'Always an extra edge to Ghana-USA games'

Stephen Appiah celebrates his winning goal against the USA at the 2006 World Cup Getty Images

One of the most iconic images in Ghana's brief World Cup history is of former captain Stephen Appiah, staring at the ball on the penalty spot with the look of a man truly carrying the hopes of an entire nation.

Seconds later, he fixes USA goalkeeper Kasey Keller with a death glare before thumping the ball into the net, then running off and beating his chest in utter delight. This was in Nuremberg in 2006 and, more than 10 years later, it is still a goal many Ghanaian football fans remember with fondness.

It was the goal that sent Ghana through to the knockout stages of the World Cup at their first attempt, and sent the USA home in the group stages. It was also the game that triggered something of a unique football rivalry.

"There is clearly a rivalry developing between us [Ghana] and them [USA] because of the games that have been played at World Cup level," Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah tells KweséESPN.

"They have always been tough games with so much at stake, which has naturally always increased the intensity."

The fact that all three meetings at World Cups have ended 2-1 backs up Appiah's assertion. Ghana won two; the victory in 2006 that took Ghana through to a second-round match-up against Brazil, and a 2-1 win in South Africa in 2010, which earned Ghana a quarterfinal spot, only the third African country to do so.

Appiah was assistant to Milovan Rajevac in 2010, before taking charge of the Black Stars for the third World Cup meeting in 2014, which the USA won 2-1 in Natal, Brazil.

"I still don't understand why we lost that game", Appiah continues. "We dominated possession and created chances and didn't take them. Then we made mistakes at the back in crucial moments too."

The incredulous expression on Appiah's face when he recounts that game tells its own story. It was effectively the beginning of his problems as Black Stars coach, culminating in his sacking after the tournament, and he only got the job back in April this year.

That USA game was the one match Ghana were convinced they would definitely win, in a group that also contained Portugal and Germany. That sort of 'we had to win against the USA at all costs' mentality sums up Ghanaian attitudes to the USA men's national team.

Football is truly embedded in Ghanaian life. Many Ghanaians assume that is not the case in the USA.

"Before the 2006 World Cup meeting there was almost this 'how can they ever beat us?' attitude among the Ghanaian fans and journalists," recounts commentator Kwabena Yeboah.

"For too long there have been too many people who didn't think of the USA as a major football nation. Those World Cup meetings have changed that."

Current Ghana goalkeeper coach Richard Kingson, who manned the posts in both the 2006 and 2010 World Cup meetings, says that the players themselves held no such attitudes: "As players we have never gone into a game against the USA thinking about their pedigree in the sport.

"We have always gone in with utmost respect for the team."

Stephen Appiah, who scored that winning goal in 2006 and now works with his namesake on the Ghana team, agrees that the initial scepticism about the sport in America has given way to genuine respect, hence the rivalry.

"In 2006, that game was very close, then we needed extra time to settle the game in 2010, and in 2014 they beat us and effectively damaged our World Cup hopes, so there is always an extra edge to the game," he says.

"I don't think there are many people who think the USA isn't a country to bother about much when it comes to football," he adds.

In fact, the USA means a lot more to Appiah and the Black Stars' technical team than ever before. Two of the most established players in the national team, Jonathan Mensah and Harrison Afful, play their club football in the USA with Columbus Crew. Chicago Fire's David Accam has been in and out of the Black Stars since 2012.

Appiah's squad for the US tour includes all three players, plus Mohammed Abu at Columbus Crew, and Kwadwo Poku, currently on loan at Miami FC from New York City FC.

In addition to those players, part of Kwesi Appiah's plan is to stay in the US beyond the July 1st meeting against the USMNT and cast his eye over Ghanaian talent in the league, as he looks to expand the talent pool available to the Black Stars.

This could mean opportunities for the likes Latif Blessing, the best player in the Ghana Premier League last season, who now plays for Sporting Kansas City.

That approach reflects a new-found respect for the sport in the USA, even as the rivalry looks set to intensify. Appiah is careful not to tag it a must-win game, but he wants to get the most out of it too.

"It will be easy to say this is just a friendly game but there is recent history between us so it won't simply be just a friendly game," he says.

"There is also a big Ghanaian community there so it adds an extra edge to the game, but as a coach I am clear in my mind about what I want from the game.

"It is an opportunity to continue to build a strong team, the chance to see a few new players and build momentum," he concludes.