Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Will Ghana Ruin The World Cup?

Today's syndicated content from the Touchline Bawler:

Ghana had much reason to feel aggrieved today. Italy were clearly the better side, but the Africans showed real inventiveness, and passed the ball around with great efficiency. On several occasions the Italian full-backs were shown up horrendously by Ghanaian runs down the wing. Only the absence of incisive passing into the penalty box, the class of Alessandro Nesta, and the bizarre propensity for Michael Essien to shoot high, wide, and not-so-handsome from long distance prevented Ghana from making a decent fist of a contest.

Most egregiously of all, they were denied a clear penalty at 1-0, when their forward burst clear, only to clearly be fouled by the Italian defender. The referee can look forward to a nice boon in his bank balance courtesy of Gianluigi Buffon. And his surely certain departure from World Cup 2006 will no doubt be sweetened by a nice relaxing holiday in the Caribbean.

Nevertheless, the Ghanaian response to going 2-0 down was nothing short of shameful. Far from trying to fight back, they instead decided to lash out at anything in a blue shirt. Having already seen off Francesco Totti with a horrific stamp, and Samuel Kuffour scythe down Vinceto Iaquinta when through on goal (only the offside flag prevented a red card), Ghana then proceeded to go in hard and late on just about every single challenge. That no Italian was seriously injured owes much more to blind luck than good judgement.

That Ghana have a skilful team is not in doubt. Essien and Appiah play at a high level in Europe; most of their other players grace second-tier sides, and have some considerable skills. Had the team not seemed overawed by the occasion - a fact that manifested itself in poor defensive organisation and hasty decision-making in attack - then they could very easily have sprung a major upset on an Italian side that played with imagination but little width. To resort to dirty, cynical play demeaned Ghana.

Their style of play could quite easily adversely affect the remainder of the tournament, however. One thing often overlooked in World Cup predictions is the strength of the group. In Grand Slam tennis, the rigours of a five-set match mean that high-ranked seeds who get dragged into marathon matches lose their energy later in the tournament. If Holland, Italy and the like are not exhausted by having such tough groups, then they are resilient indeed.

The problem of playing high-intensity, high-level football is magnified further if squad resources are depleted by injuries. Time will tell if the injury to Jan Koller will affect the Czech Republic. He is by no means their key player - Nedved and Rosicky are the heartbeat of the side. Being denied the skills of a starting player, however, means the reliance on reserves is stronger, and, moreover, they will be play longer. No substitutions resting them for twenty minutes.

Should Ghana be outclassed by a quality Czech side - as may well happen - then the fear must be they resorted to kicking the man and not the ball. If that results in an injury to the aforementioned Rosicky or Nedved, the consequences for the tournament could be significant. It is like running into a Tongan rugby side intent on high-tackles and taking men out while in the air - recovering from just the bumps and bruises takes its time; and there's a fair chance something more serious happens.

Injuries are part and parcel of any major football tournament - and the truly great teams will have sufficient strength in depth, or tactical ingenuity, to overcome the loss of any one player. But if we were denied the opportunity to see the likes of Rosicky and Nedved in the later stages - as well we might miss the presence of Totti - then there could be no denying the tournament will be much the poorer for it. It is Ghana's first appearance at the World Cup, and it would be a real tragedy if rather than celebrating the skills of Essien, Appiah, and Asamoah (not to mention the wonderfully named Pimpong!), we are left bemoaning their willingness to lash out when beaten.