The anger and frustration of being denied a semi-final spot at the last World Cup will be central to Ghana’s quest at the 2014 finals in Brazil.
Luis Suarez’s handball on the line kept out Dominic Adiyiah’s goal-bound shot that, had it gone in, would have won for Ghana their quarter-final tie against Uruguay in Johannesburg at the 2010 finals.
Asamoah Gyan grazed the top of the crossbar as he missed the resultant penalty and Ghana went on to lose in the post-match shootout to miss out on becoming the first African side to reach the last four at a World Cup tournament.
It created a deep wound that initially hindered the side’s progress, but now scarred over it serves as motivating spur for the west Africans, notably in their successful quest to qualify again, and will be one of the factors that see Ghana regarded as the strongest of the five African qualifiers for Brazil.
An experienced line-up with plenty of midfield and attacking talent ensured an impressive road to the finals, including a 6-1 demolition of Egypt in the first leg of the playoff that gave stark notice of Ghana’s potential.
Ghana play with an attacking prowess fuelled by the return of Michael Essien and Kevin-Prince Boateng, both of whom have come back into the side in recent months after long self-imposed absences.
Kwesi Appiah described himself as the “underdog in the process” when Ghana were searching for a new coach following the departure of Goran Stevanovic after the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, but was handed the job after talks with former France international Marcel Desailly broke down.
Appiah is a student of the game, having recently studied coaching methods at Manchester City and Liverpool to get a better understanding of global trends.
A former international left-back, Appiah served as assistant coach to the national team between 2007 and 2012, and so his elevation to the top job was in many ways one of continuity for the team.
His position is often said to be under threat by those who feel Ghana would be better served by a coach from outside the country’s borders, but he now has a chance to prove them wrong.
A pair of 1-0 defeats to Montenegro and Netherlands in their last two internationals means Ghana’s build-up has been less than convincing, but they can take solace in the fact that they do have more in the tank.
They were unlucky not to get something from the Netherlands game played last weekend, and have just one more friendly remaining against South Korea this coming Tuesday to get things right.
They will rather want to think back to the manner in which they demolished Egypt in the first leg of their playoff last October as evidence of their potency.
Sulley Muntari is a veteran of three World Cups now and one of the more experienced players in the Black Stars squad after a distinguished career in Europe.
He has often fallen out with past coaches of the team, but unlike them has remained a constant and his powerful displays in midfield, and keen eye for goal, make him a potential match-winner.
His leadership among the group is another key asset, while he also has a tendency to rise to the big occasion, reveling in the limelight.
GROUP G OPPONENTS
June 16 vs United States (Natal) – On paper the easiest of the three group games for Ghana, but certainly a difficult match in its own right. The Black Stars can look to history for inspiration though – they knocked the USA out of the last two World Cup finals in 2006 and 2010.
June 21 vs Germany (Fortaleza) – This is also a repeat of a fixture played at the 2010 finals in the pool phase, when Germany were 1-0 winners at Soccer City. It will be another immense challenge for the Black Stars against one of the pre-tournament favourites.
June 26 vs Portugal (Brasilia) – There is every possibility that Ghana will go into their final pool match needing a win and for that reason will hope that the injury woes currently dogging Cristiano Ronaldo keep him laid low. Portugal have other talented players, but Ronaldo takes them to another level.
If Ghana make it out of this incredibly difficult pool they will face one of the top two sides in Group H, where they might think things get a little easier. That pool contains Belgium, Algeria, South Korea and Russia.
Goalkeepers: Stephen Adams (Aduana Stars), Fatau Dauda (Orlando Pirates), Adam Kwarasey (Stromsgodset).
Defenders: Harrison Afful (Esperance), John Boye (Stade Rennes), Samuel Inkoom (Platanias), Jonathan Mensah (Evian Thonon Gaillard FC), Daniel Opare (Standard Liege), Rashid Sumaila (Mamelodi Sundowns).
Midfielders: Afriyie Acquah (Parma), Albert Adomah (Middlesbrough), Emmanuel Agyemang Badu (Udinese), Kwadwo Asamoah (Juventus), Christian Atsu (Vitesse Arnhem), Andre Ayew (Olympique Marseille), Michael Essien (AC Milan), Rabiu Mohammed (Kuban Krasnodar), Sulley Muntari (AC Milan), Mubarak Wakaso (Rubin Kazan).
Forwards: Jordan Ayew (Sochaux), Kevin-Prince Boateng (Schalke 04), Asamoah Gyan (Al Ain), Abdul Majeed Waris(Valenciennes).
The Ivoirians have been the top-ranked African side for almost two years but have also earned themselves the unfortunate, and unwanted, moniker of “chokers”.
