Agony and ecstasy at the World Cup
JOHANNESBURG -- Uruguay was staring at World Cup extinction in its quarterfinal with Ghana on Friday. Yet it was the Black Stars who blinked, and now La Celeste is going to the semifinals for the first time since 1970.
Just how grim were the odds facing Uruguay? With the score tied at 1 and with added time nearly exhausted, Uruguay forward Luis Suarez blocked Dominic Adiyiah's header off the goal line with his hand, resulting in a straight red card to Suarez and a penalty kick for Ghana. Yet incredibly, with an entire continent ready to explode in joy, Asamoah Gyan blasted the spot kick off the crossbar. Uruguay was given a reprieve that was as unlikely as it was huge.
The magnitude of the let-off could be seen in the reactions of the players. Uruguayan goalkeeper Fernando Muslera gleefully punched the crossbar, while Gyan was left in anguish.
There was still the not-so-small matter of the penalty shootout, but having cheated the hangman, Uruguay was carrying all the momentum. True to form, Muslera saved shots from both John Mensah and Adiyiah. And although Uruguay's Maxi Pereira skied his attempt, Sebastian Abreu converted with the cheekiest of chips, and La Celeste was left to celebrate a miracle. Ghana was left despondent. It took three teammates to peel a tearful Gyan off the Soccer City Stadium turf, even though he had converted his shootout attempt.
"It was bad luck. That's all I can say," said Ghana coach Milovan Rajevac.
There are those who no doubt will feel that justice was not served, that Suarez's handball denied Ghana a rightful victory. Clearly, Suarez's infraction will go down as the most effective red card in World Cup history. But this was not a case in which Suarez's crime went unpunished. He was sanctioned to the fullest extent of the law, and if Ghana was unable to take advantage of such an opportunity, one can't blame Uruguay for accepting the gift presented to it.
"Suarez, instead of scoring a goal, he saved one," said Uruguay's Diego Forlan. "It was a pity because he was sent off. But I think he saved the game."
This is not to discount the agony the Black Stars, and by extension the entire African continent, are feeling over the result. Had Ghana progressed, it would have marked the first time in World Cup history that an African side had reached the semifinals. That milestone now will have to wait, and one can only hope that Gyan and the entire Ghanaian team will be able to eventually overcome such a painful defeat.
As for Uruguay, surviving Gyan's penalty might have been the biggest obstacle facing the team, but it was by no means the only one. Captain Diego Lugano, who had performed tremendously throughout the tournament, hobbled off with what looked like a hamstring injury after 38 minutes. Combined with the loss in the round of 16 match of back-line partner Diego Godin, La Celeste was facing the rest of the match minus its two best center backs.
But even after falling behind to Sulley Muntari's long-range strike two minutes into first-half stoppage time, Uruguay hung in there. Replacements Mauricio Victorino and Andres Scotti bent but didn't break, while holding midfielders Diego Perez and Egidio Arevalo battled their Ghanaian counterparts tackle for tackle. When Forlan scored on a sublime free kick 10 minutes into the second half, La Celeste found itself on level terms, allowing it to take the game to extra time.
The surreal scenes that followed will live on in the hearts of victor and vanquished alike.
"We had more opportunities, we had big [crowd] support," said Rajevac. "It really would have been a fairy tale."
Instead, Uruguay moves on, while Africa's collective heart lies broken.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.