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Ghana’s grace in moment of defeat

By Martin Yeboah in Accra
Posted on Saturday, 3 July 2010 13:02

Ghana fail to reach semis as fortunate Uruguay survive astonishing conclusion of quarterfinal thriller

Accra, Kumasi and Takoradi were in shock on Friday night after Ghana narrowly failed to reach the last four of the World Cup in a nerve-wracking and sometimes bitter match against Latin American veteran tournament winners, Uruguay. Across the biggest cities in Ghana and in many villages with electric power generators, people gathered in their hundreds and thousands to cheer their team on to glory for Africa.

Their reaction was subdued and resolute rather than bitter when they saw the Black Stars robbed of what would have been certain victory in the dramatic closing seconds of the match, which had gone into 30 minutes of extra time.

A young Ghanaian side that had raised its game following an initial period of Uruguayan dominance was ultimately thwarted by a goal-line handball, the crossbar, and penalty spot failure. It was an unfortunate exit for a side that has made a significant contribution to this South African tournament. On a day when Brazil was sent home following an embarrassing loss of concentration and discipline against the Netherlands, resilient and experienced Uruguay found a way to win no matter how controversial the means.

Sky-high expectations

The atmosphere in Johannesburg’s “Soccer City” was electric from the outset, with the vast majority of the 84,000-strong crowd willing the Ghanaians onwards to victory. Expectations in Accra, Ghana, and in South Africa were sky-high.

The Black Stars were buoyed by the return of Kevin-Prince Boateng and Asamoah Gyan from mid-week injury. They faced a Uruguay side with an outstanding strike-force in Diego Forlan and Ajax-hitman Luiz Suarez, the latter demonstrating the true extent of his versatility before the end of the night.

The first half-hour favoured the Uruguayans as Ghana took time to settle, with keeper Richard Kingson called upon to make key saves from Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Disjointed passing and lack of bite in the tackle from the Ghanaians enabled favourites Uruguay to maintain control, until tactical adjustments from manager Milovan Rajevac and fine efforts on goal from recalled midfielder Sulley Muntari and Gyan shifted the momentum Ghana’s way.

A spectacular, if off-target, bicycle kick attempt by Prince Boateng shortly before half-time reflected Ghana’s growing confidence, and a few minutes later Ghana took the lead with a blistering shot from Muntari from almost forty yards.

Uruguay started the second half with renewed purpose, as their manager Oscar Tabarez made an attacking change. Shortly after Prince Boateng squandered a four-on-two counterattack with an under-hit final pass, Ghana were to experience – like South Africa in the first round – the deadly accuracy of Forlan’s right boot. One Forlan free kick given for a foul by Ghanaian defender John Pantsil on the edge of the penalty area, and Uruguay were back on level terms as keeper Kingson was wrong-footed by the changing trajectory of the Jabulani ball.

The two teams traded blows for the remainder of the second half, with both Suarez and Gyan coming close, although Uruguay looked the stronger and had the better openings as extra-time approached. It appeared that Ghana, having gone into extra-time in their second round match against the United States, would have less energy to spare than their opponents.

Two goalies

Appearances can be deceptive, and – after a relatively uneventful first half – the second half of extra time saw Uruguay hanging on against a series of Ghanaian attacks. Gyan narrowly missed with a header shortly before being thwarted in the penalty box by a last-ditch tackle. Prince Boateng came close through a point-blank header from a corner and saw his deflected cross saved by keeper Fernando Muslera.

None of these near misses, however, approached the drama of the last minutes of extra time. Following a dangerous cross into the Uruguayan penalty area, Ghana were twice denied by goal-line clearances from Luiz Suarez in quick succession, the second a blatant and deliberate hand ball from substitute Dominic Adiyiah’s goal-bound header. Suarez’s resulting sending-off was meaningless as the awarded penalty would be the last kick prior to the penalty shoot out. Gyan, the scorer of three World Cup goals so far, blasted his penalty onto the crossbar as disbelieving Ghana teammates looked on and an unrepentant Suarez – captured on camera – celebrated off the pitch away from his jubilant teammates.

Uruguay, now with the psychological edge, ultimately prevailed 4-2 in the shootout, as substitute Sebastian Abreu coolly converted their final penalty with a chip reminiscent of Zinedine Zidane’s 2006 World Cup final opener.

Grace in defeat

Ghana’s World Cup challenge had been halted in the most astonishing circumstances. However, 2010’s version of – in the post-match words of the perpetrator himself – the “hand of God” should neither obscure Ghana’s admirable efforts throughout the tournament and grace in defeat, nor Uruguay’s role in making this a truly memorable match.

Although victors Uruguay will go into Tuesday’s semi-final clash as underdogs and without the suspended Suarez, favorites Netherlands will be wary of a team prepared to win at all costs. The young Ghanaian team will surely depart South Africa knowing that they have performed admirably, shrugging aside – much like similarly youthful Germany – the absence of their most famous player Michael Essien.