If this isn’t the signature match of this World Cup, an absolute classic awaits. All the “total football” focus had been on Holland v Brazil but in the end only Brazil played like they did in 1974; while this… this match was total… everything. The streets of Ghana’s capital Accra are not as packed as Ned Boulting and ITV would have been hoping when they flew 3,000 miles to get there. Most of the locals are filmed showing two fingers to Boulting and his cameras and we are assured that this is a prediction of the scoreline, rather than an invitation to the patronising outsiders to foxtrot oscar.
To be fair, Boulting, the panel and commentator Clive Tyldesley – immediately breaking his own first rule of commentary (“no bias”) – are just the right side of patronising throughout and the tension of the occasion has slowed Marcel Desailly down from Adebayor-ese to considered analysis. Tyldesley tell us “all of Africa” is behind Ghana, and what was lazy generalisation when Peter Drury said it before Ghana/USA turns out to be very true. It’s just an accident of timing that Tyldesley gives his “Uruguay v an entire continent” spiel as the cameras pan out over hundreds of empty seats in Soccer City itself.
If the Ghana players are nervous early on, then they’re hiding it very…badly indeed. But the sense is that luck may be on their side when John Mensah heads a Uruguayan corner against goalkeeper Richard Kingson’s face and the ball is cleared. Forlan is taking a fast bowler’s run-up to every free-kick, and while Tyldesley and Jim Beglin write them off as overhit, they cause problems, especially to the permanently unclear Kingson. Tyldesley is even surprised that Forlan is taking all the setpieces, which makes you wonder how much attention he’s been paying to Uruguay during the competition.
Ghana get away unpunished by their nerves and for the last fifteen minutes of the half they are sensational, inspired by Asamoah Gyan and Kevin Prince-Boateng, the latter actually seeming nerveless from the start. Why Diego Lugano is in the Celeste team at all, let alone its captain, hasn’t become clear over the tournament. He looks like the rich kid who got the job because his family have bankrolled their FA for decades. But Uruguay don’t half miss him when he gets injured. Isaac Vorsah shaves one post with a header; Gyan shaves the other with a shot and Sulley Muntari nods one wide as Uruguay’s defence adjusts to the introduction of Andres Scotti. Tyldesley emphasises the second syllable of Scotti’s name throughout, to avoid over-exciting any watching Trekkers. Beglin isn’t so considered, which will later be his undoing.
Then, right on half-time, Muntari pings one into the net from 35 yards, a reminder to Portsmouth fans of happier days (did he get one like that at Villa Park?). The goal takes the watching thousands… er … hundreds… er… dozens on Accra’s streets by surprise and changes Desailly’s expression from a vacant “will Townsend ever shut up??” to paroxysms of delight in a flash. The noise at half-time makes it impossible for Tyldesley to hear himself think, which becomes clear when he tells us that “quite literally, the half-time oranges changed everything” in the Brazil/Holland game…unless there’s a fruit saboteur lurking in the ranks that only Tyldesley knows about.
There’s been no sabotage in these dressing rooms, however, as the second half is utterly magnificent. Uruguay’s Diego Perez sticks in a couple of trademark fouls early on, which drives Beglin to Stereotype City: “Historically…Uruguay…temperamental.” Yes, Jim, and “historically… Irish… fiery.” So what? Forlan seems able to control his temperament, however; and the Jabulani ball, which flies past Richard Kingson from another Forlan free-kick – slow bowler’s run-up this time. At first it looks like Kingson has made a hames of it but the replays show that Forlan caught it magnificently.
Uruguay have most of the play, Suarez finding the side-netting of a near-open goal and Forlan doing likewise with another long-range, long run-up free-kick to which Kingson just gets a hand. Muntari blasts a golden chance out for a throw but the focus is on Kevin Prince-Boateng going to ground in the penalty area seconds earlier. “He’s already on his way down,” notes Beglin, as the increasingly tetchy Jorge Fucile crashes into Boateng, but that’s from the two previous fouls on him, both of which were stonewall penalties.
As the ante is upped in the closing stages, Tyldesley reminds us that both sides won their last-16 games with goals “late in the day,” but has to halt in mid-sentence when he remembers that Gyan’s 93rd minute strike against the US was not three minutes into stoppage time but that early in extra-time. Asked what he thinks will happen in extra-time, Beglin offers “we’re about to find out”, his annoying default position whenever asked for a prediction. But, to be fair to him, he couldn’t have predicted this second period of extra-time. “It’s a bit arrogant to say that this player or that is good enough for the Premier League,” notes Tyldesley. But he says it anyway, of Gyan, who is an increasing inspiration.
Having looked the least likely for 15 minutes, Ghana are sensational again, with Gyan, Boateng (twice) and Scotti all going close for them, Scotti nearly putting through his own net under pressure from the ubiquitous Gyan. Had it gone in it would of course have been a “beam me up, Scotty” moment – Beglin succumbing to the temptation with the finishing line in sight. Then, insanity. Steven Appiah – never once onside during this chaos – has a shot booted off the line by Luis Suarez and wonderkid substitute Dominic Adiyiah has a header brilliantly palmed away by…ooh heck, it’s Suarez again. He’s off. Ghana have a penalty, there’s only one kick left in the entire game and Gyan is good enough for the Premier League. What a script! And what could possibly go wrong?
Everyone but the most fanatical Uruguayan is nervous for Gyan, though. The pressure could not possibly be greater in his line of work, or most other lines of work that aren’t actually life-endangering. It’s a wonder he has the strength to do any more than place the ball towards the corner of the net. That is, of course, how he scored his two penalties earlier in the competition. But he finds the mental and physical strength to do (too) much more – as Desailly plaintively asks in the studio, after the kick hammers the top of the crossbar: “Why you do power?” Gyan displays as much courage as it is possible to muster in a “mere” football context by taking and scoring Ghana’s first shoot-out penalty. But it’s an “if only” moment, nothing more.
Chiles had said he wanted penalties for Ghana because Kingson was the kind of keeper to be the unlikely hero – and you sort of knew what he meant. But Tyldesley has researched something at last; Uruguay keeper Fernando Muslera’s penalty saving habit in Lazio’s 2009 Coppa Italia triumph, and we are duly forewarned. Ghana’s John Mensah and, to a lesser extent, Adiyiah, are guilty of the two-pace run-ups which are always destined to fail in such circumstances. Uruguay’s Maxi Periera takes a 22-pacer, which doesn’t do him any good either, as his kick is straight out of the Chris Waddle shoot-out manual. But Sebastien Abreu chips one down the middle and is lucky that Kingson just – JUST – gets his trailing leg out of the way. Uruguay are through. A country with a population of only 3.5 million has made it through to the semi-finals of the World Cup. It’s a remarkable feat when you think about it. But very few outside those 3.5 million are thinking about it.
Instead, the focus is on Gyan, broken and inconsolable. Gyan has gone from hulking target man to powerful, pacy, permanent goal threat during this tournament. He has scored three of Ghana’s five goals. His goal against the States was a classic – the stills of him powering his shot into the net providing an iconic image. And tonight he has been a sensation. He could not possibly have done more to get Ghana to within one kick of footballing history… and that could not possibly mean less to him now. There hasn’t been a match this good for about seven World Cups. Hopefully one day, Asamoah Gyan will be as proud of his involvement in it as he has every right to be.
Thanks once again to Historical Football Kits for the use of the graphics.