Thursday, 5 June 2014

Ghana's finest spells trouble for Ronaldo: yes the World Cup is here… and these are the 16 nations who will survive the opening cull

Doctors orders: Ronaldo's injury is apparently spiritual
THERE can be no better way to resume this writer's World Cup love affair. Let's deal first with the cracking tale about the Ghanaian witchdoctor who claims he has personally caused Cristiano Ronaldo's injury problems in the build-up to Brazil 2014.

The greatest sporting event in the world (shut up Olympians) gets underway next Thursday with the hosts taking on Croatia.

But for Africa, Ghana's fate is vital. One of their leading traditional practioners Nana Kwaku Bonsam is well aware of how important Portgual's No7 is in Group G.

Four short years ago in South Africa, Luis Suarez's hand denied Ghana a record-breaking place in the semi-finals of the Copa Mondiale. There cannot be a repeat. Dr Bonsam (apparently his full name means "Wednesday's Devil") has done his research. He knows Germany (2), Portugal (3) and the USA (14) are higher ranked than his own nation (38) and a little extra help may be required.

So on Wednesday when the Portuguese FA confirmed Ronaldo is still struggling with a muscle problem in his left thigh sustained in Real Madrid's Champions League-winning campaign, Dr Bonsam announced on a radio station in Kumasi: “I know all about Cristiano's injury, I’m working on him. I said four months ago I will work on Ronaldo seriously and rule him out of the World Cup or at least prevent him from playing against Ghana.

Beyond help: Ronaldo is a threat to Ghana
"The best thing I can do is give him an injury. I am very serious about it. Last weekend, I went around looking for four dogs and I got them to be used in manufacturing a special spirit called Kahwiri Kapam.

“This injury can never be cured by any medical doctor, they can never see what is causing the injury because it is spiritual. Today, it is his knee; tomorrow it is his thigh; next day it is something else."

Ghana play Portugal - reputed to be a bit of a one-man side by most pundits - in their final match of Group G in Brasilia on 26 June. We will find out then if the good doctor has made his muti count. Here in South Africa, we are not skeptical about these things. It's a serious matter.

Ah, four years ago. That opening goal of the first African World Cup scored by beautiful Kaizer Chiefs winger Simphiwe Tshabalala. An opening draw against Mexico. Hope alive… then the dark magic struck. Ironically it was Suarez and his golden-locked mate Diego Forlan who laid Bafana Bafana low.

Even victory against 1998 world champions France wasn't enough to put South Africa in to the last 16. For the first time in history, the hosts went out in the group stages. Ah, the pain.

Four years on, much has changed. I came to that World Cup fresh from working 4am-2pm in London, where a daily congestion charge of around R100 and a dull life were squeezing me dry. Four years on, I am free of colonialists who close successful newspapers, I have escaped calls from Sky News asking me to talk about skeleton bob-sleighing at 2am, I live in the nation where you can still see lions kill and the monthly etoll bill comes to less than a week of traveling in to London.

Unrestrained by ignorant editors and West Ham fans, I can write what I like. And this much needs to be said: South Africa should be at this World Cup. With Ethiopia docked three points in a qualification group that also featured Botswana and the Central African Republic, Bafana should at the very least have had a crack at the play-off against Nigeria.

Instead that magnificent headed own goal from Bernard Parker - the PSL's top scorer with 10 goals in a season which saw him last net in February - proves that muti is NOT dead in football.

Four years on, there is no Paul the octopus to amuse us. Yet. Apparently the aquatic prophet has gone to his own nirvana, known as "Calamari" in some quarters. I'm sure the Brazilians will pull out an indigenous golden lion tamarin to help us predict the outcome.

But what can be said, without reference to witchdoctors or, worse, Sammy Kuffour's labored predictions, is that NO EUROPEAN SIDE HAS EVER WON THE WORLD CUP IN LATIN AMERICA.

Four years ago, Germany were the best side on show, Holland gritted their way past Brazil in an epic come-from-behind quarter-final in Port Elizabeth… and Spain eventually won it, scoring just seven goals.

Those three European big guns are, naturally, back in Brazil. But this time we have the magical South Americans to throw at them on home soil. Chile, Colombia and Uruguay are there with the big guns, Brazil and Uruguay. Who dares to bet against the hosts after their Confederations Cup triumph?

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's settle for sorting out the qualifiers for the last 16, that vital first step.

Group A, Brazil and Mexico will qualify with Croatia and Cameroon - barring a remarkable revival from Samuel Eto'o - dropping out. Mexico needed a play-off against New Zealand to get to Brazil, Croatia could push them hard, though many will pray for the Cameroonionians.

Group B offers better news for Europe with champions Spain and  beaten 2010 finalists the Netherlands favored. Chile might spring a surprise, but having seen Australia draw 1-1 with a makeshift Bafana last week, it's two out of three.

Group C offers Africa's best hope of serious impact. Didier Drogba and Gervinho led the Cote D'Ivoire to a 2-1 victory over El Salvador in front of 18,000 in Texas last night after last week's unhappy warm-up defeat against Bosnia. The Ivory Coast - with the rested Yaya Toure at the forefront - are expected to progress with Colombia, Greece and Japan will go home.

Group D? England have never failed to reach the knock-out stages at the finals, but this time, surely Uruguay and Italy will test that record, with Costa Rica bringing up the rear. Mario Balotelli is reassuring on this: "England are not rivals to Italy. They cannot win the World Cup." Fact.

Group E is the weakest of the lot. Switzerland and France come up against Honduras and Ecuador, who drew 2-2 with England in Miami last night. Sure, the Swiss were the only side to beat Spain in 2010 and they enjoy a spectacularly high FIFA ranking, probably thanks to uncle Sepp. But I'll go for France and Ecuador.

Group F will no doubt be dominated by Argentina's top class strike force (we could even see Lionel Messi on the bench) with Bosnia, Nigeria and Iran fighting it out for second. Ironically, the two favorites to replace Gordon Igesund as South Africa's head coach will battle it out. Carlos Queiroz has worked miracles in Tehran while Steve Keshi has done much the same out of Lagos. I'm taking the 2013 AFCON winners and reigning African Champions to roar in to the last 16.

Group G is clearly the group of death, full of fatal threats. Any good witchdoctor will tell you Ghana need a bit of magic to finish in the top two with Germany, Portugal and the Americans to contend with. Sadly, I think Ghana may struggle against Europe's 2nd and 3rd best sides… unless Ronaldo is ruled out of course.

Group H sees everyone's new favorites Belgium (who should really thank a former colony once known as the Congo for a lot of their emerging talent) ready to go further than ever before with Algeria, Russia and South Korea in the battle, presumably, for second. Actually, though they have of big names these days, the Belgians are no certainty. This is probably the hardest group to call. Belgium and Russia? Probably.

So that's it. My final 16. Feel free to have a go if I get it all wrong. I pray an African side - probably the Ivory Coast - will reach the last four. But for me, it's all about who gets to the final with Brazil. Argentina, surely?

SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names. Ballz will also provide daily World Cup updates from next week.

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