Friday, July 02, 2010

Blame it on the Black Stars...

WELL, where do you begin with all that? Probably at the end, a very good place to start.
Or, at least, what should have been the end, but wasn’t quite.
The penalty box pinball, the Luis Suarez handball on the goal-line, Luis Suarez’s post-red card tears on the touchline, Luis Suarez’s post-penalty turn and air-punching and cheers halfway down the tunnel, after Asamoah Gyan’s penalty lofts up on to the crossbar and over.
All this in stoppage-time of extra-time in a World Cup quarter-final in the World Cup’s heartland stadium.
And all this accompanied by the most fearsome, awesome din, within the red-hot ‘calabash’ – or should that be, cauldron? – Soccer City.
Tonight, perhaps even more so than any of the three South Africa matches, the vuvuzelas really came into their own as ‘BaGhana BaGhana’ came so close to becoming the continent’s first World Cup semi-finalists.
Ah, but alas, someone must have stuffed the wrong final page into the script for tonight – for Ghana, for apparently Africa and certainly the 80,000+ here tonight cheering any Uruguayan error with as much hearty passion as they bestowed on Ghana’s positive play.
For the third time this tournament, Ghana were gifted a penalty due to handball, with Suarez proving as generous as Serbia’s Kuzmanovic and Australia’s Kewell.
Yet it was third time unlucky for Gyan, who may now sadly face rather more of the barracking back home in Ghana that almost prompted his international retirement two years ago.
He deserves admiration for, just a few minutes later, lofting a very similar spot-kick high into the net to level the shoot-out at 1-1.
Unfortunately, his captain John Mensah would then be audacious in his own way – but, despite the name, rather dumb – with a stodgy one-paced run-up and unconvincing prod straight at Fernando Muslera.
Maxi Pereira’s next spot-kick for Uruguay was as bad, but just differently, with a satellite-endangering effort, compared to which Chris Waddle’s was a daisy-cutter.
Yet it was then, oh dear, Odiyiah, and Inter Milan rookie Dominic saw his shot saved by Muslera, and phew, Abreu, as lumbering, lanky Sebastian gave Uruguay victory with that rare thing: a “Panenka” which was actually sad to see.
Ah, but the match itself … well, it was just a bit better than the ordeal which dragged all the way through to this tournament’s previous penalty shoot-out, the turgid clash between Japan and Paraguay.
Suarez’s selfless act at the death came after 120 minutes of selfishness at the other end, too often snatching at half-chances when colleagues might have been better positioned – or simply blasting witlessly at Richard Kingson or high and wide.
Yet Ghana too had their opportunities, often rather more clear-cut than Uruguay’s, especially after a first half-hour in which they looked in danger of being over-run and outclassed by the ever-probing Diego Forlan.
After being so impressed by the diligent Anthony Annan before now, it was a little dismaying to see him so sloppy in both passing and ball control this evening.
Both he and his team-mates looked a little nervy, perhaps feeling not the ‘ayoba’ but the weight of expectation – or, at least, ardent pan-African hope – now piled upon them.
Yet the sudden surge out of nowhere by Isaac Vorsah at a corner, when he thudded a header wide that should really have hit the target, appeared to inspire Ghana and inject them with confidence.
Kevin-Prince Boateng, especially, who responded to that miss with arm-pumping gestures either to his colleagues – or the crowd – and then a driving run that almost created the opener for Gyan.
Sulley Muntari’s blasé turn and sweeping shot past Muslera from about 40 yards ended the first half startlingly – though this was, of course, merely a taste of climactic action to come.
Forlan, conducting the game with such composure throughout, swirled in a typically elegant equaliser not long into the second half, and always looked dangerous – whether floating through midfield or fluttering wide and on the tip of offside.
Substitute playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro also enjoyed a rather more productive cameo than against France – then again, it could hardly be worse.
He provided neat and precises touches as Uruguay battled to weather Ghana’s extra-time storm, which at times had the four front players bombing forward as if racing each other to reach Muslera first.
Extra-time was end-to-end indeed, though Ghana had the stronger of the last five minutes, backed by a crazy crescendo of vuvuzela din from all those draped or painted in Ghana colours and brandishing banners urging them to ‘Make Africa proud’.
It was only when Abreu’s penalty dropped daintily in that the stadium seemed to empty, in an instant, of both sound and population, as this particular African dream died.
By the time the final rolls around, ‘ayoba’ should reassert itself and the distinctive host nation flavouring prioritised above pan-continental loyalties – but tonight there was a touching desperation to the belief invested in a neighbour.
Uruguay perhaps deserved a little more acclaim than merely the pantomime jeers and whistles greeting their every injury, but they had their part to play tonight – it just proved to be party-pooping done with both style … and guile.
Even as he misses the semi-final through suspension, Suarez certainly got away with it. All of Ghana, even Africa, will also miss out on Tuesday – and will be missed.

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