It is a reference to their inability to triumph at the last five African Nations Cup finals despite starting each of the tournaments as favourites. They have also reached their third successive World Cup finals but failed in both 2006 and 2010 to get past the first round – in fairness, hampered by difficult draws.
Coach Sabri Lamouchi, who had no formal experience before being appointed in May 2012, has tried to inject new talent into a squad fast approaching its sell-by-date.
But there is still heavy reliance on the likes of 36-year-old Didier Drogba and Didier Zokora, and pressure on reigning African Footballer of the Year Yaya Toure to help lead and develop a new generation of emerging players.
The Ivoirians had a relatively tough qualifying assignment, sharing the same group as Morocco before ousting fellow west African giant Senegal 4-2 on aggregate in the play-off.
Their approach relies a lot on the midfield strength of Toure, the power up front of Drogba and in between the creativity of Gervinho. But their strong point is a powerful squad of players from across the top leagues of Europe.
Former France international Sabri Lamouchi was a left-field pick for Cote d’Ivoire when they appointed him coach in 2012.
At the time just 40 years old, it was his first foray into coaching, having retired from playing only three years earlier. It is fair to say the jury is still out.
World Cup qualification was an obvious achievement but with the gallery of stars at his disposal, it was also expected. A quarter-final exit at the hands of eventual winners Nigeria at the 2013 African Nations Cup was a big disappointment, as would be a first-round exit in Brazil.
Lamouchi, born in France of Tunisian descent, had a varied playing career that saw him feature for top French clubs Monaco and Marseille, as well as in Italy with Inter Milan, Parma and Genoa. He ended his career in Qatar.
He was also part of the France side that reached the 1996 European Championship semifinals.
Just one win in their last six matches before Wednesday night’s clash with El Salvador does not suggest the Ivoirians have much form, but they have been a bit better than that.
Included in that run is a 4-1 loss to Mexico and a 2-1 reversal at the hands of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but also fine draws away in Belgium and Senegal.
They will need to step it up in Brazil, where their biggest challenge will not be scoring goals, but remaining compact and organized in defence, so often their Achilles heel.
Cote d’Ivoire’s attacking threat is not in question and if they can manage to plug the gaps at the back, they have a genuine chance of going very deep into the World Cup with the creative players to be able to break any opponent down.
That is why goalkeeper Boubacar Barry could be crucial to their chances.
If he has a good tournament and can help his pressurized defence, all things are possible for the Ivoirians.
Barry will come under pressure though and will have to use all the experience he gained in two previous World Cup finals appearances and six trips to the African Nations Cup.
GROUP C OPPONENTS
June 14 vs Japan (Recife) – This could prove to be a decisive fixture for the Ivorians, up against what is likely their biggest threat for a place in the top two. Japan are well organized, technically gifted and very fit, but are limited in an attacking sense and The Elephants’ greater muscle will be an advantage.
June 19 vs Colombia (Brasilia) – The favourites for the pool, Colombia have been on the up in recent years and even without leading striker Falcao, who misses the World Cup through injury, there is plenty of other attacking verve in the side.
June 24 vs Greece (Fortaleza) – Greece will present a challenge, but man-for-man the Ivorians have more pace, class and physicality. The Greeks tend to be predictable in the way they play and battle for goals, making this a very winnable game for the African side.
Should Cote d’Ivoire make it out of the pool phase, there are some tough opponents waiting for the team in the second round from Group D, which contains Uruguay, England, Italy and Costa Rica.
Goalkeepers: Boubacar Barry (Lokeren), Sylvain Gbohouo (Sewe Sport), Sayouba Mande (Stabaek).
Defenders: Jean-Daniel Akpa Akpro (Toulouse), Serge Aurier (Toulouse), Souleyman Bamba (Trabzonspor), Arthur Boka (VfB Stuttgart), Viera Diarrassouba (Caykur Rizespor), Constant Djakpa (Eintracht Frankfurt), Kolo Toure (Liverpool), Didier Zokora (Trabzonspor).
Midfielders: Geoffroy Serey Die (Basel), Ismael Diomande (St Etienne), Max Gradel (St Etienne), Cheick Tiote (Newcastle United), Yaya Toure (Manchester City), Didier Ya Konan (Hannover 96).
Forwards: Mathis Bolly (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Wilfried Bony (Swansea City), Didier Drogba (Galatasaray), Gervinho (AS Roma), Salomon Kalou (Lille), Giovanni Sio (Basel).
World Cup qualification has extended Cameroon’s record as the African side with the most appearances at the finals – this will be its seventh – but, more important, it has lifted the Indomitable Lions out of a spiral of poor performances.
