Africa’s dream is over

Sometimes it is the unlikeliest of games which conjure up memories which will stay with you for a very long time.

Writing this with two quarter finals yet to be played, it is still far too early to say for certain what will be the defining memory of this tournament, the moment of genius or self-destruction which will come to encapsulate Africa’s first World Cup.

Already we have the unique sound of thousands of vuvuzelas blown in ecstatic unison, the vision of Robert Green’s fumble which seemed to slow the passage of time itself as a disbelieving nation watched the ball creep with horrendous inevitability over England’s line, and of course the Lampard ‘goal’ that never was, a memory England fans will cling to in a bid to blot out the truth of how completely a young, energetic German side outclassed what once, and foolishly with hindsight, was christened the Golden Generation.

But whatever happens between now and the conclusion of the tournament in Johannesburg next Sunday, I am certain it will take a moment of spectacular drama and intense emotion to surpass what the world witnessed last night as the South American dark horses of Uruguay faced Africa’s last hope, the Black Stars of Ghana, for the right to meet Holland, the conquerors of Brazil, in the semi finals.

It happened after almost 120 minutes of football. Ghana were pressing forward, drawing on seemingly inexhaustible reserves of energy and desire, when Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez handled the ball on the line, denying a certain match-winning goal which would have sent an African team to the semi finals for the first time.

Suarez was dismissed. Ghana had a penalty. And Asamoah Gyan had one kick from 12 yards to secure a place in history.

With the clock run down, and a continent holding its collective breath, the Rennes striker stepped up and thundered his shot against the crossbar. At that moment, with the Uruguayan keeper Muslera pounding the woodwork in an expression of sheer relief, you felt the tide had turned irreversibly against the Black Stars.

The look on Gyan’s face as the enormity of his miss began to register encapsulated just how this sport can turn hero to villain in a moment, how a team game can be reduced to a simple reckoning of one man’s success or failure under the most intense of spotlights.

Gyan has been one of the players of the tournament. A match-winning penalty in the 85th minute in Ghana’s first group game against Serbia, another penalty converted in the second match to secure a draw against Australia, and an extra time winner against the United States in the round-of-16 demonstrated just how crucial the 24-year-old has been in the Black Stars’ run to the brink of the last four.

Strong, determined and with a great eye for goal, I’m sure many Premier League clubs will be taking a look at him this summer, despite the fact his value on the transfer market will have soared after such a strong showing in South Africa.

That the dreams of a nation, a continent, and a good number of engrossed neutrals around the globe died with his failed spot kick will be a tragedy for Gyan if it goes even a small way to overshadowing his performance on this biggest of all stages.

That the Ghanaian stepped up to convert the first penalty of the resulting shoot out was ample demonstration, if any were needed, that this man possesses strength of character deserving of nothing but admiration.

The fact that Uruguay won the shoot out to set up a meeting with the Dutch in Cape Town on Tuesday seemed almost an irrelevance after witnessing a drama as personal and visceral as that of Asamoah Gyan. A drama which reminded us why this sport, above all others, has the power to captivate the globe.

Africa’s involvement may be over, but last night its last remaining combatant gave us all a memory to treasure.

UPDATE: It looks like I wasn’t far wide of the mark as it turns out at least one Premier League club had been watching Gyan even before his World Cup heroics. Sunderland have swooped just before the transfer window closed and picked him up from Rennes in a deal believed to be in the region of £13 million.

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2 thoughts on “Africa’s dream is over

  1. Well written, Rhys. Penalties as a decider for such a mighty struggle always seems inadequate to me: there’s not enough football involved, too much luck. But Gyan was an absolute star to step up after failing to score minutes earlier. A pity his resolve didn’t inspire his team-mates. I’ve just watched Argentina crash out, now I’m pinning my hopes on Spain: the last remaining “flair” team in the tournament!

  2. Cheers Neil, first time I’ve published any sports writing, not my usual thing but that game moved me to say something about it.

    I have a bit of a love/hate thing with penalty shoot-outs. Yes, they do seem a cruel way to decide a match where both teams have given so much, but I don’t think there’s any better option out there. Also, there’s nothing more dramatic in sport than one man facing a split-second test of technique and character in front of an audience of billions. That’s why, overall, I love a shoot-out (so long as my team’s not on the losing side).

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