After a much-celebrated Under-20 World Cup win in 2009 and a good performance at this year’s Africa Cup of Nations, Ghana supporters are oscillating between cautious hope and blind optimism. Injuries to key players have tempered expectations but the general feeling is an opening game win over Serbia should carry the team through. For Serbian fans the perfect start to their first major tournament as an independent country would be to beat Germany and avoid England in the next round.
Radomir Antic is currently the most popular figure in Serbia. Highly regarded after a long career in Spanish club football, his only condition for taking the national job was to bring in his own support staff. With his arrival, the feeling was that Serbia finally got a coach who has the charisma and authority to lead the team to higher levels. A disciplinary spat that resulted in Sulley Muntari being dropped from the Africa Nations Cup squad led many Ghanaians to question coach Milovan “Milo” Rajevac. But his stock rose when a young squad shorn of key players reached the final in Angola.
Michael Essien is the most media-savvy member of the Ghana squad and writes a blog for the official Chelsea website which is quite engaging by modern standards of interviewee banality. He has blogged about, among other things, Superman, the oddities of rugby, sleeping habits (15 hours a day if he can manage) and how it feels to score a goal. Which is “like dipping Kit Kat chocolate in a hot cup of coffee and letting it melt in your mouth”, apparently. Essien is also the king of endorsements, be it for local mobile phone companies, Guinness or yoghurt drinks. John Mensah was once the face of Jago milk, “the favourite drink of tomorrow’s champions”. For unusual hobbies there can’t be anything to match sucking a dummy on the substitutes’ bench during games, as AC Milan’s Dominic Adiyiah was caught doing during the Africa Cup of Nations.
Among the Serbs, Standard Liege’s Milan Jovanovic usually has interesting things to say but under Antic’s regime even those players who have rarely appeared in the media, like the taciturn Nemanja Vidic, now regularly speak at press conferences. One topic that the players avoid, however, is politics. Knowing that Serbia is a deeply divided society, the players try to avoid any involvement that could damage their popularity.
Ghana is Africa’s second most prosperous nation according to the 2009 Failed States Index (or second “least failed” according to the inherently negative terminology), so political mobilisation from footballers is scarcely necessary. But Stephen Appiah is so popular in Ghana he could probably run for president and win.
Several players in Rajevac’s squad were part of the Under-20 World Cup-winning team whose goals unleashed extravagant celebrations, including synchronised dance moves, animal impressions and spontaneous break dancing (notably from Asamoah Gyan). Serbian players always celebrate goals with a three-finger salute involving the thumb, index and middle fingers.
Few Serbia fans will travel so support will come mostly from those already living in South Africa. National team supporters have recently picked patriotic songs popular among club fans, including Kosovo is the heart of Serbia, The March onto Drina and Brother Serbian. There is no official Ghanaian song for the World Cup but singer Grace Ashy has released a 2010 remix version of her Black Stars song – a huge hit at the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations. Jonathan Fadugba & Dragomir Pop-Mitic