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June 22, 2006 8:37 pm

Second wind lifts Ghana

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African football has enjoyed a second wind at this World Cup. After a disappointing first round of games for the continent’s five teams, Ghana have led the revival and it was with perhaps just reward that they qualified for the last 16 on Friday with a 2-1 victory over the USA.

Ghana thus join the select club of World Cup debutants to have made it through to the second round, something all the more extraordinary after their dismal performance at January’s African Cup of Nations. With Ivory Coast’s victory over Serbia and Montenegro and improved performances from Angola and Togo, the prospect of total embarrassment for Africa has receded even before Tunisia’s slim chances of qualifying today. That Ghana are likely to face Brazil in the next round will matter little – this team are no pushover even against the pre-tournament favourites.

Ghana’s success in the group owed more to their wonderful performance against the Czech Republic in one of the games of the tournament so far, rather than this somewhat lucky win in a fairly dire match.

The match turned on the worst of refereeing decisions. Germany’s Markus Merk was standing in a perfect position when USA defender Oguchi Onyewu won a header against the fabulously monikered Razak Pimpong. But inexplicably Merk blew for a penalty because of a non-existent push. Coming in the final minute of a scrappy first half to make it 2-1, Stephen Appiah’s successful penalty hit the Americans’ spirit just as they were threatening to get back into the game.

The importance of the game for both sides led to a low-key start. By the 20th minute there had been more Mexican waves from the excitable, predominantly American crowd than there had been chances. Both teams crowded their midfields and played deep.

It took a mistake to bring the first real chance, and goal, as Haminu Draman tackled the flat-footed USA captain Claudio Reyna before finishing assuredly. The goal did little to spur the USA into action and instead they continued to rely on the tactic of playing the long ball towards the head of Brian McBride.

A further error let the Americans back in the match, however, as DaMarcus Beasley capitalised on confusion among Ghana’s defence before playing a lovely early ball invitingly across the box for Clint Dempsey to thump home.

With Italy beating the Czech Republic at half-time, the USA had every incentive to go for the victory that would have sent them through. But the second half was as disappointing as the first, only without the goals. McBride hit the post in the 66th minute and Onyewu shortly afterwards headed just over but that was the best the USA could muster as the Africans held on defiantly and with some none-too-subtle time-wasting.

At the final whistle the side ran to their tiny group of supporters to celebrate as if they had won the tournament. With Brazil next though, this is likely to be as good as it gets for Ghana.

And it was not smiles all round for them either. Their biggest star, Chelsea’s Michael Essien, will miss
his country’s biggest game after receiving his second yellow card. Later the
midfielder said: “This is one of the worst moments of
my life.”

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