By Jonathan Pearce
BBC football commentator
It was on the temporary bridge between the media centre and the Ellis Park Stadium back in June when an expert in African football boldly advised me to have a bet on Ghana to win the 2010 World Cup.
‘The Black Stars’ certainly have no worries as the frantic last round of African qualifiers gets underway as they have already made it through to South Africa with two games to spare after winning the first four of their third qualifying stage matches without conceding a goal.
At least one bookmaker quotes them at 40-1 outsiders to lift the trophy next summer and that’s a handsome price for the most likely of all the African nations to win the competition on home continental soil.
The current South Africa side is not good enough to get beyond the last 16 stage. So, all of Africa will be hungry to get behind another team and with that following Ghana could take some stopping.
Under their Serb coach Ratomir Dujkovic, they surprised a few people in Germany 2006 by beating the Czechs and USA before a second round loss to Brazil that was closer than the 3-0 scoreline suggests.
Eight of the side that day, plus Chelsea’s Michael Essien, who was badly missed against Brazil because of suspension, will be expected to star again in 2010.
Once again they have a wily Serb in charge. Milovan Rajevac, a craggy defender in his time, worked wonders taking FK Borac from perennial Serbian league relegation struggles into the UEFA cup and hopes are high in Accra that he will perform another miracle next summer.
He has some very good players to work with – the midfield that helped clinch a place in the finals with last month’s 2-0 home win over Sudan epitomised their potential.
Essien is a world star and alongside him he had the excellent captain Stephen Appiah, whose commitment to his country was made clear at the 2006 African Cup of Nations when he played all three games despite his ankle being strapped because of injury.
It was Appiah’s penalty that beat the USA to take Ghana beyond the group stage in Germany but he has one major concern though. Having fallen out with Fenerbahce, he is not playing club football and his fitness could suffer in coming months.
Also at the heart of things is Anthony Annan, a pocket powerhouse in the Essien mould, who has just won the Norwegian title with Rosenberg. He’s nicknamed Aimar after the tricky Argentine which suggests he can play a bit as well as break up opposition attacks.
Sulley Muntari completed the midfield last month. Returning to the side for the first time in six months he scored the first goal and was back to the sort of form that won him an FA Cup winner’s medal with Portsmouth and the Serie A title with Inter Milan last spring.
Jose Mourinho has criticised Muntari’s lack of fitness this season and he has had wrangles with the Ghanaian FA in the past, but on his day he can be terrific and his scoring rate of 15 goals from 48 internationals demands respect.
Haminu Draman (whose name was misspelt as Dramani on his 2006 shirt) has genuine pace as a left-wing option and the under-20 captain Andre Dede Ayew, son of former African Footballer of the Year Abedi Pele, could fight his way into the squad after shining at the current U20 World Cup in Egypt.
He scored a 25 yard belter in the 4-0 win over England the other day and nearly got another with an acrobatic back heel. Premier League clubs will be watching the youngster who was playing in the Champions League for Marseilles at 18 but has lost his way in France a little bit.
Another member of that under-20 side who will probably be in South Africa is full-back Samuel Inkoom. Premier scouts have been impressed by his club form at Basle and his recent performances for the full international side.
Ghana’s defence also has experience in World Cup ’06 veterans, John Pantsil of Fulham, Sunderland’s versatile John Mensah and Roda’s Eric Oddo but keeper Richard Kingson is not getting enough football at Wigan.
Up front Asamoah Gyan of Rennes has six goals for club and country this season and 16 for Ghana in 30 appearances, while Matthew Amoah, who played in Germany ’06, has been a regular scorer over the years with Vitesse Arnhem and NAC Breda.
Amoah is a small, quick, elusive scorer of important goals, netting three in qualifying for 2006 and another four so far this time.
Junior Agogo will be familiar to English fans after a nomadic career in the Football League. Apollon is currently his 14th club, but he is another who could be called upon to get goals.
The likely first XI looks strong but the rigours of tournament football could test the questionable quality of the rest of the squad.
The African Cup of Nations in the New Year will be an interesting dress rehearsal. They finished third on home soil in 2008 and have not lifted their continental crown since 1982.
If they do triumph in Angola, just watch their World Cup odds tumble.