Africa still has its team
RUSTENBURG, South Africa -- It didn't feel right from the beginning -- even before the U.S. allowed another early goal, even before the sun went down. There was a hangover here, a kind of small-town bringdown that was carried into the lifeless stadium like the smoke from the surrounding brush fires.
Even as the opening whistle approached, the energy just wasn't here. There were too many empty seats, too many non-supporters -- mostly English, who had bet, wrongly, that their team would win the group -- and too many wrung-out Americans, players and fans still exhausted from the emotional toil taken by Algeria.
Ghana scored in the fifth minute, and it felt from that moment that the game was over.
Yes, Landon Donovan came through one last time, tying the game with a perfect penalty kick in the second half, lighting another fire, but then extra time came and went with only Ghana managing another goal. This small African nation, Ghana and its beloved Black Stars, had knocked out the Americans in yet another World Cup, and again by the same painful score: 2-1.
It's a crushing loss for the U.S., which, perhaps unfairly, had suddenly been saddled with the burden of being the favorite. Donovan's extra-time goal against Algeria had flicked a switch, sparking talk of a semifinal berth and this likeable, hardscrabble crew taking over the world.
They had the draw and the heart to do it. Instead, they finished their time in South Africa on the grass here, laid out, on their knees, their faces in their hands. They looked totally defeated. They knew how much this would have meant. They knew how much this mattered.
And that's when another switch was flicked.
The crowd cheered, the loudest it had cheered all game. Some of the noise came from the Americans who had traveled here, waving flags, clapping, blowing souvenir vuvuzelas that will always remind them of tonight in this place.
But more of it came from the Africans. Not just the Ghanaians, of which there were thousands but the South Africans, and the Algerians, and the Nigerians, and Cameroonians, and the transplants from Ivory Coast.
It's hard to see joy in this moment, from an empty press box, looking over an empty stadium, three men with lawnmowers the only people left on the pitch. It feels as though tonight we watched the end of many things. All that talk of the semifinals, all that hope and belief, and all of it over, just more smoke drifting in front of the moon.
Except that it's still here, every last bit of it.
It's just not America's anymore. It's Africa's.
Forgotten in the collective ecstasy that was Donovan's goal against Algeria, forgotten in all that madness, were the poor Slovenians. That tiny country, the smallest at the World Cup, was perhaps a minute away from a remarkable advance. And then, at the last possible moment, Donovan lifted the Americans past the Slovenians, and they were going home. However that moment felt for Americans, however it will be remembered in Kansas City, Boston and San Francisco, in Slovenia, it is an entirely different moment. There, Landon Donovan's triumph is heartbreak.
Now Ghana has finished the U.S., has seemingly all but erased the good that happened here in the previous days and weeks. But in Ghana tonight, and in the rest of Africa -- where this World Cup truly means everything, more than most of us can dare to imagine -- a different, even greater good remains. The U.S. has never made the semifinals of a modern-day World Cup, but neither has an African team. Now Africans still have a chance. They still have the Black Stars, and even now, in this empty stadium, with the lights going off and the night closing in, there are dreams. There is life. There is hope.
A country lost tonight, but a continent won.
And at this World Cup especially, that seems like a fair trade to make.
Chris Jones is a contributing editor to ESPN The Magazine and a writer-at-large for Esquire.