, which last reached the quarterfinals in 1970. The match kicks off at 8.30 p.m. local time.
“We have the possibility of an African team going beyond the frontiers never achieved by any other African country,” Danny Jordaan, chief executive of the World Cup’s local organizing committee, said yesterday. “We hope we will see the first African player dance around the corner flag in the semifinal and the final of the World Cup.”