In just 15 days, Ghana had gone from a bruising FIFA World Cup debut to a rousing Round of 16 date.
An encounter with record champions Brazil, for the Black Stars, promised to be the game of their lives. In truth, though, they’d played each of the previous three games — even the chastening loss to eventual winners Italy in the Group E opener, yes — as though their nation’s very survival, and certainly its pride, depended on it.
Against the Czech Republic and the USA — two of the five top-ranked teams in the world at the time — Ghana’s exuberance and ambition paid off, yielding impressive wins that sealed passage to the knockout stage. In Brazil, Ghana would find their toughest test yet: a team that retained their triumphant sheen from the previous World Cup, upgraded with some freshness.
This was 2006, Ronaldinho’s annus mirabilis, a month after his charming, blinding genius had inspired Barcelona to UEFA Champions League glory and earned him football’s top individual honours. And this was 2006, when Kaka was still on the rise, a year before he won for himself Ol’ Big Ears and the gleaming ball-on-rocks – the Ballon d’Or – awarded to the planet’s finest.
The world hailed just one Ronaldo back then: his pate cleanly shaven (fully this time, thankfully), his shirt and feet still golden. Then there was Adriano, Ronaldo’s heir apparent, before he lost his way.
Together, they formed the so-called ‘magic quartet’.
Ghana were, unsurprisingly, in awe of the Seleção. They’d always been, in fact, ever since Charles Kumi Gyamfi, a former Black Stars skipper, was sent to Brazil in 1962 to sharpen his coaching wits. An earlier spell of training had been undertaken in Germany, where he had played for Fortuna Dusseldorf as Ghana’s first professional export.
Gyamfi also benefited from the expertise of Josef Ember, a trainer whose nation — Hungary of old — stood proud as a globally revered authority on how football ought to be played.
Still, it was his stint in Brazil — beginning in the very month that Mane Garrincha and Co. returned the Jules Rimet trophy to South America’s most populous country — that truly and lastingly configured how Gyamfi, and his countrymen, would forever regard the sport.
As Ian Hawkey, in Feet of the Chameleon, writes, Gyamfi “decided that for Ghanaian football, Brazil should provide the template for African footballers who liked to improvise and dwell on the ball.”
Read, too, in the late Gyamfi’s own words: “The players are dedicated and the programmes are tough and stiff. They run through mountains and valleys regularly before starting with tactics. It is no joke at all. I prize this opportunity highly and I hope Ghana players will benefit from my experience.”
It happened just so.
On Gyamfi’s return to Ghana, he replaced Ember as head coach of the Black Stars in 1963, and immediately got to work. That year’s Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) was won, but with a team whose all-consuming blaze — according to Gyamfi’s critics, anyway — was sparked by his predecessor’s embers.
Maybe they had a point, or maybe they didn’t, but by 1965 — when Ghana turned up for the next AFCON — there was no questioning just whose team this was. The side’s tactical outlook was also patently Gyamfi’s . . . well, not exactly.
That unique 4-2-4 formation employed had been the blueprint for Brazil’s World Cup wins in 1958 and 1970, with a slight variant of that system yielding the same result in 1962. Gyamfi dug it out of his luggage, adapting to plot Ghana’s second consecutive continental conquest.
Even without the home comforts enjoyed two years prior, Ghana were still the dominant — and victorious — side in Tunisia.
Two more titles would be added by 1982 (Gyamfi, at the helm again, won one of those) and the Black Stars’ reputation was carved in stone: serial winners, but also the ultimate African show-boys.
Like the Brazilians they modeled themselves on, it mattered more to Ghanaians that their team won in style — doing less wasn’t worth celebrating — and such a perspective has lost little currency.
So they took joga bonito, sprinkled it with local spice, and deservedly became known as the ‘Brazil of Africa’.
Ghana’s Brazilian juices didn’t fizzle out with Gyamfi’s exit from the scene, however, as three Brazilians would coach the Black Stars in the decades that followed.
The first, and most noteworthy, was Carlos Alberto Parreira. Partly based on Gyamfi’s recommendation, Parreira, a 24-year-old acquaintance made while studying in Brazil, was sought and appointed his successor. And, with Gyamfi’s assistance, Parreira assembled a side that came just short of another set of gold medals at the 1968 African championships.
He’d go on to lead his own country at two FIFA World Cups, winning the first in 1994. The second, in 2006, should have been just-as-easy — if not much easier — to win, given how endowed he was with a Brazil team so gloriously gifted. He failed, but the last game Parreira won at the finals would have meant as much — well, nearly as much — to him as reaching the final itself in Germany.
Ghana, the nation that had given Parreira his big break many years earlier, in the game described at the outset.
Of the West African country, he only has fond memories.
“Ghana was an important watershed in my life,” Parreira recalled, ahead of the meeting in Dortmund.
“Today, those who worked with me during that time recognise the value of the work that I did.”
It was, for those who do believe in fate, not entirely coincidental that Ghana’s maiden opportunity to make a global exhibition of their ‘Brazilness’ had brought them up against the master artistes themselves, and also against Parreira, a man who had had no small part in curating that gallery.
The press had the game themed ‘David versus Goliath’, and quite aptly so, but it might as well also have been David against Jonathan, that older friend from whom he learned so much and effectively regarded as a mentor.
Rookies Ghana gave it their all, as did veterans Brazil, and — despite the 3-0 thumping the Black Stars suffered — if there was any deference or condescension in that balmy June weather, or indeed any truth in belated claims that the game may have been fixed, you wouldn’t have sensed it.
Ronaldo opened the scoring with his record-breaking 15th World Cup goal in five minutes, Adriano doubled the lead by half-time, and Ze Roberto killed it off late.
Yet Ghana largely dictated the tempo of the game, with Brazil actually out-played in terms of possession numbers — and that’s not something you see everyday — despite the Stars finishing a player, a coach, and three goals down.
“The scoreline flattered us,” Parreira conceded afterwards.
Even in defeat, Ghana were the more memorable side, with their quest to mimic the greatest national team of them all coming full circle. Brazil won without being brilliant, and Ghana’s loss was buried in the self-expression oozed in such abundance.
On that gallant note, the Black Stars signed off from one World Cup, with just enough hunger left in them to fuel an ultimately fulfilled dream of reaching the next — where even Brazil, with their radiant yellow glow, didn’t shine quite as bright.
But that’s a story for another day.
Yaw Frimpong — Ink & Kicks