Africa’s last hope

2010-07-02 00:00

WHILE tonight’s World Cup quarter-final between Uruguay and Ghana at Soccer City might not have the profile of other match-ups, it holds out the intriguing prospect that Africa’s last remaining competitor could progress in the tournament.

As the World Cup reaches its quarter-final stage, starting with this afternoon’s dream match-up between Brazil and the Netherlands in Port Elizabeth, Ghana will bid to make history by becoming the first African team to reach the semi-finals.

The Black Stars’ impressive run has already seen them become only the third African quarter-finalists, following in the footsteps of Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002.

But to reach the semis in the first African World Cup, Ghana must overcome a robust Uruguay who are almost impassable in defence and possess the lethal strike partnership of Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez.

Ghana, technically the most complete of the African sides and, under Serbian Milovan Rajevac, also the best organised team from the continent, will attempt to break Uruguay down with their skilful, measured game.

But they will have to do it without their best creative influence in the tournament, suspended left midfielder Andre Ayew.

Rajevac will also be without suspended Free State Stars central defender Jonathan Mensah, namesake of captain John Mensah, although the return from injury of Isaac Vorsah has boosted the Black Stars at the back.

Full-back Hans Sarpei and midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng must undergo late fitness tests today.

Striker Asamoah Gyan has three goals in the tournament and four in World Cup finals — one short of Roger Milla’s record for an African — and will carry much of the creative responsibility in the absence of Ayew.

Rajevac said that while Ghana will have the backing of the Soccer City crowd and the African continent, their priority is to focus on the job on the pitch.

The coach said Ghana need to be respectful of a Uruguay team that has experience and international pedigree.

“Four South American teams out of eight have qualified for the quarter-finals, so it is a very strong football region,” the Serb said.

“We will have to be very good if we want to beat them and reach the semis. This is a big moment for Ghana and for Africa.

“We have obviously tried to analyse the good and bad points of Uruguay, and when you reach this part of the competition the teams have very few bad points.

“So it’s about us, and from the beginning we have to start trying to impose our rhythm on the game.”

Uruguay, too, have history as a motivating factor in the quarter-final.

The country’s early World Cup victories in 1930 and 1950 were followed by semi-final appearances in 1954 and 1970.

But Uruguayan football has gone into decline in the modern era — after reaching the last-16 in 1990 Uruguay only qualified for one final, exiting in the group stages in 2002. A semi-final appearance could signal a rejuvenation for a one-time powerhouse of South American football.

Like his counterpart, Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez urged his players to remain focused on the job at hand.

“We don’t want to put the cart before the horse. It would be wonderful to think about [the semi-finals], but if we do we will lose our focus on the coming game,” Tabarez said.

“The players have been working very hard. We are not complacent and we must rise to the challenge.

“We also know that even if we do progress we will be facing a football side in the semi-finals of huge ability.

“If we win tomorrow, then that will guarantee us at least fourth place and only the great Uruguayan World Cup champions will have done better.

“But the match against Ghana is also a football match and our focus on the pitch must be on winning it.”

Uruguay’s strategy at the World Cup has been simple and brutally efficient, and is unlikely to change tonight. Playing with a midfield and defence that is regimentally organised to deny the opposition space, Uruguay then threaten through their world-class strike force.

Ghana will need to be inspired, though also as calm and measured as in their 2-1 last-16 victory over the USA, if they are to prevail tonight.

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