With Ivory Coast the biggest and maybe only real challenger at the tournament in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, the Black Stars are banking that a run of third and second at the last two African Cups continues with first this year.
Ghana’s strength in depth means that even the absence of Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien with injury, and AC Milan midfielder Kevin Prince Boateng, who announced a surprise international retirement last year, hasn’t badly affected its hopes.
With defensive mainstay and captain John Mensah, Inter Milan midfielder Sulley Muntari, skillful winger-forward Andre Ayew and striker Asamoah Gyan, Ghana has all bases covered.
“The selection was based on individual quality, character, strong personality and a winning mentality,” said Ghana coach Goran Stevanovic, a Serb who says he has the right mix to take Ghana to its first triumph since 1982. “I have named players I think are capable of doing the job in the competition and I will be responsible for my action.”
After losing to Egypt in the 2010 African Cup final and making the World Cup quarterfinals when the continent’s other challengers—including Ivory Coast— faded, Ghana has to claim the title this time to end doubts over its ability to convert talent into trophies.
Just making the final probably won’t be good enough, having lost in the decider twice since 1982.
But Stevanovic, who took over last year, knows that. The coach has accepted the pressure his team will be under to finally deliver and has used it as a positive.
“It such an honor to work here because the passion for football in Africa is far greater than in Europe,” he said. “Daily routines (in Ghana) will almost come to a standstill a week before the tournament and football will be the only topic. The team bus was barely able to get through the crowd after our home qualifiers for the Cup of Nations.”
Essien and Boateng will be missed but Ghana probably still has a stronger squad of players than all the other teams at the finals, except maybe Ivory Coast.
Every one of the 20 outfielders it has picked for the tournament plays at a foreign club, and in Mensah, Muntari and Gyan, the team has world-class players in key positions at central defense, central midfield and main striker. It’s a strong spine, while Ayew provides the flair.
There’s also defender John Paintsil, Udinese midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah and forwards Prince Tagoe and Ayew’s younger brother, Jordan, who also plays at Marseille.
If Stevanovic’s team can then reproduce the effervescent team spirit that was a feature of its run at the World Cup under his compatriot and former coach Milovan Rajevac, Ghana will have an intoxicating mix of ability and enthusiasm.
“We have the team spirit. There is love and unity among the team and that is great for a group going into such a competition,” Mensah said. “There’s respect for every player. No one is overlooked. It’s one thing that I like about the group.
“The strong bond fills us with motivation to fight not as individuals but as a team.”
Ghana’s optimism was tempered by a hamstring injury to Gyan at the beginning of the year and then a 1-1 draw with a weakened South Africa team in a warmup match.
Gyan was expected to spearhead Ghana’s challenge as he did at South Africa’s World Cup two years ago, but there were—and still are—doubts that he would be fully fit.
Ghana also failed to hit top gear against a third-string Bafana Bafana team just over a week out from its first game at the African Cup.
Ghana’s football association said Gyan is making “good progress” with his injury and has returned to full training, and the coaching staff described the draw with South Africa as a useful training match.
The squad can’t afford to be understrength or sluggish at the start of the Cup of Nations.
Ghana opens Group D in Franceville, Gabon, on Tuesday against a buoyant Botswana team, which is making its first tournament appearance and has already proved itself as an effective underdog in qualifying.
It then plays a strong Mali, which Stevanovic has described as “a team to watch out for,” before completing three tricky first-round games against Guinea, the conqueror of Nigeria in qualifying.
But if Ghana’s hopes and most people’s predictions come true, it will face Ivory Coast in the 12 February final, giving the Black Stars the chance to avenge an agonizing 1992 final loss on penalties and shine again after a long wait.
(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online sports on Twitter: @AO_Sports)