Friday July 2nd was the day that Uruguay beat Ghana 4-2 on penalties after a 1-1 draw. The result is there in black and white, but only tells a fraction of what happened.
World Cup exits are painful at the best of times, but few teams suffered the level of heartbreak endured by Ghana on that fateful night. This was less the hand of fate and more the hand of Suarez. The Uruguayan striker’s handball in the 119th minute of the quarter-final tie made him simultaneously the most loved man in Uruguay and the most hated man in most other football loving nations. Asamoah Gyan’s missed penalty that took the game to penalties and the shootout misses of captain John Mensah and youngster Dominic Adiyiah completed the heartbreak.
This outcome left the whole of Africa outraged at what they thought was the theft of Ghana’s place in the semi-finals, unchartered territory for any African side at the World Cup. The scenes that followed were painful to even neutral observers; the villainous Suarez raised aloft on teammates shoulders, the inconsolable Gyan refusing all attempts to comfort him and thousands of distraught supporters standing in shock at what they had just witnessed.
So was it worth it? Was it worth the pain of those final few minutes in the quarter-final? Most Ghanaians fans would surely say it was. What they had seen over the five games leading to that point could only have left them overwhelmingly proud, as their young team came within a whisker of doing what no African team had done before.
If we rewind to June 11, the day the tournament started, few would have given Ghana a chance of making it out the group stage, let alone getting to the brink of the semis. Their best player, Michael Essien, was out of the tournament with injury, while Sulley Muntari, their other top level talent, found himself benched due to problems with discipline and attitude. Add to that the fact that their inspirational leader from four years ago, Stephen Appiah, had barely played this season, and things didn’t look great for Ghana.
In a group alongside heavyweights Germany, dark horses Serbia and the spirited Australians it looked a tall task for Ghana. The Black Stars knew they’d need some of their youngsters to step up in the absence of Essien, Muntari and Appiah, and step up they did.
Anthony Annan was disciplined and highly effective in central midfield where he was partner by Kevin-Prince Boateng, who was quite simply a revelation. Boateng only secured Ghanaian eligibility a few weeks before the tournament, but look at home in the team as he deputised ably for the incomparable Essien. In front of them, 21 year old playmaker Kwadwo Asamoah and 20 year old winger Andre Ayew were both brilliant. Asamoah came into the tournament touted as one to watch after a great season with Udinese in Serie A, and he didn’t disappoint. His silky left foot enable him to spray pinpoint passes at will which were fed off by Ayew and Ghana’s lone striker Asamoah Gyan.
Ayew’s form saw him amongst the nominee’s for the tournament’s best young player, while Gyan, who scored against Serbia, Australia and the USA, was nominated for the World Cup’s best player. The rest of the team also put in performances to be proud of as Ghana qualified alongside Germany. Of course they enjoyed their fair share of fortune early on in the tournament, with their winner in the 1-0 victory over Serbia and their equaliser in the 1-1 draw against Australia both coming from the penalty spot.
They also benefitted from the result in the game between Australia and Serbia going their way after they had lost 1-0 to Germany in the final group game, but most would say they deserved that. They played with a freedom going forward while maintaining defensive discipline in a backline marshalled by Mensah and John Pantsil. They benefitted from a combination of organisation, pace, technique and determination, something showcased perfectly in their 2-1 extra time victory over America and their performance against Uruguay that was so nearly very different.
Ghana became the tournament darlings, in part because all the other African teams exited at the group stage, but also because there was so much to like about them. From the fantastic play of their young stars to their celebratory dance routines, Ghana captured the hearts of football fans across Africa and even the World, many of whom were rooting for them to defy the odds and go all the way.
That possibility may have been snatched away by the hand of Suarez, but Ghana still had a huge hand in making this World Cup a credit to Africa.