Football, we learned last night during the Ghana-Uruguay game, is the most effective tool for mass torture every devised by the human race. A vast majority of the over eighty thousands fans in the stadium, and millions of viewers throughout the world, were left speechless and unwound by what we saw unfold. For me, it was a little bit like reliving the final of the World Cup in 2006, with an early euphoria followed by an equalizer, then a game dragging on and on into penalties, with Gyan’s missed shot at the last minute playing the role of Zidane’s head-butt as the dramatic and decisive instant of the night. The sorrow, the indignity, the sense of unfairness of it all was too much to even contemplate. For many people throughout the world, the Cup essentially ended yesterday with the elimination of Brazil and Ghana. For all those who hoped, for a brief time, that this would be the year for an African team to go further than any had before, the remaining games seem somehow sapped of meaning.
The night began very differently. The atmosphere in the city was electric yesterday, with everyone in South Africa seemingly behind Ghana, and the flags and emblems of the country everywhere. The symbolism of it all was, of course, great. Fifty years ago Ghana’s independence began the wave of decolonization on the continent. In 1966 Ghana’s president, Kwame Nkrumah, led a boycott of the World Cup by African nations unhappy with the fact that only one of he sixteen berths in the competition was reserved for either an African team or an Asian team. The boycott was successful, and set in motion a long process through which African countries have gained more power within FIFA. The South African World Cup was in some sense the culmination of that long process. To see Ghana advance to the semi-finals, which no African country ever has in the World Cup, would have been a fitting and inspiring confirmation that things have changed, and that they can change, in the world of football.
Of course, there was reason to be cautious. Though Ghana was the last of the African teams in the tournament, it is a young team and weakened substantially in its striking power by the absence of Michael Essien. They had played well against the U.S., but had seemed less convincing in the group phase and only advanced thanks to the loss by Serbia to Australia. They might pull it off, we all knew, but it was going to be tough.
For the game, however, most had thrown caution to the wind. You could find a few small Uruguay flags to buy on the way in to Soccer City, but mostly it was every kind of merchandise in the colors of Ghana. Fans from all over the world decked themselves out in Ghana scarves (I picked up a rather handsome one!), Ghana hats, Ghana gloves, Ghana face paint, and waved small and large Ghana flags. There were of course groups of the famous stalwart Black Star fans as well. Everyone knew what the right outcome was, it seemed. And as the game began, it seemed like Ghana was in a position to win. They played beautifully. They were exciting to watch. The charged the goal, seeking openings in the tough Uruguayan defense, and seemed technically superior in many of the encounters. And then came Muntari’s goal.
The rest of the story is I can not quite bear to run through. But that it so happened that Uruguayan striker Suarez, pushing the ball out with his hands, prevented a Ghanaian goal, and that what football can offer in response is a penalty kick. And that it fell to Gyan, a young player who on a team with Essien had come to bear the burden of Ghana’s attack, to take that penalty, and who under the pressure hit the bar. And that the burden of the loss falls on him rather than on the Uruguayan who cheated. And that this, it seemed, simply devastated the team, which was not able to rally effectively during the penalty kicks. And that all of the urging on, the beautiful cacophony and integrated vuvuzelas of the crowd, the millions of prayers, among them mine, repeatedly spoken during the match, that all of that led to what it did is unbearable. To watch Gyan, sobbing uncontrollable, consoled by his teammates on the pitch, was – like the entire match – purely gut-wrenching.
Last night, I went through several possible responses. The first, and certainly the most reasonable, is simply to forever swear off football. This has several advantages. After all, we’re the ones who let it into our lives, who let it torture us like this, and we have the power to politely show it the door and ask it to take its leave. We would save a lot of money and time, and could devote ourselves to nobler causes of all kinds, or to the pleasures of gardening or spending time with family. It’s a good option overall, and one I’m seriously considering following.
One can also, of course, consider that often proposed response, which is to put it in perspective. On the long walk back to the busses from Soccer City, surrounded by a lugubrious atmosphere among the fans, I tried to take consolation remembering all of the World Cup matches that had similarly been determined by the heinous crime against humanity that is the penalty kick shoot out: Germany-France 1982, for instance, when Platini’s generation of French players perhaps came closest to winning the World Cup. Gyan takes his place among many generations of excellent players who have suffered what he did yesterday. And, unlike some of them – like Roberto Baggio in the 1994 final against Brazil – he is still young, and he and his teammates have much ahead of them that will perhaps come to surpass, if never erase, this memory.
You can, of course, go into a World Cup match agnostic, divided, watching out of curiousity what will happen, happy with any outcome. The problem, of course, is that I wouldn’t trade anything for having been fully there last night, part of that crowd, sharing in each gesture of the Ghanaian team. It has been a long time since I have experienced that much stress during a game. During the penalty kicks, like a kid watching a horror movie, I literally sat down on my chair with my head in my hands, unable to watch. But I could count on the sound of eighty thousand people to tell me what was going on. I knew when things looked up, briefly. And I knew we had lost when, in the stadium, after hours of constant and intense noise, there was nothing but the sound of tens of thousands of sighs. The whole experience was both unbearable and irreplaceable. And, in the end, it was probably best to have company, to hug friends afterwards, to commiserate with looks as we walked out, to try and marshall a few enthusiastic chants nonetheless.
Right now, besides writing this out and then thinking of other things, I think the best solution – one that is, after all, the only approach to surviving in life with some sense of balance and joy – is perhaps to hold on tightly to a particular time from last night, that stretch of minutes between Muntari’s goal before half time and Forlan’s goal in the second half, the time when there was the buzz of hope (always tempered by an undercurrent of fear, of course), the time when what is now impossible briefly seemed possible.