Africa denied by unbelievable drama
This time for Africa? Denied. Not this time, and South America has recovered from the loss of its prime candidate to already have a team placed in the semi-finals. It all resulted from unmitigated drama and a sequence of events that will only be writ deep into World Cup history. Asamoah Gyan is set for painful infamy, even after supplying a hugely gutsy recovery from an unforgettable penalty miss. Luis Suarez will meanwhile enter the annals as the man who supplied a iniquitous lifeline to his country.
Such was the cruelty on show at Soccer City, and Africa will be heartbroken that its quarter-final duck remains unbroken, the reaching of unknown territory denied by a single kick. Gyan's penalty, the very last kick of the game before extra-time finished, crashed off the bar as a tearful Suarez departed the scene in disgrace after handling on the line to deny a certain goal. The Ajax striker was soon in excelsis, pumping the air in delight as he made his now merry way to the dressing room. Like him, few could see past Uruguay making the semi-finals for the first time in 40 years now. So it came to pass as, even after Gyan had recovered his nerve to convert Ghana's first penalty of the shoot-out in a show of nerves that made Stuart Pearce's Euro '96 penalty vindications look positively pipsqueak-esque.
The missers in the shoot-out would be Dominic Adiyah and John Mensah, with Maxi Perreira's balloon over the bar only extending the agony. To further such drama came the coollest head of the 84,000 present, Sebastian Abreu, clearly not perturbed by wearing No. 13, to coolly chip the winning kick in the manner first made famous by Czechoslovakia's Antonin Panenka in the European Championship final of 1976.
As the Uruguayans cavorted, to begin a party back home in Montevideo that coach Oscar Tabarez later said he hoped would last "three or four days", a stadium wracked by pan-African loyalty lapsed into a deep gloom. Amazement at what had just happened can only have aided such silence. Gyan's emotions finally gave way and he left the arena in the most understandable tears. His coach, Milovan Rajevac, breathing hard as he tried to contain his own emotions, could only mantra that "this is football".
"We had a historic opportunity, and the penalty (Gyan's) gave them a psychological advantage," he reflected. At first, he refused to be drawn on Suarez's gamesmanship, but would eventually sign off with an admittance that he considered his team had befallen a "sporting injustice" before then righting himself to offer congratulations to Uruguay on reaching the semi-finals.
In normal time, well named in the instance of such an incredulous closure to this match, Ghana had initially played as if the weight of a continent was on their back. But this is not a team given to naivety in defence, and Richard Kingson belied his status as Wigan third-choice with some quixotic but ultimately safe keeping from Uruguayan strikers Suarez and Diego Forlan. Milovan Rajevac favours the counterattack as the best means with which to deliver results. The ability to suck up pressure had been a leading facet of their drive to this stage, as Serbia, Australia and the USA can all vouch. Later on, it was the Africans who would cast off the shackles.
In the first half, Uruguay lost the services of captain Lugano, so outstanding this tournament, leaving them with a very much second-choice central defence, Diego Godin having failed to be fit for this affair. By the time Sulley Muntari's goal arrived, the balance had already swung in the favour of the Africans, and when the Inter man's strike sneaked past Muslera, the depth of feeling for the West Africans was revealed. An ear-bleeding sound nearly tore the roof off the Soccer City cooking pot, a sound to rival that which greeted the tournament's opening goal from Siphiwe Tshabalala, he of the host nation.
Muntari followed Inter Milan club colleague Wesley Sneijder, who had earlier downed Brazil, in scoring a World Cup goal but he would not join the Dutchman in scoring the decisive goal in a quarter-final. Forlan's 55th minute free-kick blockbuster arrived at a time when Uruguayan's tempers were fraying and it seemed as if they might be set to repeat some of their infamously ill-tempered exits. His strike, which wavered left and right to fool Kingson, signalled the beginning of a breathless passage of play that belied the sometimes defensive edge that both have employed here in South Africa. An end-to-end-battle resulted, with shots aplenty rattling in on both goals. Predictions of a game nullified by tactics were overtaken by events, dear boy, as the shackles were thrown off. When stakes are so high, instructions can often be overcome by emotion and both sides hurled themselves forward in the hunt for a normal-time winner.
It did not come, and though neither team did not abandon attack as an option, penalties were tied into the destiny of this affair. To what tune too. Adiyiah was denied a certain winner, an epochal goal by Suarez's nefarious means and would later miss a spot-kick. He would be forgotten amid the agony and heroics of Gyan while Abreu's coolness under pressure would force Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez to fend off questions about his substitute's sanity.
"I don't think what he did was crazy," Tabarez said. "I thought he did it with class." He was similarly protective of Suarez, who will now miss a semi-final with the Dutch in which Tabarez said his team will hang on for dear life "if there is a glimmer".
"When there's a handball," Tabarez said of the key incident, "there's a red card and the player is thrown out. Calling it cheating is too hard, it could have been a mistake. I think it was instinctive and he was booked accordingly. He cannot play the next match, what else do you want me to say?"
The explanations would swiftly turn to celebrations. "The people of Uruguay have always lived football," continued the coach. "Football is essential to my country. Many have not lived a moment like this, the only players that have done more are those that were world champions (in 1930 and 1950)." For Uruguay, the end to years of frustration, and a minimum of fourth place await.
Meanwhile, the cruelty of football had been extended beyond Gyan, his team-mates, his country and across a continent.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Diego Forlan
Six years ago, your scribe watched Forlan miss chance after chance at Loftus Road. Six years on, he is now more than a striker. He was the creative fulcrum for his country in a World Cup quarter-final, spreading play to other team-mates, going on solo runs and supplying the clutch play in a thunderous free-kick. Without his goal, the chaos of this victory would not have occurred.
URUGUAY VERDICT: From needing a play-off to qualify, to being just 90 minutes from the World Cup final, and it was achieved in true Uruguyan tradition of quality married to unfair means. They hung on grimly at times, not least as Muslera quivered under the crossbar as Gyan stepped up. They are there, and history beckons.
GHANA VERDICT: Tears before bedtime as a team that had looked to bely the myths about African football gave way to psychological breakdown. It will long be hard to place this night into perspective but they can take heart and heed that Tabarez described them as Africa's best and that this should be by no means the end of the road for a team bursting with talent.
DUTCH COURAGE: A huge roar greeted Brazil's exit from the competition in the Soccer City stadium media centre. The departure of potentially up to 800 journalists gives hope to the rest of us that we just might have a chance of watching the final from the press box. Expect similar cheers should the Spanish depart. It seems the ideal final for non-partisan journalists would have been New Zealand v Slovenia.