This time Muntari feels right at home

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Eight years ago, Sulley Muntari tore out of school to try to get to a game of football. Back then, aged only 15, he was trying to watch his country take on South Africa. It was the first time Ghana had hosted the African Nations Cup in 12 years. Unfortunately Muntari's, and his idols', efforts were in vain.

The Portsmouth midfielder recalls of that quarter-final on a steamy night: "I was trying to get to the stadium in Kumasi to watch it. I couldn't get there so I stopped off in someone's house but we lost 1-0. That was disappointing, but now it's our turn to pay our fans back and let them see a good team. They're proud of us and we're going to try our best to make them happy."

Back in 2000, the Black Stars were a team in transition. They had seen the end of Abedi Pele and Tony Yeboah, Muntari's idols growing up, and were suddenly called upon to co-host that tournament with Nigeria, as Zimbabwe was deemed an unsuitable venue.

This time around, Ghana are better prepared and have the sole responsibility as hosts, and Muntari, having long left school, is part of a generation of players, including Michael Essien and the injured Stephen Appiah, who can call themselves the best team in their country's history.

"This is my first time in the Nations Cup and I'm looking forward to it," he says. "The atmosphere will be great and the fans are crazy about it. We're hosting it so it will be one of the best. Ghana are one of the favourites. We have a good side, playing good football. We can win it. But there's Nigeria and Ivory Coast as well."

One of those two West African neighbours are likely and tricky quarter-final opponents, assuming they get through an easy-looking group with Guinea, Namibia and Morocco.

Despite his enthusiasm now, Muntari has been a reluctant participant for Ghana in recent years, having retired once before agreeing to return in time for the World Cup two years ago. His presence was certainly missed at the last Nations Cup in Egypt in 2006, when the Black Stars failed to get out of what was a tough group.

Back in the fold by the time his country made their World Cup debut in Germany, he was one of their most impressive performers. Ghana made it to a last-16 game with Brazil, which they lost 3-0. But Harry Redknapp did not let that result deflect him from his target. The Portsmouth manager says: "I watched Muntari in the World Cup and he was the best on the pitch against Brazil, and then I saw him five or six times after that." He then signed him last summer, from Udinese in Serie A, for £7 million and he has been well-rewarded since. He has scored four goals, including two stunning efforts against Aston Villa, but just as importantly he has easily blended into life in the Premier League.

Yet Muntari, who turns 24 in March, could have come to England much sooner. His talent was spotted by Manchester United's scouts and he came over for a trial. He says: "I was here in 2001 but since then everything has changed and I'm really glad I'm with Pompey. I was close to signing [for United] but it didn't happen."

His displays for Portsmouth this season have reportedly also attracted Liverpool's interest, and he is certainly not shy about admitting that is an attractive prospect for him. He says: "Sure, it's my dream to play in a bigger club and that's what I'm aiming for, but I've got a five-year contract at Pompey. It's great to have that sort of recognition from Liverpool because they are a very big side and I'm aiming to play for the biggest clubs in England and the world."

But it is his country, not club, that demands his attention now, although he does admit to some annoyance at leaving Pompey when they are doing so well. He says: "It's like you're playing good music and your mum comes into your room and tells you to turn your stereo off. It's sad, but I have to go and represent my country.

"They made me who I am today. Without them, teams wouldn't see me and ask me to play for them. And my minimum aim is to win this Cup." And unlike eight years ago, Muntari will be there to get a first-hand view of the action.