JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Asamoah Gyan had it all on his right foot. Triumph for Ghana. Glory for Africa.
With a penalty kick awarded to Ghana in the last seconds of its quarterfinals encounter with Uruguay, the Black Stars’ star striker took a couple of steps and sent a powerful shot smack on the cross bar, shattering the continent’s hopes of a first semifinal spot for an African team in World Cup history.
After Ghana’s missed opportunity, the two teams proceeded to the dreaded penalty kicks session. Ghana missed two. Uruguay missed one and reached the World Cup’s last four for the first time in 40 years. Ghana’s players tumbled to the ground one by one and struggled to get back up.
“There was a penalty in the end, but we weren’t lucky,” said Ghana coach Milovan Rajevac. “It was bad luck. It’s all I can say.”
Uruguay will now face the Netherlands in Cape Town on Tuesday after the Dutch stunned favorite Brazil in a 2-1 victory.
In the almost full 90,000-seat Soccer City stadium, the sea of Ghanaian flags overpowered the few small pockets of sky-blue Uruguayan supporters. While Ghana’s every attacking move elicited oohs and aahs from the crowd, Uruguay’s attempts were met with near silence.
Ghana was seeking to become the first African team to make it to the World Cup semifinal stage. But if Ghana was trying to write history, Uruguay was attempting to repeat it.
Uruguay was an early powerhouse of world soccer, winning the inaugural World Cup in 1930 and repeating the feat in 1950, but the nation of 3.5 million — the smallest left in the tournament — hadn’t reached the semifinals since 1970.
Consequently, El Pais, a leading Uruguayan daily, deemed Friday’s clash the most important soccer game for the country over the past 40 years. Banks, public offices, buses and taxis closed early or reduced service during the game. Anticipation was great, but the Montevideo newspaper warned against the danger of euphoria.
“If the national squad is ranked among the best eight of the World Cup but does not finish first, it will now seem like a national failure,” El Pais said in an editorial.
For the Black Stars, the significance of Friday’s game had largely spilled over Ghana’s borders. As the last African survivor in this first African World Cup, Ghana had become the unofficial champion of the entire continent.
The African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling party, gave a plaque to Ghana’s leadership this week and recommended the team change its name from “Black Stars of Ghana” to “Black Stars of Africa.”
“May the gods of Africa, your continent, our continent, mother Africa be with you,” the ANC said in a statement Friday.
Even Nelson Mandela himself got involved, writing to the president of the Ghana Football Association: “We join everybody on the continent and in the diaspora in wishing you success in the tournament going forward.”
Ordinary South Africans had also embraced the West African team, which some affectionately called “Baghana Baghana,” a reference to the host nation’s own Bafana Bafana who were eliminated in the first round. That Uruguay played a major part in South Africa by beating them 3-0 also ensured many locals were behind the Black Stars.
Uruguay took control of the match early, creating chances from corner kicks and long-range shots, but midway through the first half Ghana grew more comfortable and ventured deep into Uruguay’s camp. The Black Stars created several clear scoring chances through quick passing and deft combinations between Gyan and midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng.
Pressure was mounting on La Celeste, and it seemed only a matter of time until one of the most hermetic defenses of the World Cup conceded a goal.
It happened just before halftime, when Sulley Muntari, who took a couple of touches 30 yards from goal before unleashing a blazing curving ball that grazed his teammate Gyan’s head and ended up in the lower-right corner of Fernando Muslera’s net. It was sweet vindication for Muntari, who had risked being expelled from the squad after reportedly insulting his coach and teammates.
Uruguay had never trailed in this World Cup, but it didn’t take the South Americans long to level the score. Less than 10 minutes into the second half, Diego Forlan hit a free kick from the corner of the box. The ball traveled at a moderate speed, but Ghanaian goalkeeper Richard Kingson appeared fooled by the ball’s trajectory and found it in the back of his net.
The score didn’t change through the remainder of the half and most of the extra time that followed despite repeated attempts by Forlan, Gyan and Uuguayan forward Luis Suarez. Until finally, in the last second of overtime, Suarez’s volleyball-style hand punch to the ball on his goal line gifted Gyan with a penalty kick and a sure chance to send Ghana to its first semifinal.
Gyan’s miss will leave many wondering whether Africa is cursed after two failures to move beyond the quarterfinals stage by Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002.