For the past six months, it has been all about Ghana for the United States of America. Ghana, Ghana and more Ghana. And it will still be, in fact, at least until referee Jonas Erikkson’s final whistle blows in Natal on Monday.
For Yanks, the Ghana game is a World Cup final, and that is not even an exaggeration.
“We basically start with a World Cup final against Ghana,” US coach Jurgen Klinsmann said in February.
“We need badly these three points. If we get three points against Ghana, I think then that the confidence will rise, the guys will be pumped up, and they will be ready for Portugal and give them a real fight.”
A huge chunk of the US’ World Cup preparations have been dominated by a fixation on the Ghana match-up. Right from the moment the draw was made in December, there had been an obsession to nail that Ghana game, and the Americans are not leaving any stone unturned in their bid to make that happen.
The focus has been deep, the preparations intense. They have worked beyond and above themselves to tick all the boxes, to eliminate every potential excuse for failure. Everything has been measured, thorough, with very little margin for error. The Black Stars have to be shot down from the skies at all costs. “We want to win very, very badly,” said center back Matt Besler.
The burning desire has been visible in Klinsmann’s eyes any time he’s talked about Ghana. He has looked animated, possessed by the addiction to outwit the four-time African champions. “When we step on the field there, Ghana will sense the energy we have, will sense that we are mentally and physically ready for them, and hopefully they realize it’s going to be our dayIt really is down to winning that first game,” he had added.
Having lost to Ghana in the last two consecutive World Cups - both times resulting in elimination, either indirectly (Group Stage, Germany 2006) or directly (Round of 16, South Africa 2010) – the US are playing down the revenge talk. “There’s no revenge factor. We don’t feel that; that’s not what’s motivating us,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. But, deep down, they know that it is impossible not to feel a desire to end that losing streak. Besides, the USA come into the game never haven beaten Ghana before, across five previous meetings, with Ghana emerging victors in four of them.
For Ghana though, the anticipation towards the World Cup hasn’t been as specific as the US’. It’s been about how to manoevre the tight group also containing Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and tournament specialists Germany. But, Ghanaians know that this heculian task cannot be scaled if a win doesn’t occur against the US. Indirectly, Ghanaians are also as keen about the game, but they have done a good job at deflecting all the pressure. The Ghanaians have managed to swerve all the pre-match tension.
Maybe, the game has become as big in terms of the stakes because of the fact that most pundits have them as the underdogs in the group. Germany and Portugal have been widely tipped to qualify out of the group ahead of the duo, and there’s a sense that a win in this encounter would prove crucial to either side’s ambitions of gate-crushing the qualification party of the Europeans.
The mind games have not missed out on the build up too. From Ghana’s pseudo-respect laden cautious optimism underlying an inner feeling of confidence, through to the US’ extreme defiance, stemming from a deep sense of confidence in how well they’ve prepared.
‘America’s got a very good team,’ Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah said. “I believe that they are one of the best teams in the tournament. It’s not going to be easy but we will do well to give them a good game.’
“We think they’re a good team, but we also feel we’re slightly better as well,” said Howard, who was in goal during Ghana’s 2-1 win over them in South Africa four years ago.
When both teams file out at the Estadio Das Dunas in the rain-soaked city of Natal on Monday night, they will do so knowing that a loss could spell out early elimination, complicating their ambitions.
In a Group which will be fiercely competitive, every every single attack, every single shot, every single header, every single pass, every single minute in this game will matter.
The first game is always important, and given the high stakes, both teams – with the knowledge of Netherlands thrashing of Spain – will know how thin the line between a close game and a thrashing is.
In a tight game that will leave no room for loss of concentration, even momentarily, this looks like an encounter that will go down to which team wants it more and works the hardest. Both teams cannot afford to deliver anything short of 100% with regards to desire, commitment and effectiveness.
This game will change fortunes and decide fates. It’s a big deal.
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