Although this is the team’s second successive trip to the World Cup, it comes after some four years of dismal form, player friction and a general malaise around a team once regarded as a standard-bearer for football on the continent.
The squad has been riven by divisions created at the 2010 finals in South Africa, with captain Samuel Eto’o at the centre of the fray. He has consistently fallen out with his colleagues, most recently in a bizarre outburst by the Chelsea striker during which he said there was a plot among his teammates not to pass him the ball.
Recent setbacks include the embarrassing aggregate defeat by the tiny Cape Verde Islands in the 2013 African Nations Cup qualifiers. Cameroon also did not qualify for the 2012 tournament.
But their fortunes have suddenly changed for the better, starting with a let-off after last June’s defeat to Togo in a World Cup qualifier, when FIFA awarded them all three points after their opponent used a suspended player.
This catapulted Cameroon back into qualification contention and won them a playoff spot, where they drew in Tunisia and won the second leg 4-1 at home to book their trip to Brazil.
German Volker Finke has been coach for a little over a year and has had to act as peacemaker as much as tactician for the side.
He replaced Jean-Paul Akono in May 2013 and under a month later was already embroiled in World Cup qualification, attempting to change the fortunes of a nation which was underachieving given their talent.
The job is a first in international football for the 66-year-old, who is perhaps best remembered for a 16-year spell with Freiburg in his native Germany. He also coached for one season in Japan with Urawa Red Diamonds.
Coaching in Africa a totally new experience for him, with all the politics on and off the pitch, but one Finke has adapted to remarkably well.
“Patchy” is the only way to describe it. Cameroon have not recorded back-to-back victories for two years and were routed 5-1 by Portugal in March. That was followed by a decent enough win in Macedonia, but they then lost to Paraguay. Their last outing at the weekend was an excellent 2-2 draw with Germany, yet another sign that they can compete when they get it all together.
Unfortunately they have been too hit-and-miss, with good performances followed immediately by bad. It makes them unpredictable as an opponent, and whether they can string a run of results together at the World Cup is a big question they need to answer.
As ever Samuel Eto’o will be tasked with leading from the front. His effectiveness as a player has waned over the years, but he brings experience, steely determination and a fair amount of gravitas to the side. Other teams will plan around containing him and that may well open up opportunities for others.
He also remains a clinical finisher and despite his fallouts with his teammates, they do still look up to him as a leader.
GROUP H OPPONENTS
June 13 vs Mexico (Natal) – Probably the easiest of the three matches to start for Cameroon. The Mexican side can be very good but have proven all too brittle in the past. Certainly the Indomitable Lions have the firepower to get their campaign off to a winning start.
June 18 vs Croatia (Manaus) – A very technically gifted Croatian side with plenty of experience will present a challenge for Cameroon, who will likely hope to use their greater physicality to upset the European side. Croatia might not be the side of 1998, but they have a lot of talent.
June 26 vs Brazil (Brasília) – Cameroon will hope that by the time this game comes around, Brazil will have already secured their passage into the next stage and be in a relaxed frame of mind. Should the Indomitable Lions get a win, it will be one of the great World Cup upsets of all time.
It won’t get any easier for Cameroon if they do make it out of their pool as they will face one of the top two teams in a Group B that includes world champions Spain, Netherlands, a very talented Chilean team and Australia.
Goalkeepers: Loic Feudjou (Coton Sport), Charles Itandje (Konyaspor), Sammy Ndjock (Fethiyespor).
Defenders: Benoit Assou-Ekotto (Tottenham Hotspur), Henri Bedimo (Olympique Lyon), Aurelien Chedjou (Galatasaray), Cedric Djeugou (Coton Sport), Nicolas Nkoulou (Olympique Marseille), Dany Nounkeu (Besiktas), Allan Nyom (Granada).
Midfielders: Enoh Eyong (Antalyaspor), Jean Makoun (Stade Rennes), Joel Matip (Schalke 04), Stephane Mbia (Sevilla), Benjamin Moukandjo (Nancy), Landry Nguemo (Girondins Bordeaux), Edgar Salli (Racing Lens), Alexandre Song (Barcelona).
Forwards: Vincent Aboubakar (Lorient), Eric-Maxim Choupo Moting (Mainz), Samuel Eto’o (Chelsea), Fabrice Olinga (Malaga), Achille Webo (Fenerbahce).
Algeria will compete at its second successive World Cup finals tournament, having held England to a draw in 2010, and carry the hopes and expectations of the Arabic-speaking world as the only side from north Africa and the Middle East to qualify for Brazil.
