Ghana are Africa's top-ranked team, sitting 16th in the world, only 10 places below Fabio Capello's England.
What sets them apart from other African nations is not their stars but the young players who are coming through. The likes of Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari and Asamoah Gyan are instantly recognisable from the Premier League, but they are not irreplaceable, as they discovered when skipping a friendly against Angola18 months ago. All three were fined by the then-Ghana coach, Milovan Rajevac, and when Muntari was late in paying, he was dropped for last January's Africa Cup of Nations.
For most African teams such a sanction would be impossible, but Rajevac had the squad that had just won the World Under-20 championship to draw on. Without Muntari and Essien, who was injured, Ghana reached the final of the Cup of Nations. His point made, Rajevac restored Muntari for last summer's World Cup where Ghana came within Luis Suárez's goal-line handball – and Gyan's subsequent penalty miss – of becoming the first African side to reach the semi-finals.
Foremost among the new generation on display tonight will be André Ayew, the Marseille winger, and Udinese's Kwadwo Asamoah. At 22, Asamoah is still raw but it seems that after a decade-long hiatus in the production of playmakers, he could be the one to carry on the west African tradition of Ghana's Abedi Pele and Nigeria's Jay-Jay Okocha. Pele himself sees Asamoah as a modern incarnation of the role similar in style to Kaká. "If you look at Kaká," Pele said, "he is technically very good, maybe the same talent as Okocha. But if you look at Okocha, he didn't counterattack. He didn't run very fast. Kaká is somebody who takes the ball on the run. It's a different style of football. I would say the more efficient way ... [is] to slow the game from the defence, and when you get to the midfield to start passing it very fast and when the ball gets to [the playmaker], the speed comes from there."
As Okocha has lamented the loss of the sort of individuality with which he once dazzled and says football today is about "the team". For Rajevac that was born out in a rigid, defensive 4-2-3-1 system and in a tight group of players who, as anybody who saw Ghana training in South Africa during the World Cup could attest, genuinely seem to enjoy each other's company. With Gyan suspended, the young forward Dominic Adiyiah played in Ghana's Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in Congo on Saturday, the day after his father's funeral.
The way his goal, the second in a 3-0 win, was celebrated spoke of the closeness of the squad. "We all pray for him and we are behind him all the time," said the captain, John Mensah, after the game. It is indicative too of Ghana's team spirit that Essien and the former captain Stephen Appiah will be at Wembley for tonight's game. It is only a friendly, but the desire to become the first African side to beat England – even after a 4,000-mile flight from Brazzaville – should not be underestimated. This is the first real test of Rajevac's replacement, Goran Stevanovic, the fourth Serbian to coach Ghana in the past decade.
He too is a devout 4-2-3-1 man, having led Partizan Belgrade to the Serbian title with the formation last year, but his interpretation of the shape has so far has been more attacking than his predecessor's. Then again, Togo and Congo are a different level of opposition even to a sub-strength England. "My biggest challenge," he said, "is to let the players believe in themselves because I'm sure we have not reached the zenith and we can do better."
Gyan is dismayed to be facing a considerably weakened England. "I might be disappointed but it is one of those things. Maybe the fans are disappointed because we have never played against England. Maybe some of the fans are there to see the big names and they are not playing ... [but] England are still a strong side."
Ghana's primary objective is a first Cup of Nations in 30 years in Gabon-Equatorial Guinea next February, but beating England would be a landmark achievement for this emerging generation.
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