Expect the Black Stars to shine brightest for Africa in Rio
By CHRIS ALTRUDA
(AP) -- It's been almost a generation since Roger Milla led Cameroon to a quarterfinal appearance at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, making the Indomitable Lions the first African team to reach the round of eight.
That occasion is a historic landmark for the continent as it looks toward the road to Rio, one Ghana has a chance to eclipse as the Black Stars appear poised for ascendancy leading up to 2014.
It's been a steady climb up the ladder for Ghana, which never built on its continental success in the African Nations Cup to the World Cup until its debut appearance in 2006 in Germany. There, the Black Stars showed their potential by reaching the round of 16 before losing to five-time champion Brazil.
Ghana had an entire continent rally behind it in South Africa last year as the only one of the five continental qualifiers to progress to the knockout round. The Black Stars became only the third African team to reach the quarterfinals after knocking out the United States in extra time, and history beckoned them versus Uruguay.
The soccer gods, though, delivered cruel heartbreak. In the waning moments of extra time, a goalward header was cleared off the line. Another sure goal was knocked away with a deliberate handball that led to a penalty kick - one Asamoah Gyan thumped into the crossbar before he watched it sail skyward out of play as the last act of 120 minutes.
While Gyan did convert his attempt in the shootout, Ghana was denied that unprecedented semifinal appearance. Coach Milovan Rajevac gave way to fellow Serb Goran Stevanovic in January, and the Black Stars are leading their African Nations Cup qualifying group over Sudan on goal differential heading into the last two match days in September and October, respectively.
Gyan, currently playing for English side Sunderland, has become the face of the team due to the spate of injuries midfielder Michael Essien has endured in recent years. The engine of Chelsea had come back to the team in May after a 16-month self-imposed absence from national duty, but knee surgery following an injury suffered in summer training with the British club has likely sidelined him until next spring.
The Black Stars, though, have not missed him terribly. A deep team that features many players on European clubs, Prince Tagoe filled in admirably for a suspended Gyan - who was sent off during an African Cup qualifier against Sudan last year and forced to sit out three games - by scoring goals in a pair of Cup victories. Other sources of offense include Matthew Amoah, Dominic Adiyiah and Kevin Prince Boateng.
Gyan has been proficient when available, giving the Black Stars a 1-all draw at Wembley Stadium in England in March and scoring in a 2-1 defeat at South Korea in June in the last two friendlies. He has 25 goals in 51 international matches.
Stevanovic had a friendly against Nigeria in London canceled due to the riots, but Ghana was able to quickly schedule a replacement match next month there against Brazil, which pulled out of a friendly at Egypt due to security concerns.
Ghana's World Cup qualifying group, however, will prove challenging. Sudan will again have the opportunity to dim the Black Stars, who also drew a Zambia squad currently leading its African Cup qualifying table. Final-round qualifying has the added twist of a two-legged playoff against a fellow group winner to claim a spot in Brazil's field of 32.
The Ivory Coast is the top-ranked African squad, at No. 11, according to FIFA's rankings, and it will be the last chance for Didier Drogba to get the Elephants out of group play. There is a sense of urgency facing Ivory Coast, which has already clinched a spot in the 2012 African Nations Cup after rolling through its first four qualifier matches.
While South Africa will be the unfortunate answer to World Cup trivia as the first host country to fail to reach the knockout round, its Nations Cup play is providing signs of optimism. Pitso Mosimane has regrouped Bafana Bafana following last year's disappointment, and they currently lead their qualifying group.
South Africa also was given a favorable World Cup qualifier draw, being placed in a group with Botswana, the Central African Republic and either Somalia or Ethiopia.
Bafana Bafana's rise at the Nations Cup come at the expense of an Egypt team in disarray. The Pharaohs are at the bottom of their group, and they reportedly have been in contact with former United States national coach Bob Bradley for the position ahead of 2014 qualifying.
Nigeria appears to have regrouped from the internal strife that put it on FIFA's watch list earlier this year, but the Super Eagles are still lacking their traditional swagger. They trail group leader Guinea by two points with two matches to play, and while advancement is likely, winning the group will almost certainly come down to their final fixture versus the Syli Nationale in October.
The good news for Nigeria is its first-round World Cup qualifying group appears to be a walkover with Malaway and two teams yet to be determined from two-legged ties.
Recent history has shown Africa having one non-traditional team enter the global fold. Algeria advanced and acquitted itself well in 2010, Togo made an appearance in 2006 and Tunisia in 1998 and 2002. Zambia appears the team most likely to take on this role.
Manager Dario Benetti has reorganized the Chipolopolo since his arrival in July of 2010, and forwards Christopher Katongo, James Chamanga and Collins Mbesuma are the key offensive weapons. Zambia has never qualified for a World Cup, having not entered any qualifiers until 1970.
Updated August 18, 2011