There were tears on the pitch. There were tears in the stands. There were tears all across Africa as the continent's lone standard-bearers crashed out of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™. Asamoah Gyan, so often the hero for the Black Stars of Ghana, cried hardest, chest heaving as his team-mates took turns holding him up. His miss from the spot in the final second of extra time forced a shoot-out in which the Ghanaians came up second best.
Outside the stadium – that magnificent, hulking monument to African football that is Soccer City – there were more arms outstretched to Gyan and his Black Stars. "We still love them, we still love Gyan and all of our boys," said Apeni, from Ghana, still dancing, still waving her flag and trumpeting her vuvuzela. "These are our boys and we support them forever," said Nii, with his arm around his cousin, both of them draped in the red, green and yellow of Ghana. They travelled all the way from Accra and they were both still smiling. "Things could have gone differently, but football is heartbreak sometimes and we'll be back in 2014 with brave hearts!" With five players aged 20 or under in the squad, Nii's words might well prove right when the FIFA World Cup lands in Brazil.
More than 84,000 fans packed Soccer City in Johannesburg, and the vast majority of them were fervently behind the Black Stars, the lone surviving African side after the elimination of hosts South Africa, Côte d'Ivoire, Algeria, Nigeria and Cameroon in the group stages. There was palpable disappointment around the ground but pride, dignity and human compassion were dominant. "We had it on our hands," lamented Monde, 23, born and raised in Soweto. "You see a great team when you look at the Ghanaians and they are our team tonight, we salute them as Africans."
After losing out in the cruel lottery of a penalty shoot-out, Ghana missed their chance at history. Had they won they would have been the first side from the continent to reach a FIFA World Cup semi-final. Instead, they now join Cameroon and Senegal on the cusp of that great next step. Milovan Rajevac's team is a young one, though, and the pan-African supporters are hoping for more in the future. "I am going to Brazil in four years and I will watch an African team reach even farther," smiled Justin, a white South African, taking a last sip of beer before heading out of the emptying ground.
It was one of the most dramatic games of the first finals held on African soil and the tears of Gyan and his mates will dry, for they have done their continent proud. Having reached the knock-out stages for the second straight time, a banner that remained hanging from one of the tiers in the stadium seemed to say it all. "Thanks Ghana" it read simply in red letters. It is a sentiment shared by all of Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town. "They have no cause to cry," said Nii as he and his cousin walked slowly into the darkness, propping each other up as they went. "They made the world see that we Africans can play football. Play it with grace and we'll have our day, I know we will."