History was just 12 yards away
JOHANNESBURG -- History was just 12 yards away.
Ghana's Asamoah Gyan placed the ball on the penalty spot knowing that his penalty kick would be the final stroke of the ball after 120 minutes had left Ghana and Uruguay deadlocked 1-1. All Gyan needed to do was convert the penalty, and the Black Stars would become the first African team to advance to a World Cup semifinal.
Put the ball into the net the way he'd done from the spot twice already in this tournament, and Gyan and his Black Stars teammates would celebrate in front of 84,017 fans, mostly South Africans who had adopted the Black Stars as their team. Ghana was, after all, the lone African team to advance to the knockout stages of the first World Cup hosted on the African continent. The Black Stars had won over the United States on Saturday, 2-1 in extra time, with a dramatic winner coming off Gyan's foot.
And Friday night, they'd battled Uruguay, gaining a lead at the end of the first half on a 39-yard shot by Sulley Muntari, only to see Diego Forlan equalize in the 55th minute. From there, it was a battle of wills. As regulation time expired and turned into 30 minutes of extra time, it did not look like either team would be able to muster a game winner. Players for both teams were fatigued beyond recognition. But somehow, in the final minute of play, Ghana dug deep and mustered a flurry on the Uruguayan goal.
A free kick from the right side of the box was whipped in front and deflected twice, then fell to the foot of Ghana's Stephen Appiah, whose shot was cleared off the line by the desperate Uruguayans. But from out of nowhere, Dominic Adiyiah appeared to flash a header on the frame. A sure goal, until Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez, standing on the line, desperately threw up his hand to stop the shot. Referee Olegario Benquerenca blew the whistle, pulled the red card from his pocket, sent Suarez off and pointed to the spot.
History was just 12 yards away.
Suarez went to the sidelines in tears as Ghana celebrated what it thought would be its sure victory. Gyan, a 24-year-old striker who scored Ghana's first-ever World Cup goal in Germany in 2006, placed the ball down and prepared to send Soccer City Stadium into a continental delirium. He approached the ball, peeked up a bit to see Uruguay's keeper, Fernando Muslera, moving, and decided to go hard down the middle. All he had to do was put the ball on target, and the game was over. Perhaps it was Gyan's peek that caused him to strike the ball with a bit too much loft. As Muslera hit the ground, the ball rang off the top of the crossbar.
Immediately, Gyan put his hands over his face. History would have to wait.
Understand, this World Cup has been billed for the longest time as a continental event. No one figured the hosts from South Africa would be much of a threat, so the question was, which African nation would rise to the occasion? Which African nation would build the groundswell of support? Would it be Ivory Coast, with striker Didier Drogba? Would it be Cameroon, with Samuel Eto'o?
No, the continent's lone hope became Ghana, a team whose best player, Michael Essien, was injured. But a team, nonetheless, that exemplified 11 players working together as a unit. With a disheveled-looking Serbian coach Milovan Rajevac in charge and not afraid to bench Muntari -- Ghana's biggest name after Essien -- in the name of the defend-first system, the Black Stars grinded their way to results. A 1-0 win over Serbia, courtesy of a Gyan penalty. A 1-1 draw with Australia, the goal again coming from a Gyan penalty. And then, after becoming the only one of six African nations to advance to the round of 16, a 2-1 win over the U.S., courtesy of a left-footed blast from Gyan. After each goal and each win, Gyan would proclaim the Black Stars were playing for "all of Africa."
It was a triumphant run for Gyan, known as the "Baby Jet" in Ghana. Just two years ago, Gyan was so distraught over the intense scrutiny he was receiving from the media and the Black Stars' ardent fans, he threatened to quit the team. After being convinced to stay on, he'd more than won those critics over. Playing as a lone striker in Rajevac's 4-5-1 system, he was making the most of his chances, working hard and being rewarded.
"This World Cup, I was going there to just make sure I keep doing what I have been doing," he said after the Black Stars advanced to the knockout stage. "I was saying to myself, 'If you score once again, you can be the happiest man', you know. So when I was playing, I was just concentrating, and I knew, I knew, I would score. I knew I would score, definitely."
But this game is full of ups and downs, as the final seconds of Friday night's game illustrated.
You had Suarez going from tears to celebration as Gyan's shot nailed the bar. You had Gyan distraught, yet mustering up the confidence to take Ghana's first penalty in the shootout and calmly placing it in the upper corner. But then, after Ghana missed on its third and fourth tries, you had Gyan standing arm in arm with his teammates, watching Uruguay's Sebastian Abreu step up to take the decisive penalty and hit a teasing little chip down the center as Ghana keeper Richard Kingson fell to the ground.
And then you had Gyan crumbling to the ground, heaving in sobs, tears pouring from his eyes. It took three Black Stars players to lift him from the ground. And when they did, Gyan could not keep his knees from buckling. And you began to think of how history will depict the Ghanaian striker, the man who carried his team to the brink of this moment, only to miss from the penalty spot, as an entire continent prepared to celebrate.
Sadly, this miss now will outweigh the game-winning goals. That's just the way it is. And Luis Suarez, who stuck up his hand to keep the winning goal out of the net, now will be deified for what is surely the second-most famous handball in World Cup history next to Diego Maradona's famous "Hand of God" in 1986. This was the "Hand that Kept Ghana from Making History" in Africa's first World Cup. It will not soon be forgotten.
"There are no words to express what we feel," Rajevac said. "This is sport's injustice. We had a historic opportunity to reach the semifinal -- we had a penalty. You saw it all."
Just 12 yards away.
Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.