Mensah proud to fly the flag for African ambitions
THE Ghana bandwagon is ready to roll. This evening, the hand of history is on their shoulders.
No African team has reached the semi-finals of the World Cup, with Cameroon (1990) and Senegal (2002) the only nations to reach the final eight. Uruguay stand in the way of the talented Ghanaians and, while there is respect for Oscar Tabarez's side, their name does not strike fear into opposition hearts. It is why Ghana believe they can go where no team from this continent has gone before.
Local government in Johannesburg are doing their best to rally support behind the cause. Ghana flags have been handed out for free here this week, while the ANC have requested that they change their name from the 'Black Stars' to the 'Black Stars of Africa'. The various TV broadcasters are in on the act as well, running ads advising South Africans to wear red, green or yellow today, the colours of the West African nation.
Whatever happens, Milovan Rajevac's squad have been invited to Nelson Mandela's Cape Town residence tomorrow for an audience with the great man. They hope to be still in the competition at that point and, certainly, they have the potential to really trouble the South Americans although, oddly, no African team has ever won a knock-out match in the World Cup without requiring extra-time.
"We know that all of Africa is supporting us," says striker Asamoah Gyan, who grabbed the winner in the additional 30 minutes they needed to overcome the USA in Rustenburg last Saturday. "We shall go there, play our hearts out and we will come out victorious."
The most impressive aspect of Ghana's displays here is that, in truth, they have the look of a side for the future rather than the present. They have the youngest squad at these finals, with Serb coach Rajevac including eight of last year's U-20 World Cup winners in his panel.
Gyan, at 24, is a relatively experienced member of the panel and the genuine hope is that, in four years' time, this generation will have matured to an extent that a run to the latter stages won't come as a surprise.
Unfortunately, they will be without Andre Ayew tonight, the skipper of the U-20 team who has been a dynamic force from the left side of midfield. Luckily, Rajevac has the luxury of being able to recall Sulley Muntari.
The Inter Milan star has a fractious relationship with Rajevac, who already caused a storm by leaving experienced midfielder Laryea Kingston out of the squad for the finals. Add the absence of Michael Essien into the mix and the achievement of reaching this juncture takes on further sheen.
"It means a great, great, great deal to me," says defender John Mensah, who was on loan at Sunderland last season. Mensah, the skipper of the team, has been leading the post-match celebrations with his now customary lap of honour with the flag.
"It's going to be a tough game," he says. "And a great game. We are not going to under-rate them, we are going to play like a wounded lion again."
"We're in this together," adds defender John Pantsil. "We joke together, we eat together and we smile at the world together. We don't see ourselves as big stars."
They will have little option but to do so if they cross this symbolic hurdle.