When Ghana becamse independent in 1957, the first of the wave of sub-Saharan countries to do so in that period, there’s a nice story about then Vice-President Richard Nixon attending their Independence Day celebrations. The US were broadly supportive of countries seeking to cast of the yoke of the old European colonial powers, and a beaming Nixon was shaking hands with anyone and everyone. “How does it feel to be free?” he asked of one black man he took for a native; “I wouldn’t know sir,” the man replied, “I’m from Alabama”.
A little over half a century later it was Bill Clinton in attendance as Ghana again carried the hopes of a continent but this time it was America’s job to stand firmly in their way. At least, we kept being told about this “hopes of a continent” thing anyway – Peter Drury used every available opportunity to ram it home, and even when there was no such opportunity he did so a few more times anyway. Ghana of course are the sole African representatives in the last sixteen, but it seems a little patronising to assume that the rest of a diverse continent of a billion or so would all be right behind any such team, and I do wonder whether this is as true as the rest of the world seems to like to imagine. I rather hope it is true, it’s certainly true that many of us from further afield would love to see at least one of their teams make the breakthrough that has long been threatened but never materialised.
It’s twenty years now since Cameroon caught the imaginations with that wonderful opening day win over Argentina and subsequent run to the quarter-finals where they could so easily have beaten England, and since then we’ve been promised that Nigeria, or Senegal, or maybe Ivory Coast were all ready to take it a stage further. None of them have, and indeed only Senegal have matched Cameroon’s achievement of reaching the last eight, in 2002. And while having a single African representative in the second round has become par for the course (the same as the last five tournaments) it’s been a disappointment that more couldn’t have made it through given the opportunity presented by a first African World Cup and the huge levels of enthusiasm shown for the sport.
Still, if you want proof that FIFA’s grand plan to spread football round the world is finally starting to bear fruit then you could look instead to the USA, where by all accounts the country have shown an unprecedented level of interest in the performance of their soccer team, and where the team in recent years has shown signs of emerging as a genuine world power. This is a good thing too – I’m not one of those who don’t want the USA to become a major part of the footballing world. The more the merrier, there isn’t a country in the world that doesn’t have something to contribute to the culture of the sport. But I’m not one of those who see their presence as particularly important to the sport either, if they’d rather watch baseball then fine, it’s all the same to me. Given the choice between the two, I confess I’d much sooner see the success come first for Africa than for North America. And so it proved in the end, at least for one night, though it was a very tight thing and there was a long period in the match when it looked like the momentum of it was turning very much against them.
Ghana started the brighter, helped by a fifth minute goal, when the US lost possession and allowed Kevin-Prince Boateng to run in the space between the midfield and centre-backs, then hit a low twenty yard shot into the gap that Tim Howard had left at his near post. For the next half hour or so they set about building on it, keeping possession comfortably right across the field and passing the ball around with a confidence that suggested they were feeling little of the pressure other people were putting on them. For all that, there weren’t many more chances to be had. Unlike, say, Chile in their first half against Spain a day earlier, the Americans were too discplined to lose their way and cave in just because they weren’t playing very well. Inkoom and Asamoah had half-chances but wasted them with ambitious attempts on goal, and slowly the US started to claw their way into the match.
They made their first substitution after half an hour, Rangers’ Maurice Edu coming on for Ricardo Clark, and a few minutes later had their first clear chance when Dempsey latched onto a loose pass and played Robbie Findley through on the inside left. Findley went for the same near post gap that had worked for Boateng, but Richard Kingson had covered his angles better and stopped it with his legs. Two minutes later Asamoah had another sight of goal for Ghana, Howard covering his own near post rather better this time.
There was a second American change at half-time, Benny Feilhaber coming on for Findley, and the newcomer had their best chance yet within two minutes of the restart. A low right-wing cross from Donovan reached Altidore, he turned and laid it off for Feilhaber whose run to the back post hadn’t been picked up – he tried to lift it over the ‘keeper but Kingson had been quick off his line and did well to block. Ghana continued to have some chances – Boateng and Gyan again wasted good possession with ambitious shots – but by now it was clearly the US doing most of the pressing. They lacked the pace and directness of their opponents, but instead showed some neat intricate passing, usually marshalled by Landon Donovan, which threatened to split the Ghanaian defence. On two or three occasions early in the second half they were denied by well-timed tackles in the backline, but it was always on the cards that one such tackled would eventually be mistimed – Jonathan Mensah was the unlucky man when it came, bringing down Clint Dempsey as he burst into the penalty area. The referee, I think rightly, decided it wasn’t worth a red card, but it was a clear penalty, which Donovan hit firmly in off the post to level the scores. Bill Clinton celebrated boisterously while Mick Jagger – who, of all people, was sat beside him – was filming the penalty on his mobile ‘phone. I expect he’ll be posting it on youtube later.
For the rest of the second half the US continued to look the team more likely. Donovan sent Altidore clear but again Kingson was quick off his line to save with his feet; Michael Bradley had a better chance, played in by Altidore on the inside left, but hit his shot first-time straight at the ‘keeper; their final chance of the half came instead from a long ball over the top which nearly caught the defence out – again it was Altidore running onto it, with Mensah doing just enough to put him off. Altidore slipped, and even as his backside hit the ground he swung a foot and got a shot away which wasn’t that far wide of the far post.
They couldn’t find a winner in normal time, but went into extra-time with all pundits agreeing they looked the fitter and stronger side. So of course in the third minute of extra-time Ghana retook the lead. An absolute belter it was too, from Asamoah Gyan. Again it was a ball over the top, Gyan got behind the defence – he was actually pushed in the back and forced rather wide by Bocanegra but, resisting any temptation to look for the free-kick, he regained his balance and, on-the-turn, lashed a shot goalwards. If it had flown into row Z I’d probably have accused him of being wasteful again – it probably wasn’t the percentage thing to do – but instead it flew just over Howard’s head, giving him no chance to react before it was past him and into the back of the net. Sod percentages.
That changed the momentum of the game again, and while the US continued to press, the second goal seemed to knock the stuffing out of them and now they were finding few ways through. They had no clear chances in the remainder of extra-time, though both Feilhaber and – very late on – Dempsey had shots blocked after knock-downs from set pieces. They were unable to force Kingson into any further action, however, and Ghana saw out time to reach the quarter-finals for the first time, and to become just the third African side ever to do so.
It’s got a great sound to it – Uruguay versus Ghana for a place in the semi-final. A real clash of styles and a real opportunity for two of the lesser-fancied countries, it’s what the World Cup is all about. I rather fancy Uruguay, but not by all that much, and after initial disappointments Ghana could yet make this a historic World Cup for their continent, in more ways than one.
Thanks again to Historical Football Kits for the use of the graphics.