Their triumph over Burkina Faso on the basis of the away-goals rule in their final round playoff last November brought a satisfactory close to a year that started disastrously for “Les Fennecs” (the Desert Foxes).
Ranked second in Africa at the end of 2012, it became the first team bundled out of the African Nations Cup finals in South Africa last January.
Algeria have battled for years to realise the potential of a team picked mainly from the large diaspora of Algerians in France. The likes of Zinedine Zidane, Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri, playing for France, might have slipped under their net, but Algeria have assiduously courted many French-born junior internationals of Algerian descent.
The latest two to commit come from Italian giants Inter Milan – striker Ishak Belfodil and midfielder Saphir Taider.
Expectations in Brazil will be greater than in South Africa in 2010 when Algeria surprised by qualifying and ended a long-term slump. The country first went to the World Cup finals in 1982, famously beating West Germany at their first-ever appearance in Spain.
Vahid Halilhodžić will want to make up for the disappointment of losing out on leading Cote d’Ivoire at the 2010 World Cup finals four years ago when he was sacked months before the tournament started.
A former Yugoslavia international striker, he now goes under the banner of Bosnia-Herzegovina and has been in charge of Algeria since 2011.
The 61-year-old first coached in Africa at Moroccan side Raja Casablanca in 1997 and won the CAF Champions League with them, but his stay lasted just a year and he would not return to the continent for another decade.
He was tasked with leading the Ivorians to the 2010 World Cup and qualified their galaxy of stars handsomely for the South African finals before a shaky showing at the Africa Cup of Nations finals in Angola in January of that year. His performance persuaded the country’s football bosses to dump him in favour of Sven Goran-Erikssen.
Ironically, Cote d’Ivoire were dumped out of that Nations Cup tournament in the quarter-final stage by Algeria.
Nine victories in their last 11 internationals dating back to March 2013 suggest this Algerian side is in peak condition.
The only blemishes to their record were a 3-2 loss to Burkina Faso in a World Cup qualifyier and a 2-2 friendly draw with Guinea.
They have otherwise reigned supreme and as recently as Saturday defeated Armenia 3-1 in a World Cup warm-up to follow up a 2-0 success over Slovenia in March.
The side will play Romania in their next warm-up game on Wednesday.
Midfielder Sofiane Feghouli was born in France but has thrown his lot in with Algeria despite having featured for the French Under-18 and Under-21 sides.
He plays in a clever role behind the front two and pops up regularly into good scoring positions.
Feghouli started his career with Grenoble but in 2010 was snapped up by Spanish La Liga side Valencia. He briefly had a loan spell with Almeria in 2011 but has since cemented his place in the Valencia first team.
He was labeled the “new Zinedine Zidane” as a teenager and although he has not quite lived up to that status yet, he is a crucial cog in the Algeria armory.
GROUP H OPPONENTS
June 17 vs Belgium (Belo Horizonte) – In what is likely to be the toughest of Algeria’s three matches in the first round, Belgium have an exciting young squad that contains players from the major leagues of Europe. Getting any sort of result from this fixture would be seen as a major triumph.
June 22 vs Korea Republic (Porto Alegre) – The Asian side play a slick brand of football that is all about pace and precision, but man-for-man Algeria should feel their equal.
June 26 vs Russia (Curitiba) – Russia are a bit of an enigma, on paper a very good squad but in reality one that often disappoints.
Certainly this will be a test for Algeria, but again is a fixture where they will feel they can match their opponents.
Should Algeria make it out of the pool stages they will meet one of the top two teams in Group G, which includes Germany, Portugal, Ghana and the USA. All of those would be extremely difficult matches.
Goalkeepers: Rais Mbolhi (CSKA Sofia), Cedric Si Mohamed (CS Constantine), Mohamed Lamine Zemmamouche (USM Alger).
Defenders: Essaid Belkalem (Watford), Madjid Bougherra (Al Lekhwiya), Liassine Cadamuro (Mallorca), Faouzi Ghoulam (Naples), Rafik Halliche (Academica Coimbra), Aissa Mandi (Stade Reims), Carl Medjani (Valenciennes), Djamel Mesbah (Livorno), Mehdi Mostefa (Ajaccio).
Midfielders: Nabil Bentaleb (Tottenham Hotspur), Yacine Brahimi (Granada), Abdelmoumene Djabou (Club Africain), Sofiane Feghouli (Valencia), Mehdi Lacen (Getafe), Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City), Saphir Taider (Inter Milan), Hassan Yebda (Udinese).
Forwards: Nabil Ghilas (Porto), Islam Slimani (Sporting Lisbon), El Arabi Soudani (Dinamo Zagreb).